Pain and Promise

An essay on the politics of Detroit

Society of Professional Journalists Detroit Excellence in Journalism Awards 2010
First Place-Single Editorial Category

s I reflect back on more than 20 years in Michigan as a journalist and state government official who dealt with the issues of race relations and economic justice daily, it is hard for me to imagine a more perilous time for Detroit and its citizens than today.

Despite the constant state of battle that seemed to exist between Detroiters, the communities surrounding them and hostile White leaders in Lansing, the city’s residents still seemed resilient and maintained a steely determination to define their reality on their terms. What enabled them to maintain such a posture was a sense that city leadership had their back.

ADVERTISEMENT

The extraordinary successes of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, particularly the ability to elect African Americans into office, felt empowering. Gaining control of such institutions as City Hall, the School Board and the Police Department, which opened up civil and public service jobs that had long been off-limits to Blacks, was liberating.

Then, economic and technological shifts, the failure of the entire region to keep up with them, and incompetence and corruption among some Black politicians and contractors left many African-American Detroiters feeling cynical, powerless, even defeated.

In spite of all this, there are signs of potential for a comeback. The radically downsized auto industry has begun to slowly but surely reinvent itself. The city appears to be experiencing modest success in marketing its downtown as a Mecca for young, hip, urban dwellers and high tech entrepreneurs. Resources to update approaches to education, support small business start-ups, urban farming and the arts can be found by citizens with the energy and optimism to strive for positive change.

However, for the city to deal effectively with macro issues like shocking poverty and unemployment rates, and the transition to an information-based economy, it will take a coherent, focused, coordinated and sustained national and state urban policy.

OUR RECENT PAST

The near collapse of the car industry due to poor management has been disorienting. The disintegration of the local school system has been appalling. Criminal convictions of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, members of his administration, former City Council members and former school board President Otis Mathis, have brought about a collective sense of weariness and embarrassment.

Still, says Wayne State University Professor of Sociology Khari Brown, a fundamental problem facing Detroiters now is that following Civil Rights Movement victories, there was never any meaningful or sustained government effort to alleviate structural and institutional racism. “The factor that gets glossed over quite a bit is the role racial and economic segregation play in the concentration of poverty and the spatial dislocation between Black citizens like Detroiters and jobs,” he says.

From 1950 through the 1980s, Detroit’s population decline was due in large measure to White flight. However, from 1990 to today, the population decline has been largely a result of Blacks moving to the suburbs. According to Brown, “The people moving out are the most highly educated, community leaders, those who support the tax base and the people who typically hold elected officials accountable. The human capital is leaving. The social capital is leaving.”

Brown argues that inept and corrupt leadership depresses citizen enthusiasm for participation. Detroit is suffering from a brain drain typically found in underdeveloped nations.

A MOMENT OF PROMISE

Urban policy experts note that since 2003, for the first time in more than a decade, Detroit has had in Jennifer M. Granholm a friendly governor in Lansing. Her administration had an ambitious urban agenda.

Among the major objectives the Kilpatrick and Granholm administrations worked on together was a federal government program that provided funding for revitalizing neighborhoods through blight removal and the renovation and building of homes. Michigan received $224 million in funding, more than any other state, through the program. Detroit’s share was $40.8 million-more than any other city in the state.

However, Kilpatrick’s legal issues paralyzed the process. Federally funded projects were put on hold. In some cases, money was shifted from Detroit projects to shovel-ready programs elsewhere in the state.

Carol Goss, president and CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, has led education and neighborhood reform efforts in the city. She laments lost opportunities and momentum.

CITY PLAYERS MOVE FORWARD

Still, Goss, a Detroit native and resident, notes that over the past five years, The Skillman Foundation invested more than $100 million in the city in spite of political trauma. It has taken the lead on mega projects like “right-sizing the city” through innovative, but controversial, neighborhood redevelopment efforts and downtown redevelopment.

And Skillman has been active in supporting individual schools through its Good Schools Making the Grade project. This program is designed to identify, support and create high quality schools from which the majority of students graduate and attend college. “The goal is for a 90 percent graduation rate,” Goss says. “Right now in Detroit, data shows the [Detroit Public Schools] high school graduation rate is 58 percent. At charter schools, it is 78 percent. And the number of students who go to college is about 25 percent for DPS.”

Detroit Renaissance, a 40-year-old roundtable of corporate and education top executives, also continued to press forward during political paralysis. It has supported-along with other organizations and individuals, nearly every redevelopment project in Detroit over the past decade, including the RiverWalk and Campus Martius Park. Last year, the organization transformed into Business Leaders for Michigan, expanding its focus statewide.

