Politics & Prejudices
Titanic's dance band
Here's an idea: Merge Wayne, Oakland and Macomb into a Greater Detroit
Published: July 13, 2011
Detroit has too little money, grinding poverty, a population appallingly ill-equipped for survival, a huge city budget deficit, a failed school system and many other enormous problems.
Nor is there any sign that anything is likely to get significantly better anytime soon. It is impossible to dispute anything I've just said, regardless of your politics. Everybody knows these things.
Those are the realities that should be the starting point for any conversation about the city. And every serious conversation should have one purpose: How do we fix this?
What higher purpose could any of us have?
Think about it. Michigan's greatest city has been mostly reduced to what amounts to a huge, rotting ghetto. That's not meant to be inflammatory or as an insult; it is hard, cold reality.
Real unemployment is, according to Mayor Dave Bing, more than 40 percent, when you count those discouraged workers who have dropped out of the labor force. What's worse is that hundreds of thousands of them are, probably, totally unemployable.
The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates 47 percent of Detroiters are functionally illiterate. What kind of jobs can they get, now that auto plants are no longer mass employers of the unskilled?
There are tens of thousands of dilapidated buildings that need to be torn down, except there is no money to do so.
That much is certain. But what nobody agrees on is exactly how the city, once one of the nation's most dynamic and vibrant, got in this shape — or who is to blame. Today's current leadership and population are nearly all black, and to a great extent — whether they openly say so or not — most blame the white establishment.
"They came here, made their money, dumped their pollution into the earth, and then took their money and jobs to the suburbs," one very bitter mayoral appointee told me, years ago.
The night Coleman Young was first elected mayor, way back in 1973, he reflected bitterly that he knew he'd won "because the white people didn't want the damn thing anymore. They were getting the hell out, more than happy to turn over their troubles to some black sucker like me." Older whites in the suburbs, those who grew up in Detroit and then indeed "got the hell out," saw it differently.
They felt most blacks lacked much work ethic, that they trashed the neighborhoods they moved into, failing to take care of their property even when they had the money.
There's some truth in both those stereotypes, and we've been engaging in sterile arguments about them for decades now. If we want, we can continue to do so, till the last business closes and the last refugee streams out of the ruins.
Or we can do something about it. The fact is that Detroit can no longer make it on its own. David Rusk explained and illuminated this back in 1993, in a brilliant little book called Cities Without Suburbs.
The bottom line is this: "Elastic cities flourish. Inelastic cities decline." Elastic cities are those, like Los Angeles, that can annex territory and incorporate suburbs within the city limits.
Inelastic cities are, well, like Detroit, which is bordered by county lines and incorporated areas. There is, however, a solution.
Recognize Detroit for what it really is — not the artificial city limits, but the real city, which is the counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.
Local units of government are creatures of the Legislature.
Lansing can create cities, dissolve cities. What our lawmakers should do is create a metropolis: Greater Detroit. The first step should be to merge Wayne County with the city.
That's worked well in places like Miami, Indianapolis and Nashville. Yes, they didn't have all our problems. They didn't have our resources and talent and size, either. Maybe we should go full out; merge Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Yes, it will take some major adjustments on the part of all concerned. Yes, it will cost money. The tri-county area will have to pay to rebuild the city's infrastructure. Detroit politicians will have to share power, and some will be unelected. This will be difficult — in the short and middle run, that is. In the long run, we'll all be better off.
Otherwise, what's the alternative? More than likely, an eventual emergency manager, who will balance Detroit's books without much improving residents' quality of life.
Think about it. Ask yourself how Michigan can possibly prosper and thrive when its major city is in the shape Detroit is now.
Where there's no vision, the people perish, says one of the proverbs in the Bible. Well, that's mine. If you have a better idea, one that would enhance all of our lives and fortunes as much as a new, Greater Metropolitan Detroit would, I would be delighted to hear it.
Thaddeus steps out: Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican congressman from Livonia, announced at the beginning of this month that he was running for president. There is no law against that, anymore than there is a law against my wearing a too-tight pink tutu in public.
There is a question, however, as to whether either of these things is a good idea. The best thing you can say about McCotter is that he was once in a band called the New Flying Squirrels.
News flash: Senators sometimes get elected president. Member of the House never do. Well, one did, once. His name was James Garfield, and he was elected in 1880. Four months after he took office a grubby lunatic who never changed his clothes shot Garfield in the back, and incompetent doctors then proceeded to kill the president.
That oughta be enough to scare McCotter straight. But if it doesn't work, here's what we ought to consider. As a presidential candidate, McCotter's chief qualification is that he knows Livonia.
That's true. He was born in Livonia in 1965, where his mommy was the city clerk. He grew up in Livonia, he lives in Livonia.
> Email Jack Lessenberry