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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit: Two Cities, Two Candidates

March 3, 2017

DETROIT – The basic story line is now nationally known: After decades of decline, Detroit hit rock bottom and swiftly collapsed into emergency management and then bankruptcy.  That was four years ago. But then Gov. Rick Snyder led a coalition to put together a “grand bargain” to save the city.  A marvelous renaissance followed. Detroit, like the mythical Phoenix, then stunningly began to rise again. 

Today, it is out of bankruptcy, development is surging along Woodward Avenue, and it’s hard to find an apartment to rent in newly fashionable Midtown.  That is all indeed true. But a new study by two respected urban experts is casting some cold water on the notion that everything is rosy in America’s comeback city.  Laura Reese, director of Michigan State University’s Global Studies Program, and Gary Sands, a professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, don’t question the “very real progress in the Downtown/Midtown core,” that encompasses a little over seven square miles along a four-mile stretch of Woodward Avenue. 

Yet that’s barely five percent of Detroit’s entire area. Elsewhere in the city, the scholars contend that not only have things not gotten better — they are actually getting worse.   People are still fleeing and jobs still drying up, they wrote last month in a piece called “Detroit’s Recovery: The glass is half-full at most,” in the online journal Conversation, which attempts to publish academic studies “with journalistic flair.”  Even in the oasis of Midtown, “poverty is high and most new jobs are going to suburbanites,” they said. 

While city boosters have suggested that the Downtown-Midtown boom will be a catalyst for further growth, the authors argue that “the pace at which revitalization is spreading to adjacent areas is far too slow,” to eliminate the city’s sharp racial and economic divisions.  “Detroit is two very different cities – one white and privileged, the other black and deprived,” they assert.  They see little hope that will change, any time soon. 

Mayor Mike Duggan disputes that. But whether or not Detroit, is, in fact, building a recovery that will spread to all parts of the city is likely to be the key issue of this year’s mayoral campaign. 

Five years ago, Detroit seemed all but hopeless.  The mayor was perceived as ineffectual; the city council was seen as a dysfunctional joke, and the city had billions in debt and liabilities it could never pay.  Then, however, the governor named bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr emergency manager, and he and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steve Rhodes skillfully negotiated a deal that protected the treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts, reduced—but saved—city and police pensions, and got the creditors to accept it all.  To everyone’s surprise, the Republican legislature agreed to kick in $195 million to make it all work. 

Even more surprising: The overwhelmingly African-American population of Detroit elected a white mayor, Mike Duggan, an attorney and a longtime political fixer famous for making things work.  Soon, the city emerged from bankruptcy, and has stayed solvent since. Duggan, a whirling dervish of activity, started energetically tearing down blighted buildings.  Within less than three years, he had working streetlights throughout the entire city – something some experts had said was impossible. Crime and unemployment fell. 

But Detroit’s public schools, which are not part of city government, continued to lose money and students.  Last year they too were reorganized and bailed out by the legislature, though their future is uncertain at best.  Detroit’s crumbling neighborhoods, have been further weakened by the chaotic and confusing school situation, made worse when the legislature refused to set up a body to regulate the proliferation of charter schools.   

Duggan, a 58-year-old former deputy Wayne County executive and county prosecutor who lived most of his career in suburban Livonia, has indicated he is very aware people are unhappy with the pace of reform.  “If we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, we’ve got to do a whole lot more,” he said during his annual state of the city address.  The mayor has been working to establish what he calls a “strategic neighborhood fund,” and intends to begin by investing $30 million in three neighborhoods: Livernois-McNichols, Southwest Detroit, and West Village.  That, he vowed, is just a beginning; he expects to raise more money and expand the program to more neighborhoods. 

But the man likely to be his challenger in November said this is all too little, too late. State Sen. Coleman Young II, the 34-year-old son of Detroit’s legendary first black mayor, is challenging Duggan for the job.  “I want to put the citizens back to work, and by that I mean the neighborhoods,” Young said.  “What’s the purpose of turning the (street) lights on outside your house if you can’t turn them on inside the house?” because of poverty. 

Despite Young’s famous name, Mike Duggan is seen as a heavy favorite.  Even the man who he defeated four years ago, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, is backing the mayor, who despite speculation has repeatedly denied reports that he is interested in running for governor next year.  Yet whoever wins will face a monumental task in making Detroit neighborhoods places people will want to live again.

Detroit has come a long way.  But perhaps the hardest part of all remains: Making it once again a truly livable city, capable of attracting middle-class residents who have children – and no qualms about putting them in the city’s schools.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism 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.

March 2, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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