Ask just about any northern Michigander about Detroit’s bankruptcy and they’ll tell you much the same—should have happened 20 years ago. After moving here some 41 years ago from Lansing myself and eventually becoming the editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review, I have found the attitude towards Detroit hasn’t changed much.
Probably the strongest northern Michigan Detroit advocate early on was moderate Republican 91-year-old William Milliken, a Traverse City native, who served as Michigan’s longest governor for 14 years from 1969 to 1983, and is now retired on Old Mission Peninsula. He worked to forge political ties with Detroit, especially with the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young who was the African-American mayor of Detroit.
The Detroit media is flooded with stories after the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in federal court last month making it the largest U.S. city in U.S. history to do so. Not much appears in the northern Michigan press. The plain truth— not many care.
And why should they? Those living up here can still travel down I-75 to watch major league sports—Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings, as well as go to a concert at the Fox or Max M Fisher Symphony Hall, Filmore, Masonic Temple or see the Detroit Zoo and Detroit Institute of Arts. They can eat in Greektown and gamble and stay at places like the MGM Grand Casino, Westin’s Book Cadillac or Detroit Marriot at the Ren Cen. A few also venture to places like Wayne State, Marygrove College, Detroit Mercy or Lawrence Tech for higher education, but not many.
Most just don’t see where the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has affected their lives. Northern Michigan residents for the most part are fairly egocentric when it comes to viewing other parts of the state. However, it is not much different when it comes to Detroit viewing northern Michigan. Most Detroiters look at northern Michigan as a vacation to boat, ski, camp, hunt, fish and visit the area’s rich historical spots like the Mackinac State Historic Parks and Mackinac Island with the historical Grand Hotel perched on the island overlooking the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge.
Others see it as a playground for the wealthy often living in private, sometimes gated, resort communities in Bay Harbor and Bay View, located on both outskirts of Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, Boyne City, Traverse City, Crystal Lake, Leland and the Leelanau Peninsula.
Bill McWhirter, Harbor Springs seasonal resident, reflects the views shared by many about the Detroit bankruptcy when asked by Bridge Magazine. He travelled the world as a Time Magazine foreign correspondent for some 25 years covering the globe from South Africa to Europe before returning to the US, as a national correspondent based in Chicago and Detroit (1991-1998) then taught at MSU’s School of Journalism before retiring a few years ago. He also served on the Wayne State University Library Board.
McWhirter says the real culture fault line in Detroit, race and the flight that began whole new wealthy cities, not just suburbs, like Birmingham, left a legacy of upkeep to a largely African-American unprepared and inexperienced political class who proceeded to pretty much fleece the place.
“Bankruptcy is really just another form of political foster parenting,” he told Bridge Magazine. “No one is really impacted by the loss of services or civic pensions, even by people like me who retain social links (through the DAC) or community ones (Wayne State); it's still a two-headed coin-- downtown Detroit is still a vibrant spot for major league sports, entertainment, upscale living and an impressive renewal of the Detroit Athletic Club, a social and economic recovery achieved by few other city clubs in the nation.”
He says it is still a financial and political failure, even on a colossal scale, while Detroit still offers a lot of life to people who still love to come for the game and stay for the night.
“Despite the recovery of the U.S. Automotive industry, it certainly isn't the Big Three of old-- Chrysler is Italian-owned and even Ford is run by its celebrated CEO Alan Mullaly who still doesn't even have his permanent home here,” he added. McWhirter at one time covered the travails of former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who began his began his career in engineering and the sales at Ford Motor in 1946 and became president in 1970 before being strongly courted by the Chrysler Corporation, which was on the verge of going out of business.
Like many others, McWhirter has found most of his northern Michigan conversations about Detroit’s plight have centered on concerns over raiding the riches of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center Executive Director Liz Ahrens says selling DIA assets that were gifted and acquired to enhance the culture of a community is not a fix of a problem.
“The situation that Detroit finds itself in requires a new model and plan for running a major municipality,” says Ahrens, who also services on Michigan council for arts and cultural affairs. “For decades money has been dumped into Detroit trying to aid neighborhoods and individuals. Yet no plan to monitor these grant programs was in place. Selling a few paintings is not going to remedy a broken city--it will erode the foundation even more.”
Other former Detroiters, who have retreated north over the years look at the bankruptcy as a new beginning stimulating opportunity for new construction that will creates jobs building trades and professionals. A Petoskey architect, who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Lawrence Tech, had wished he were 30 years younger to return because he sees a lot of opportunity for those in his profession.
There remain many who have second or even third homes in northern Michigan prefer to live a quiet and private life under the radar screen, when staying in the region, but remain active in Detroit with deep interests. They read like a “Who’s Who in Detroit”.
Among those are Julie and Peter Cummings, who led the campaign to renovate Max M Fisher Symphony Hall, name after her father. Julie, a Detroit native and philanthropist leader serves as the managing trustee of her family's foundation, whose other members include her mother and four siblings. The Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation supports work that strengthens families and communities in need. In Detroit the foundation concentrates its effort in the Jewish community and on early childhood development in the northwest Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor. The Foundation is also committed to fostering AIDS awareness and to supporting the major cultural institutions on which the rebirth of the foundation feels the city depends.
Another is Denise Ilitch is a Detroit-area businessperson, lawyer, and member of the Board of Regents for the University of Michigan. She worked on Mayor Dave Bing’s transition team. Her family’s business includes ownership the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings, Little Caesars, the Fox Theatre, and other Detroit-area businesses. She is the owner and publisher of Ambassador magazine and the owner of Denise Ilitch Designs.
The Farbman family led by Burton (and Suzy) Farbman, Chairman and retired Chief Executive Officer of Farbman Group, has had over thirty years of experience in all aspects of commercial and industrial real estate. Farbman’s projects total more than 10 million square feet including restoration of the Old Wayne County Building at a cost exceeding $30 million and development of the third tower of the luxurious Riverfront Towers Apartments in downtown Detroit, in addition to owning and managing the Fisher Building.
The list goes on, but permanent residents from my neck of the woods simply think it is up Detroiters to fix their own city and don’t expect help from those Up North.