Detroit’s comeback needs to include those left behind in the city

May 19, 2014

For the past year, for the first time in decades, people in the suburbs, in Lansing, and across America are thinking about Detroit.

Everybody has had to face that Detroit is broken, hopelessly in debt, largely a shattered ruin, and that city services, the schools and so much else doesn’t work.

For many years, everyone knew things were bad, but nobody did much about it.

The political class running the city denied the extent of the problem and did not welcome outside intervention. The rest of us mostly said, fine.

Now, however, things are very different.

Young suburbanites of the sort who used to be called yuppies or buppies have flooded into Detroit’s Midtown, along the Woodward Avenue corridor near Wayne State University. Rents have skyrocketed. 

These folks have revitalized the city’s only synagogue and started new bakeries, restaurants and microbreweries. Last weekend, a thousand volunteers showed up to plant trees on a 150 acres of mainly vacant land on Detroit’s desolate East Side.

This week, there will be a major effort in the Legislature to firm up support for a plan to have the state contribute a lump sum of about $195 million to the bankruptcy settlement.

Meanwhile, teams have been documenting every parcel of land in the city, to be able to come up with some hard numbers on just how blighted these properties are.

Both Mayor Mike Duggan and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr are trying to improve services and get more police on the street.

There are hundreds of thousands of Detroiters ill-equipped to take part in any renaissance.

These are all very healthy developments, as are the seemingly innumerable visions for Detroit’s future.

But here’s what I most worry about. 

There are hundreds of thousands of Detroiters ill-equipped to take part in any renaissance. They are barely literate; they do not have job skills, they do not have the social skills needed in the workplace.

Many are not even in the labor force. They aren’t about to die off, and they aren’t going to move away.

Something has to be done to reach and or teach them. This is a problem we mainly ignore, except when we are forced to face it. 

As in last month, when a tree trimmer from the suburbs got out of his truck and was savagely beaten almost to death by a pack of hoodlums on the street.

Former City Council member Sheila Cockrel knows Detroit as well as anyone.

Not long ago, discussing all the bright young professionals swarming into the city, she told me “all it would take to end this is one car driving down the street and hosing them with an AK-47.” 

These days, we hear politicians say “government can’t create jobs,” as though that were a law of nature. But that isn’t true.

What if we were to create a program like the New Deal-era WPA and put otherwise unemployable people to work cleaning up rubble and vacant lots, and maybe learning some job skills?

Figuring out how to structure it would take some time, and all this would indeed cost money, but my guess is that doing nothing will continue to cost us much, much more.