It’s fair to say that various foundations, corporate interests and other local and state leaders committed to helping Detroit have not taken the leadership of this city seriously. Many are inclined to work around the City Council and school board to revitalize and restructure the city. They have met minimum resistance from Detroit citizens and organizations.

I could not have imagined such passivity 20 years ago.

“I see the acceptance of this by many in our community as a result of the frustration that they have been experiencing over the last number of years,” says City Council Member James Tate. “When you look at the political corruption and individuals who have clearly been found to have stolen funds from our children and our school system, you can understand where it is coming from.”

THE NEXT DETROIT IS UP TO YOU

However, Tate, a native Detroiter and former spokesperson for the Detroit Police Department, says with a new mayor in office and five new City Council members, he believes things are beginning to turn around. He sees the level of expectations from citizens rising.

His City Council colleague, Rev. Andre Spivey, concurs, conceding that Detroit’s governmental institutions have been dysfunctional in recent years. “But long term this council will make its mark and the mayor will make his mark,” he says.

Even after losing one million people, Detroit is still the 11th largest city in the country. Before the auto crisis, it was the source of more than half of Michigan’s economic output. Detroit’s comeback is essential not only for the city’s African-American majority. Says Spivey, “We know our job is very important, not just to for the city, but for the entire state as well.”

Mayor Dave Bing seems well aware of that challenge. His task is to get city residents and surrounding communities to buy in to the necessary steps revitalize the city. This includes aggressive regionalization efforts and more fundamentally, persuading leadership outside the city to be courageous enough to step outside their comfort zones and find common ground with the city.

“It can’t be Detroit against the world,” he told attendees last month at a Detroit Economic Club meeting at the College for Creative Studies. “We’ve got to find out how to develop partnerships and communicate with neighbors.”

He pointed out positive developments like $1 billion that has been invested in midtown by healthcare organizations over the past several years, and a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that will be used as start-up funding for light rail development along the Woodward corridor.

He also noted that no sooner had he taken office he was informed at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference that General Motors was seriously considering moving its world headquarters out of Detroit.

“I got on the phone to President Obama and said the worst thing that can happen is for us to lose GM’s world headquarters,” Bing recalled. “He said ‘it’s not going to happen.’” Not only did GM stay in Detroit with its 2,000 employees, but added another 2,000 since then, according to Bing.

The mayor was remarkably candid about where Detroit is now versus where it needs to be. He described the egregious state of public education. And he addressed the city’s vast swaths of vacant or underused land that must be dealt with, as well as a culture of resentment and suspicion among residents that stifles efforts at change and innovation.

“We need to change our attitude,” he said bluntly. “We’ve still got this attitude that somebody owes us something. Historically the businesses [in Michigan] offered us a middle class lifestyle with little or no education. But from a business and sports perspective, you’ve got to earn your way.”

Bing’s candor is almost as scary as it is refreshing. Coleman Young was animated and blunt, but not very candid. Dennis Archer was pragmatic, but quite cautious in assessments he gave of the city’s circumstances. And it’s now painfully clear that Kwame Kilpatrick’s statements could not be assumed to be accurate or honest.

You can feel Bing’s indignation at the mess he inherited-far worse than he’d imagined-which has been in the making since long before Kilpatrick took office, and his irritation with those he believes don’t understand the breadth of Detroit’s problems. This mayor’s sense of urgency is a welcome relief.

All who really care for this battered city-especially residents-should take Bing much more seriously.

With the possibility of new conservative elected officials in Lansing and Washington, Detroiters are going to have to make friends where they can, even if they disagree on some critical issues. That may mean, if feasible, further regionalizing some major city assets like the Water Department and possibly the school system in exchange for support.

Detroiters may not have control over what kind of state government they end up with, or the composition of the next U.S. Congress, but they do have absolute control over their city government. Distilled to its essence, city residents’ biggest challenge is restoring accountability and demanding more from themselves and the politicians they elect. A transition to electing City Council members by district instead of at-large is a good first step.

Until Detroiters demand the highest standards for themselves and those who claim to represent them, they will continue to live as spectators in their own theater of the absurd-a place where the real obstacles to the city’s success reside not beyond Eight Mile, or in Lansing, or in Washington, but within the very neighborhoods, school districts and City Hall they claim as their own.

 

TREVOR W. COLEMAN IS A FORMER DETROIT FREE PRESS EDITORIAL COLUMNIST WHO HAS WRITTEN THE SOON-TO-BE-PUBLISHED BIOGRAPHY OF FEDERAL JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH.

COMMENTS