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.