Politics & Prejudices
Drastic measures are necessary right now
Published: November 28, 2012
Detroit, contrary to what some think who never come here, is anything but dead. Last Saturday we went down to Eastern Market for lunch and found that, even in the blustery cold, there was an hour wait to get into Vivio's, and a line even longer for the Russell Street Deli. So we fled to the funky Bucharest Grill, close to the Fox Theatre, near where rumors say a new hockey palace may go up.
Even there, with not much going on, we had to wait briefly to be seated. Though the Bucharest is known for shawarma, I had an absolutely first-rate hamburger and was happy as an old crank can be.
Except when I walked back to the car, and studied all the ruined and deserted and abandoned buildings. In a way, it felt like what eating in Berlin in 1946 must have felt like, with one exception.
Their war was over. The war for the future of Detroit is still raging on, and it is clear that city government as it now stands can't be part of the solution. It has failed and is failing in every way.
Nor can the city, as things now stand, possibly succeed.
There is no money. Detroit has lost so many cops it cannot even guarantee a minimum of public safety to the neighborhoods. The firefighters don't even have soap or toilet paper in their firehouses.
And while it still isn't clear whether Detroit can balance its budget, it is clear that the city will never be able to do anything about the billions and billions in unfunded liabilities hanging out there.
Detroit, as things now stand, cannot go on much longer.
This is highlighted by the sheer clownish incompetence of the characters on City Council, from the strutting and preening Charles Pugh, the one-time TV anchor who can't pay his bills, on.
Mayor Dave Bing may not be as dynamic or as decisive a leader as the city needs. But it's not clear that anyone could work with this council. There are, to be sure, a few sane members — Gary Brown and Ken Cockrel Jr. But the rest seem caught up either in sheer inability to understand what's going on, or some stubborn, outdated and pigheaded racial idea that Detroit has to be protected from those white folks who secretly want to come back and take it away.
So they vote no on everything, like screaming 2-year-olds having temper tantrums. The state wants to pour money into crumbling Belle Isle, make it a state park? Absolutely not.
Reform the Department of Water and Sewerage? Hell, no. Sign a contract with a law firm that the state says is necessary before Lansing gives Detroit any more cash. NO MAMA NOOOO! What about selling some vacant land to developer John Hantz, so he can put a lovely tree farm on the dilapidated east side? They won't even make a decision.
In a small way, their total failure to behave as adults may be a blessing. It should make it that much easier for the Legislature to pass a new Emergency Manager Law as quickly as possible.
True, voters narrowly rejected the old one, and the lawmakers should take note of that. But emergency measures are needed.
Then, Gov. Rick Snyder should give up on a consent agreement that has plainly failed, and appoint someone with the ability and power to try to make Detroit work. That will be anything but easy.
Ideally, there would be a two-stage process. First, the no-longer-realistic contracts, the inefficient procedures and the bad debts have to be gotten out of the way. Plans have to be executed — fast — to restore some standard of public safety.
Procedures have to be put in place so that if someone like Hantz has a plan to improve the city, some rational authority will be able to make a reasonable ruling in a timely fashion.
Meanwhile, our relentless positive-action governor needs to be thinking of how to make Detroit work in the long term. Eventually merging Detroit and Wayne County would make all kinds of sense.
Actually, a tri-county authority ought to be immediately empowered to handle transportation — a unified bus service — and perhaps other functions. What matters is making things work.
Now, there's bound to be lots of opposition. Many politicians in Detroit will say any form of state action — other than to give them money to spend as they please — is outrageous.
They say this just proves that "they" want to take the city away. But I have news for them: Detroit politicians don't own Detroit.
We all do. The state of Michigan does. Cities, under our state constitution, are creatures of the state.
The Legislature can break up any city as a governmental unit, require it to merge with other cities, create new cities, anything our statewide lawmakers think is appropriate.
But at the same time, everyone who lives in Michigan has a responsibility to and a vested interest in fixing Detroit.
Thousands of businessmen, most of them white, got rich here, and then took their money and their businesses and skedaddled for the suburbs. They have a responsibility to Detroit as well. We all do.
Mike Duggan, they tell me, is convinced he can save Detroit if he is elected mayor. Frankly, I don't think he can and I don't think he can get elected, but it's now almost irrelevant who our next mayor is.
What matters is that we make this a city worth living in and one worth being mayor of, whatever that takes.
> Email Jack Lessenberry