Detroit’s last, best chance lies in current crisis

In the very early morning hours of July 24, 1967, I stood on the porch of my apartment in Livonia and looked east to see Detroit burning. I had just started my community newspaper company in the Detroit suburbs, and during that terrible time my newspapers struggled to fact-check the rumors that were running wild.

“They’re coming out Grand River!” Gonna go for the suburbs!” ran one hysterical – and entirely false – bleat.

And for nearly all the years since, relations between Detroit and much of the rest of the state have been, at the very best, difficult.

Former Mayor Coleman A. Young was a polarizing figure, usually depending on whether you were white or African American.

So, too, was L. Brooks Patterson, now the Oakland County Executive, who began his political career in the early 1970s as an attorney for a group opposing cross-district busing that was supposed to achieve integration by mixing white and black children in school.

The Detroit metro area was the most segregated metropolitan region in America, and it showed in the racial politics that came to affect nearly every regional political and policy issue.

The auto industry that made America the arsenal of democracy during World War II gained enormous power for both itself and for organized labor; after dwindling for decades, both faced near-death experiences during the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Detroit politics for years involved a mixture of corruption, incompetence and wholesale denial. Denial, especially, of the increasing apparent truth that the city was going down the tubes unless big-time change happened, which, of course, it never did.

Not, that is, until the city admitted the jig was up and filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013.

The prospect of impending death does, indeed, have a remarkable way of concentrating the mind. Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes put it well last week: “At least a decade in the making, Detroit’s complex workout is pushing disparate interests... to abandon entrenched positions long considered permanent fixtures in the landscape of southeast Michigan.”

Today, no-nonsense U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, capable Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Mayor Mike Duggan, Gov. Rick Snyder, some of Michigan’s far-sighted foundations and much of our political and economic leadership are trying to make sure this historic mess is never repeated.

In a poll released today by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, 79 percent of Michigan voters outside Detroit believe the city’s success is important to Michigan’s future, including 79 percent of Republicans. By a 62-percent to 32-percent margin, voters strongly support state funding as part of a “grand bargain” to help Detroit, support echoed in another poll released last week by Business Leaders for Michigan.

That’s the plan for the state to pay either $350 million long term, or $195 million as a lump sum, to be used together with private foundation money, to protect Detroit employee pensions and preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts collection.

“Voter support for a Detroit funding proposal is above 50 percent in every region of the state and crosses party lines,” said Business Leaders’ CEO Doug Rothwell.

Detroit’s crisis is much too valuable to allow the lessons from it to go to waste. Given what’s happened to public opinion and to the attitudes of political, business, labor and civic leaders, it now seems inconceivable that Michiganders will let the city go down the drain.

That’s the good news.

The tough news is that it’s going to take a long, long time to root out the damage that was done over a half century. Resolving the deteriorated physical infrastructure alone is a monumental task. The problems of the city’s political culture are very deeply rooted. It will be hard to figure out what kind of municipal entity Detroit should become, given the mismatch between its enormous size – built for a population of almost 2 million – and the reality of today’s population of maybe 675,000, many poor and lacking skills.

We all know about the guy who smokes, drinks and eats too much and has a bad heart attack. He resolves to turn his life around as he leaves the hospital. Day in, day out, the reality of changing a lifestyle is, for him, a constant goad to do the right thing – or die.

But do the city, the region and the entire state have the fortitude, the far-sightedness and the patience to persevere?

Let’s hope for the best.

There won’t ever be another chance as good as this one.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 05/13/2014 - 9:38am
I wonder if too many people are going to think that with this financial assistance if finally approved it will be "problem solved" for Detroit when in reality it is just the start of a long process. Detroit has entrenched poverty and all of the social ills related to that, the city has to be something more than a place to watch a sporting event for a few hours and then everybody retreat out of there as fast as they can.
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 11:00am
Quote:But do the city, the region and the entire state have the fortitude, the far-sightedness and the patience to persevere? end of quote. Here is the key for success of any plan and will require strong leadership that demands results not just lip service. I personally feel it will only work when residents look at it as a challenge and do it for all the right reasons and for the good of the whole state. Dale Westrick Concerned citizen
John S. Porter
Mon, 05/19/2014 - 12:24am
Leadership is not the problem. It is a lack of followship and fellowship. Restoring Detroit to it's prior grandiosity is lunatic's goal. Shame on you Phil. Detroit is no different than the rest of the State in most respects that count. Drive on Northern Michigan roads, and you can break a tooth there too. Either we move forward, or fall back. As a State we have been feeding off our assets for a long time, losing our assets so to speak. We need to help each other move forward and stop pointing fingers at each other. People need to elect leaders that believe in helping each other. If a Detroiter can help a Northlander, that should happen. The reverse should also be true. When the followers finally believe in helping each other, the leaders will follow suit.
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 11:50am
The typical pattern for bankruptcies is that once is never enough to squeeze out all the problems and make the very tough decisions, and this is usually for corporations (Chrysler?), for political entities, no doubt, this will be even worse.
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 4:49pm
To answer Phil Power's question at the end of his thoughtful and well written article re. Detroit's future---"NO".
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 8:43pm
Not sure where these statistics come from on voter support. I sure don't know anybody outside of Detroit that wants to pay more taxes to further corruption...................
Wed, 05/14/2014 - 12:47am
As much as Mr. Power and all those he mentioned want Detroit to change, the ones he did not mention, the Detroiters, are the ones that must make change happen. Until the Detroiters have a (specific) vision of a future Detroit that they want to happen, that they are willing to make the personal sacrifices to make it happen there will be no change. For all Mr. Power’s hope for Detroit he forgets the risk of unintended consequences, the reality is that a whole family (our State) can be brought to ruin by a single family member if they aren’t willing to change.
Wed, 05/14/2014 - 9:54pm
Matt, Thank you for the link, it offers some different perspectives which have made me think a bit more on a couple of topics I read a bit on. I do think that to start by looking inward at the neighborhood and working out ward is likely to create a more stable community than the 'grand idea' approach. This is most effective when successful neighborhoods grow to meet other successful neighborhoods. I have long been a believer in asking the people what specifically do they want and why, rather then makeing top down pronouncements.
Wed, 05/14/2014 - 9:58am
I haven't heard what the Unions are doing to help protect the pensions of union retirees. The Unions helped create and perpetuate the problem in Detroit, so they should help solve the problem. Union funds should help their retirees, not taxpayers money. They should transition their working members toward defined contribution plans for all of their benefits.
Wed, 05/14/2014 - 10:52am
The unions had no interest in pointing out the poor condition of the pensions they negotiated. Doing so would have only drained funds away that were seemingly available for other benefits (which they pushed for). This would be the last thing they would do, therefor they allowed and profited from allowing the underfunded condition to exist. Now they are being allowed to skate with no financial responsibility. The epitome of eating your cake and having it too .
Sun, 05/18/2014 - 10:36am
We have a fighting chance to pull this off, but only if we recognize that the moment at hand is our last, best hope and that the window won't stay open for long, and proceed accordingly.