Commentary: Detroit on the brink

Mar 1, 2013

Yesterday, when I learned that the governor would come to Detroit today to announce his decision, I felt sadness and relief.

Everyone had known for weeks this was coming. Most of the politicians, including all the current candidates for mayor, remain opposed to the idea of an emergency manager.

But all or nearly all knew this day was inevitable, and even a few of those publicly denouncing the governor’s decision must be secretly relieved. The other shoe has finally dropped.

Difficult times are coming. But at least we are going to see change in the city, drastic changes in the way business is done.

After Great Britain came through one crisis early in World War II, Winston Churchill said, “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it may perhaps be the end of the beginning.” We are at the end of something now in Detroit, and at the beginning of something else.

Detroit has had plenty of rough times before, stretching back 208 years. That was when, on a lovely June day, one of Detroit’s bakers knocked out his pipe into a pile of straw. The fire that followed destroyed the entire town, every building except a warehouse.

Total disaster. But, as the town’s preeminent priest, Father Gabriel Richard said at the time, Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” meaning, “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes. Which Detroit did indeed.

A member of the territorial governing board named Judge Woodward came up with a new plan calling for a system of wide streets and smaller ones radiating outward like spokes on a wheel.

That replaced the tiny, cramped, haphazard streets that was Detroit before the fire. In the end, the disaster was a blessing that helped the city to become what it one day would be.

There have been other low points in Detroit’s history. The city was a corrupt mess in the late 19th century. A crooked city council diverted city funds to shady contractors.

Then an astonishing reform mayor named Hazen Pingree took office and cleaned the city up. He got the roads paved, utility rates lowered and a public lighting plant built, even as his enemies called him a dictator and a socialist.

In the 1930s Detroit had an unemployment rate that topped 40 percent. Families lived in parks. Banks closed, and there was no cash. The city survived that too.

That’s not to minimize what Detroit now faces. The city is drowning in debt; there isn’t even agreement on the exact size of the problem. It is hard to see how any financial manager can deliver all the services Detroiters need and expect.

There simply isn’t any money. Nor is the state likely to make much available. Yet the city needs to start over, and we have to try. We all have to try to turn Detroit into a place that is first solvent, then a success.

As the city’s Latin motto still says, we hope for better things. Even now, the downtown and the midtown are in far better shape than they once were. Let’s hope the day soon comes when Detroit again starts rising from the ashes.      

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