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Life after bankruptcy: Detroit has a huge challenge ahead

Dec 11, 2014

Detroiters woke up this morning in a city run by an exuberant, can-do mayor, in a city finally out of bankruptcy and with a spirit of optimism that hasn’t been seen for at least half a century.

Indeed, in some ways Detroit today reminds me of the city more than half a century ago. Jerry Cavanagh was the city’s mayor then, as improbable a mayor as Mike Duggan is today.

Both were energetic, prematurely balding Irish-Americans who had won upset victories by appealing to black people’s hope for better lives. Both meant to accomplish great things, and attracted the attention of national media. For a time, they said that Jerry Cavanagh was John F. Kennedy’s favorite mayor.

The future looked bright.

But then everything pretty much went to hell. White flight accelerated. The young president was assassinated. Detroit was torn apart by the worst riot of the '60s. Cavanagh left office after two terms, his political career destroyed; his personal life torn by a very nasty and very public divorce. Detroit continued a downward spiral.

Cavanagh didn’t live to see most of it; he was dead of a heart attack at 51. Finally came the emergency manager, and bankruptcy.

Today, that part of the nightmare is over. For the last year and a half, everything has, for once, gone better than expected. The residents developed a grudging respect, even affection, for emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who finally left yesterday.

The city came out of bankruptcy with more assets and hope than anyone believed possible when this all started. Soon after it all started, the city’s black voters elected Mike Duggan, a nakedly ambitious white mayor from the suburbs, for one reason: They thought he was the man who could get the job done.

So far, their faith seems to have been justified. The streetlights are coming on. Crime, especially murder, is down. The mayor nobody expected has even found a way to work with city council.

What’s happened in the last year and a half has been terrifically hard and has gone extremely well.

Yet the sobering news is that this was the easy part. Detroit has nearly a million fewer people than Jerry Cavanagh’s Detroit.

The inhabitants are largely poorly skilled, poorly educated, and just plain poor. There are not enough jobs and still no really efficient public transportation.

Detroit public schools are a wretched mess, and Gov. Rick Snyder accurately noted yesterday that a series of emergency managers has utterly failed. When the governor said that, Mayor Duggan, with admirable common sense, immediately said he had neither any interest in running the schools nor any time to do so.

True. But without schools a parent can responsibly choose, Detroit will never be able to attract any kind of stable middle-class base of any flavor or color.

The city’s plan for staying solvent and moving toward prosperity is based on a wing, prayers, baling wire, string, and no recession or further drop in revenue sharing.

Yet the mayor has a vision, and the powers in Lansing as well as in the 'hood want him and the city to succeed. The story is now going to be one of near-constant struggle.

But you have to admit that sure beats hopeless despair.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. 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.