Commentary: Two Detroits

May 13, 2013

I had dinner recently with Elaine Stritch, the Broadway legend who in later years, won new television audiences with her work on everything from The Cosby Show to 30 Rock.

She is 88 now and after living in New York and London since World War II, moved back to her hometown recently, back to greater Detroit. And I was curious about why. Yes, she has some family here, but as Stritch candidly said, she has enough money that she could live anywhere. She told me, it was the sun.

Detroit sunshine is like that of nowhere else in the world, she said, inviting, bright and warm even on chilly days. “In New York, well, the sun is a cold and distant thing,” she said.

That reminded me of something Mitt Romney said last year, one of his few disarmingly human comments.

Romney, who was also born and raised in Detroit, said during his primary campaign that he likes Michigan because that “the trees are the right height.” He took a lot of teasing about that but I knew what he was trying to say: There really is no place like home.

Today, many of those who live or work in the city of Detroit have been stunned by a new report just issued by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Basically, it says that no matter how bad you thought Detroit was, the reality is worse.

The city is out of cash, the long-term obligations are impossible, and -- money aside -- the police and fire departments are a mess. The city has been shrinking by an average of more than 1,500 people a month for the last 63 years.

I don’t know how anyone could read this report without concluding that some form of bankruptcy is inevitable.

Yet there are multiple Detroits, and even the blasted and afflicted central city isn’t Benton Harbor or East St. Louis.

Last weekend, Compuware founder Peter Karamanos threw a sensational 40th birthday party for his wife, who was a former student of mine. 300 stunningly  dressed people, including everyone from John Dingell to Weight Watchers’ Florine Mark crowded into an ancient renovated firehouse to drink champagne and hear CeCe Winans sing, in a spot only feet from where Cadillac first climbed out of a canoe in 1701.

“Not bad for a dead city,”  Karamanos said to me. Well, he was right. Detroit is not a dead city.

In fact, the downtown is far nicer and livelier than it was twenty or thirty years ago. But the city’s finances and government are a broken, penniless and hopeless mess. I had asked Elaine Stritch who she most admired of all the people she had met, and her answer surprised me. “President George W. Bush,” she said.

“He gave up a martini at six o clock to save his country. I am an alcoholic myself, and know what a struggle that is,” she told me.

Detroiters have already given up a lot, and, as this report clearly indicates, are going to have to put up with a lot more to save their city. But as someone who also was born there, I somehow feel that the city is going to find a way to do precisely that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.