A local sports page reader, commenting on the lack of attention Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown bid was receiving nationally last week, lamented: “Detroit on the whole has been nationally defined in the cultural consciousness as the ashtray of the United States.”
Or it can be defined as tragically beautiful, according to the publicity for two new photography exhibits at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., that document Detroit’s ruins.
“Once America’s fourth-largest city, Detroit’s 138 square miles are now one-third empty land dotted with thousands of abandoned structures. Not just humble homes, but also grand architectural statements of prosperity and power have been reduced to vacant shells.”
But ruins that prompt both derision and awe have been decades in the unmaking. A photographer’s favorite, the old Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard, last produced an automobile 54 years ago.
The national narrative that Detroit is beyond saving has long been fueled by an attitude of benign neglect here in Michigan that has proven to be the easier path, politically, financially and culturally.
So when gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder asserted repeatedly that the validity of Detroit was indeed central to Michigan’s future, there was plenty of head scratching, particularly in Republican audiences. Some at the time might have dismissed it as a feel-good line in support of his broader message that too much fighting for too long had led to Michigan’s own state of disrepair.
They were disabused of that notion quickly. After 10 weeks in office, Snyder announced his intention to proceed with one of the largest construction projects in the city’s history and refused to countenance what would be the largest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
Recasting Detroit as an indispensable economic asset is the basic strategy behind the New International Trade Crossing that will link Nova Scotia to Texas, as well as Public Act 4, the emergency finance law that allows for more forceful state intervention in local fiscal affairs.
Ballot test for Snyder plans
The NITC is the subject of Proposal 6 on the Nov. 6 ballot. Proposal 1 is a referendum on PA 4. The two Snyder policies challenge more than the entrenched economic interests seeking to stop them through petition drives. They also challenge the notion that the indifference those interests have relied on in preservation of the status quo can be in any way preferable to active change.
Snyder’s argument reiterates that the vitality of a state ultimately depends on the economic health of its largest metropolitan region. More importantly, it reminds a statewide audience that the residents of Detroit also are residents of Michigan.
The policies Snyder is asking voters to endorse, in fact, represent a defense of his Detroit constituents. From a Michigan Legislature that for years blocked the economic benefits of a new bridge. And from a municipal government so chronically underwater that it’s unable to provide essential services that suburban and outstate residents take for granted.
Polling has been mixed on Proposal 1. Despite millions in advertising by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, voters remain on the fence regarding Proposal 6. In one sense, though, it may not matter.
Snyder and lawmakers retain the authority to craft a less intrusive financial emergency law that would still have more teeth than older versions. The Snyder administration would argue Michigan’s signed interlocal agreement with Canada requires no state financial involvement and precludes ballot action by voters, though the Moroun family would obviously contest that assertion in court.
But voter approval of Proposal 1 and rejection of Proposal 6 could provide necessary political backing for more: a long-stalled regional transit authority the Snyder administration supports, a transportation funding overhaul necessary to complement private-sector investment, and further state assistance to clear blight and build density.
One of Detroit’s ruins sits vacant on the east Detroit riverfront. More than a century ago, the Globe Building was a Great Lakes shipping maintenance center.
Last Saturday, Snyder announced the Natural Resources Trust Fund would provide the bulk of the $12.8 million to transform the shell into a recreation center. It will serve as an anchor to the Milliken State Park and the Dequindre Cut greenway that connects the riverfront to the Eastern Market, thus bolstering the neighborhood’s value for residential development.
In announcing the investment, Snyder saw the structure as something other than tragic beauty. According to the Detroit Free Press, he said: “I want everyone to remember what (the building) looks like today, so when we come back, we can see what the power of working together can do.”
Snyder said the reinvention of Detroit is part and parcel with the reinvention of Michigan. It's up to voters to decide if they agree.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.