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Detroit still has some heavy lifting to do

Sep 1, 2017

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak to all the incoming students at Wayne State University.

Among many other things, I told them truthfully that I thought they were very lucky to be going to college in Detroit, which has become one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

“Think about it,” I told them. “Do you ever see Philadelphia in the news?” Detroit’s comeback is a major national story.

But it is a story that is easy to exaggerate, as others once exaggerated the depths of its hopelessness. I sometimes compare Detroit today to a premature baby in neonatal intensive care. She’s survived a difficult rebirth, but isn’t out of the woods yet.

There is still too much crime, inadequate job flow, and the schools just aren’t working in a reliable way. Recently I talked with a couple of men whose opinions I greatly respect.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon was also once Detroit’s police chief and was Mike Duggan’s main opponent in the mayoral election four years ago. He lost, but got a respectable 45 percent of the vote, and today he is anything but bitter.

In fact, this time he is supporting Duggan for reelection against Coleman Young II.

“I never thought or said at any point that Mike would be a bad mayor. I just thought I would be a better mayor,” Napoleon said with a chuckle when I talked to him yesterday.

In fact, he thinks Duggan has done very well. “He has taken on one of the toughest jobs in America, and I don’t think people realize how complex the problems are,” Napoleon said.

But he doesn’t think things are perfect. Ironically, he says, after decades when Detroit was seen as the murder capital of the world, we may not now be paying enough attention to crime.

“You hear about how awful the murder rate is in Chicago,” the sheriff told me.

Detroit’s per capita murder rate is actually almost twice as high, something Napoleon would like to see Mayor Duggan talk about more, and put additional money in the budget to hire police officers. Duggan has gotten the police to respond far more quickly, but Napoleon says they are stretched too thin to do the kind of preventative policing needed to stop crime.

If there’s a wise man in Detroit whose views don’t get enough attention, it is John Mogk, who has been a law professor at Wayne State University for almost half a century. In 1973, the year he was named one of the 10 most outstanding young men in America, he launched an innovative campaign for mayor, walking the streets of the city to connect with voters. He made a good showing, but didn’t win. He’s been active behind the scenes trying to help the city since.

Mogk believes the city really needs an updated master plan, and a comprehensive strategy for improving neighborhoods.

Assuming Mayor Duggan is reelected, Mogk said “during his second term, Mike needs to move from fixing the short-term problems to laying the long-term foundation.”

My own view is that more has to be done to reach the thousands of adults who lack skills and are largely outside the labor force.

Detroit’s next four years could be even more crucial than the last.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.