What will happen to Detroit?

In 2013, Detroit can’t rely on business as usual

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Nobody knows what this year will bring, but one thing is certain: Detroit can no longer go on the way it has.

That's not opinion, but cold fact. City officials admit Detroit is burning through cash at a terrifying rate. Soon, Motown will face either an emergency manager (likely), a new, tougher consent agreement (less likely) and then, possibly bankruptcy.

Regardless of what happens, and whether anyone likes it or not, if there is one central political, economic, philosophical and psychological issue facing Michigan this year, it is this:

What will happen to Detroit?

The future of everyone in Michigan depends to a greater or lesser extent on the answer, whether they live on the city's tough east side, in Birmingham, or in happily calm Holland.

There probably is no more important question facing the state's future than Detroit's future. Want to attract investment and high-tech, new-economy businesses to Michigan?

How well do you think that can work when the state's largest city is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy; the neighborhoods are rotten, desperate slums; the schools a joke; and the inhabitants simmer with resentment and hatred.

What will happen to Detroit?

We've been putting off really facing this for years and years. All of us, including the white businessmen who used the city and abandoned it, and the politicians in the suburbs, who spent decades sneeringly bashing the city for cheap political gains.

Governors and legislators, who, since William Milliken left office 30 years ago, have seen Detroit as either a mess to be ignored or as a problem to be avoided or, at best, finessed.

They haven't taken responsibility for the city they and their predecessors built, used and left when they didn't need it anymore. Without Detroit, L. Brooks Patterson would be county executive of a lot of fields full of corn and cows.

Many people have let Detroit down. But Detroiters too have been a big part of the problem: Politicians of all colors who swept long-term money problems under the rug, agreeing to impossible pension obligations.

Detroit officeholders who did little or nothing to maintain the city's infrastructure, because spending on lighting equipment and sewer pipes wasn't a flashy way to win votes.

Black Detroit politicians, who shamelessly stole from their constituents, robbed poor black people blind, and cavorted publicly like extras from a modern remake of Birth of a Nation.

Think about it: If the Ku Klux Klan wanted to convince the world that African-Americans were inferior clowns prone to criminal behavior and unfit to govern, central casting couldn't possibly do better than Kwame Kilpatrick and Monica Conyers.

Throw in Otis Mathis, the school board president who was first exposed as being almost illiterate, and then fired for masturbating in front of the superintendent of schools, and you have a city that is a laughingstock and a national disgrace.

One of the many tragedies is that this means few hear about and fewer remember the many success stories flourishing in Detroit. Glenda Price, for example, who came here from Atlanta in 1988 to be president of Marygrove College.

She turned the place around financially. When she retired, she could have gone back to her native Philadelphia, or almost anywhere else. "But then I realized everything I want is right here," she told me. Recently — at age 73 — she has taken on the daunting task of running the Detroit Public School Foundation, trying to raise money to better the lot of kids in perhaps the most maligned school system in the nation.

There are people like Matt Robb, a 27-year-old white guy from Suttons Bay, way up north. He had enough talent to turn golf pro, but instead decided he needed to be a teacher in Detroit's tough inner city. He's at Cody High School now.

The night President Obama was re-elected, some guy in a ski mask got into the parking garage in Matt's Detroit apartment building and spray-painted NIGGER LOVER all over his car. Matt laughed, drove it around for a couple days, and then cleaned it off. They aren't driving him out.

But what will happen to Detroit, now?

What we need is everyone to come to the table with an honest, open mind. Yes, there has been white racism and black corruption and all manner of stupidity on all sides.

But nobody, repeat, nobody has anything to gain by continuing it. Detroit cannot go on as it has. The city is broke, impoverished, and has $12 billion in pension and other long-term obligations it cannot possibly manage to honor.

The city today cannot provide even minimally adequate public safety protection; the budget is badly out of balance and systems are still in place for a city three times the size.

Yes, it would be nice if the federal and state governments would assume a lot of these obligations, but they won't. So let's all grow up. Providing essential services, getting the books straightened out, and building a foundation for a sustainable future has to be where everyone needs to start.

The governor and his advisers need to determine whether that would be best done by an emergency manager, a consent agreement or whatever means make the most sense for the short, middle and long terms — and do that.

Then, hopefully, whatever happens, we can begin to think not about the legacy of a dead past, but of building a future. That might mean a city-county merger, down the line.

That might mean a Detroit that looks totally different than it does and governed differently from now. What it can't mean is JoAnn Watson and a bunch of white racists refighting old wars.

Or we are all doomed.


In need of a face lift: 

Democrats and, especially, union members, have been apoplectic with rage at Gov. Rick Snyder, especially since the lame-duck session of the Legislature, in which he changed his tune and went along with efforts to slam right-to-work through in less than a day.

Many of them don't like the fact that the GOP also shoved through a new emergency manager law, even though voters had just repealed the old one. Nor do they like a lot of other things he and the GOP-controlled Legislature have done, from throwing starving children off welfare to laws hurting women.

Polls now show that virtually any Democrat would defeat Rick Snyder for re-election in November 2014.

But guess what: Unless something changes, that won't happen. I've been watching elections in these parts for a long time. The dynamics of the next election look like this:

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer will likely be the Democratic nominee. She is intelligent, charismatic and experienced, but Republicans will have far more money, and fewer Democrats tend to vote in off-year elections.

The ham-handed Democratic establishment, a group of men still fighting the battles they've been losing for decades, will insist she be the spokesperson for a bunch of dwindling and somewhat discredited special interest groups.

Whitmer is likely to also suffer — unfairly — by comparison to the state's only female governor, the famously ineffectual Jennifer Granholm, especially since Granholm was always described at attractive and charismatic, and Whitmer is even more so.

Odds are that unless whoever the Democrats nominate can find a way to break out of the mold, Snyder, like his controversial predecessor John Engler, will be re-elected.

Probably easily. By the way, know how many Michigan governors have been denied a second term since the present state constitution went into effect a half-century ago?

The answer is ... zero.


Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]

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