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Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Too Little, Too Late for Detroit

February 22, 2013

DETROIT — There was something a little poignant about Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s annual State of the City address last week. “Despite the naysayers’ predictions, there have not been any payless paydays. No Emergency Manager — to date. And no declaration of bankruptcy for the city of Detroit,” he said. He had to know, of course, that an Emergency Manager—and probably bankruptcy—were almost certainly coming.

That was, quite likely, his last State of the City address. The Mayor has not said whether he plans to seek reelection. If he does, he may well not win. But what does seem clear is that the city is almost certain to be under an all-powerful emergency manager soon, which means any Mayor will be a mere figurehead. This year, Bing did all he could to put the best face on what he has managed to do. The city has, he said, torn down 6,700 vacant and derelict structures. What he didn‘t say is that there are tens of thousands more that need the wrecking ball.

He did proudly mention that the Cobo Center—Detroit’s main convention center—has been successfully renovated. There will be a new police headquarters, the Mayor said, and yet another “crime reduction strategy,” though no more cops. And the Legislature, the Mayor added, has just agreed to create a Public Lighting Authority that will hopefully invest the money needed to make Detroit’s ancient street lights come on again. Yet he had to know it was all too little, too late. His speech was, in a sense, a letter to history written by a good and decent man who, whatever his limitations, was faced with a mess. It’s hard to think that any elected leader could ever have handled this, even if not faced with a City Council that seemed determined to ignore reality.

Not that the Mayor’s speech was entirely realistic. “Every day there are more signs of hope and possibilities,” he said. Well, maybe in newly fashionable Midtown, an area sparking with new condos and young adults flocking to move in. Maybe even in the downtown itself, with its casinos and stadiums. But not in the vast majority of neighborhoods, some of which even the police only like to enter in broad daylight—and in force.

The Mayor himself seems worn out by his job. A superbly toned athlete and member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, he looks and sounds older than his 68 years. Living in the city wears even private citizens out. The night before the Mayor gave his speech, I went to dinner with one of the city‘s better-known residents, in a neighborhood where hope and possibilities are only words in the dictionary. John King is one of the city‘s cultural icons. A lifelong Detroiter, he founded one of the nation‘s largest used book stores, which fills up a giant former glove factory on Lafayette Boulevard.

King, who looks a little like a 63-year-old General George Armstrong Custer, drove me west on Fort Street, past block after block of abandoned and collapsing warehouses and factories. Eventually we came to a tiny hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant on a rundown street called Lawndale, where we were the only non-Hispanic diners. King wanted to show me his water bill.

For years, his store had been billed $12.90 a month for a separate “fire line” water service. Then, in December, he got a letter from the city: “We have recently discovered that our billing system has not billed correctly.” From now on, his bill would total $255.44. Plus, they seemed to be telling him if he ever has a fire, he’ll have to pay extra for the water. He swallowed hard, and paid. Then last month, he got another bill for back charges of $13,661.64 on the service he never used, and never knew he had. Repeated attempts to dispute this bill have met with no response.

“Why don’t we just forget it and move to San Francisco?” Janelle, his longtime companion, urged him. “I’m getting close. I’ll tell you that,” King said. If he closes up and leaves, it would be both a cultural and an economic blow to the city. His three Detroit bookstores employ more than a dozen neighborhood residents, whom he hires and painstakingly trains. John King, the son of two blue-collar Ford Motor Company workers, has lived in Detroit his entire life. Staying when everybody else left; putting up with car insurance rates three times what he would pay in the suburbs. Rather than leave, he built a beautiful little apartment atop his second building. Then he tried to connect to the city’s cable TV service. “But they said I was a business and would have to pay $3,000,” he said. He bought a satellite dish instead.

Dave Bing has been fighting too, also without much luck. A successful Detroit businessman after leaving the NBA, he had been urged to run for Mayor for two decades. Finally, after the national embarrassment of Kwame Kilpatrick, he did. But after taking office, he found getting anything done to be infuriatingly difficult. Too often, the nine-member City Council seemed more interested in posturing than progress, as when they rejected a state offer to renovate Belle Isle.

In the final analysis, however, it is unlikely that even a superhuman could have saved Detroit from insolvency. Bing himself noted that he inherited 13.8 billion dollars in unfunded, long-term liabilities. Two billion of that will come due within five years. Late last week, word leaked that a state-appointed review team was telling the governor that there was virtually no chance Detroit’s elected officials could get the city‘s finances under control.

Nobody—least of all Mayor Dave Bing—can be very surprised.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 21, 2013 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

29 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg Thrasher // Feb 22, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Yet another tired tale if the city from Jack the same old narrative replete with the same script about how hopeless life is in the city.

    Hopefully when this chapter of the city comes to an end it will take naysayers and those in the media like Jack who have for years made a living off of the malaise of city and other urban venues .

    Jack and his brethren in the media have been pathological in their collective analysis if the city’s shortcomings . The media has ushered the city ‘s descent for years often with smudge a d arrogant glee.

    I do hope when I return to the city there will be a collective of souls like myself willing and ready to shape a new a new blueprint and frontier for the city we love .

  • 2 Mrs. A // Feb 23, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Mr. Lessenberry has proven undeniably to be one of Detroit’s greatest promoters and truth-tellers over the decades. A writer of his talent could have easily moved on, and yet he remains in metro Detroit, drawing upon its rich history to report on its happenings. His essays are not always cheerful and neither is the truth, sadly, especially when discussing city politics. I continually find a deep love for Detroit in his writing, and his perspective is seldom taken by other writers who long ago wrote off the sad city.

    I once lived there and still follow from afar, and now I rely on Mr Lessenberry to help me understand what is really happening. I hope that the city can reinvent itself for the 21st century, but truth be told, the harsh scythe of an Emergency Manager will likely need to cut it down first.

  • 3 Audrey M. // Feb 24, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    I was born & grew up in Detroit. There is so much there to love. Belle Isle will always be sanctuary to me. One of many special places. I was happy there. Over time I grew tired of my house & car being broken into (though I had nothing to take), the insurance costs, & the constant need to be on guard. I moved to the UP for school & stayed because it was a safer place to raise my kids. I read all this stuff about home & I’m so sad for my beautiful old city. Sad Belle Isle was denied a chance for some help. Sad that many leave because staying is so dangerous, they just cut their loses. Sad when I think of my kids not knowing all the cool stuff for them at the museums & science center, or hearing the DSO, or seeing the ballet…or even playing in the fountain in Hart plaza like I did as a child. But its better than one of my babies turning up dead in an abandoned building, or catching a bullet from some drug gang idiocy in the streets, or being beat up in school for being the wrong color. I say let the EM come. Drop the axe & be done. If its broken, fix it. Begin again. The city is 300 years old, I bet its been through a few revisions already. By all means, sort out the money. Find sane management. Root out corruption. Then clean it up, its so filthy that its depressing. I’m suprised the rats haven’t carried Hamtramck away altogether. Take aim at the drug dealers that get bypassed because there are bigger fish to fry. The prisons are full of drug addicts, who are the neglected & abused children of drug addicts, who are often in trouble to drug trade related crimes. Please let someone try something new. Growth is change by definition. And the racial predjudice thing is so old. Just get over it & move on. Most people have a little more to them than their pelt.

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