Detroit: Is this the end or does it still have a chance?

December 2, 2013

Detroit: The Phoenix Shall Rise

Elizabeth James

I’ve spend most of my 50 plus years living, loving and learning and growing up in Detroit, I never questioned its heart, soul and role in representing a true American city. After all, it had an annual Thanksgiving Parade, formidable sports teams and towering skyscrapers. Now, I find myself sitting beside a scenic view of a beautiful skyline, seeking to explain why Detroit is the harbinger of what lies ahead for the United States.

Even during challenging times, Detroit, like the U.S., keeps rolling along, much like the motor industry for which it is best known. This past summer, while assisting with a U-M GIEU Experience in Detroit, I was forced to face yet again how people from the outside only see its problems. Of course, they do exist, but if you pay close attention, you’ll begin to feel something stirring. It’s the spirit of Detroit. Let me take you past the wall (yes, one does exist at the border on the infamous 8 mile road) and reveal a few reasons why I believe so strongly in the Detroit I know and love.

The river is our source-a port that continues to serve as one of the busiest waterways in the world and an international border between the United States and Canada, which produces revenues of billions of dollars that often go unnoticed. The tourist and wildlife industries with their sightseeing and fishing boats continue to thrive just as they did when the city was founded in 1701. With its International Riverfront and beloved Belle Isle, the largest island park in the United States, the Detroit River is a place its citizens return to for recreation and reflection throughout the year. It’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.

The land is impressive. Did you know the entire cities of Boston and San Francisco, as well as the borough of Manhattan can fit inside Detroit? One major issue the city is finally addressing is how to best utilize its 134 mile space. Detroit’s undergoing transformative development through its downtown and midtown revitalization projects, which are highly touted in the media.

Though the media focuses on the census count, it’s obvious there are lots of new residents moving into the city, renovating abandoned buildings into lofts and turning houses into homes. Beautiful neighborhoods like Woodbridge, University District, Rosedale Park and Green Acres exist all over the city. Housing prices have escalated over 17% from last year, which marks 25 consecutive months of positive year-over-year returns.

The people. Like the U.S., Detroit’s greatest resource is its citizens, whose ancestors hail from near and far. The city is diverse, with a population that is primarily Black, but also home to thriving Arabic, Albanian, Hmong and Mexican communities.

Most Detroiters are savvy enough to avoid the crime and corruption that many prefer to focus on instead of engaging the friendly, welcoming citizens. Schools, the repositories of the city’s future - our children - are also undergoing change. Witness the Charles L. Spain Elementary Middle School, which offers a college preparatory curriculum for students, the Detroit School of the Performing Arts that proudly displays photos of famous Detroit artists on its walls and the new James and Grace Lee Boggs School which presents a curriculum based on community building.

The attitude. Detroiters keep it real at all times. We understand that politicians come and go, but the city remains a constant source of strength with its powerful history and amazing contributions. From Detroit’s music to its art, innovators of every sort epitomize the “can-do” mentality of the United States best demonstrated in Berry Gordy, founder of the legendary Motown music company and Tyree Guyton, who has transformed his former neighborhood on Heidelberg Street into one of the most magical spaces on earth. Prominent activists like Rosa Parks and Grace Lee Boggs chose to make this city their home and young leaders like Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, and Scott Benson, newly elected to a Detroit City Council that now has seven members under 44, are poised to take on the city’s challenges with exuberance.

One of my dear friends, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, offered me this assessment of Detroit’s current situation. “Baby, the city can’t die, because, like New Orleans, it would be an indictment on America. You all will rise from this stronger and wiser. Don’t let the haters bring you down.”

What lies ahead for Detroit? It’s up to us to determine it. This is why I firmly believe in the other half of the motto on the city’s flag - Speramus Meliora: “We hope for better things.”

Elizabeth is the Program Manager for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at U-M. A native Detroiter, she is a third generation storyteller who loves exploring the world so that she can return to the D where she is happiest.


Detroit: Worse Than We Think

Trip Brennan

One day over the summer, I was out at a bar with some friends talking about politics. The conversation turned to the local issues in Detroit, and my roommate from New Jersey claimed things were far worse and more corrupt in his own home state. He talked about former Governor Jim McGreevey and the twenty-year reign of former New Jersey Mayor Sharpe James, who spent 18 months in prison for committing fraud. Then I told him the Kwame Kilpatrick story: his extramarital affairs, his corruption, the story of the Manoogian Mansion party, and the murder of Tamara Greene. No stranger to politics, my friend seemed stunned that all of this had actually transpired.

This is not normal. Yes, politicians have affairs and say controversial things. Yes, the government can be downright corrupt. And yes, cities do have budget crises. But not like this. Not all at once. Looking at former Mayors Kwame Kilpatrick and Coleman Young you would think that we were discussing Chicago or New York in the 1920s. Sadly, no—political corruption is just Detroit’s coup de grâce.

I don’t blame Kwame Kilpatrick, Coleman Young, or any of the other less than angelic leaders the city has seen. With or without them, Detroit has been on the decline. Between 1950 and today, the city of Detroit’s population has dropped by more than one million people. Long before the 1967 riots, the city was transforming into the perpetual ghost town it is today. While racism certainly played a role in pushing white denizens out of Detroit, the national highway system and affordable transportation made it possible to drive longer distances for work as individuals were beginning to own their own homes outside of the city.

Businesses soon followed their employees out of urban centers to the suburbs, while deindustrialization swept across the country. Concentrations of low skilled workers in places like Detroit became the unemployed or under employed masses. Sharp tax cuts destroyed revenue at the federal and state level, while a dwindling population meant a precipitous loss for city coffers, even with a city income tax. If anything, the new tax drove businesses and residents out even faster.

The largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history is only the beginning of Detroit’s woes under an emergency financial manager. This is not just because of the subversion of residents’ democratic rights, but because an emergency financial manager will not serve the city’s best interests. What Detroit needs are incentives for investment, better schools, improved public safety, and the cooperation and collaboration of the suburbs. The role of an emergency manager is to balance the budget. Even if it means slashing police and fire, selling the DIA’s art collection, and shutting off services to entire neighborhoods.

My freshman year, I worked on a project with the American Civil Liberties Union exploring the role of emergency financial managers and their impact on the cities they served. Over and over again, I encountered the same story. The city was suffering from the ills of deindustrialization, shut off from the wealth of the suburbs and ridden with crime and unemployment. Instead of creating jobs and developing the community into a place where people wanted to live—which would attract greater long term revenue and solve fiscal problems— emergency managers would slash services, raise taxes, and fire droves of workers. They lectured residents on the failure of their leaders to be “fiscally responsible” but didn’t connect the dots between the concentrations of wealth in some areas of the state and concentrations of poverty in others.

Detroit is in a precarious position, one that it will not have a speedy recovery from. When Emergency Manager Kevynn Orr is done, he will have devastated the city’s budget, turned services over to for profit industries, and done nothing to improve the ailing neighborhoods in the city. Downtown will boom, but it will take decades for that wealth to spread outward—and when it does, it will likely be in the form of gentrification, pushing out poorer, longtime residents and benefiting the wealthy.

I take no great pleasure in saying this. I love Detroit. My family has had roots in Detroit going back to my great, great grandfather. I lived there my freshman year, and now I volunteer on the east side every week, and try to go any chance I get. But facts are facts. Things in Detroit are far worse than we realize, and for most Detroiters, they aren’t about to get a whole lot better.

Trip was born and raised in Rochester Hills, MI and has spent signi cant time living, working, and volunteering in the city of Detroit. He is a junior in the Ford School of Public Policy focusing on civil rights and the judiciary.