The Mess in Detroit

Jun 29, 2011

What if, back in the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had exploded an atom bomb in Detroit? Let’s say that two-thirds of the people were eliminated.

Even a higher percentage of jobs were lost. Land was left polluted; tens of thousands of buildings dilapidated and vacant, and the school system was essentially ruined. What would we do?

Well, I think the answer is clear. If something like that had happened in the early 1950s, both state and federal authorities would have responded with a massive outpouring of aid. Blighted areas would have been cleaned up, Buildings rebuilt. Detroiters who came through all this would have been battle-scarred but immensely proud.

Well, it’s more than half a century later, and while no nuclear device has gone off, much of Detroit does in fact look like it has gone through a war. Maybe not a nuclear war, but parts of it could easily have been pounded by allied bombers during World War II. 

The population is largely poor, undereducated, jobless and desperate. Yet there is no massive outpouring of aid. Mostly, there’s just a collective shrug of our shoulders. People who live in Grand Rapids don’t want to think about Detroit. Some of them act as if it didn’t even exist. What is even more bizarre is that some people in the Grosse Pointes and Birmingham act the same way.

They know that it is no longer socially permissible to say that Detroit is beyond help because its inhabitants are virtually all black and don’t share the cultural values other Americans have, most notably, the work ethic. They don’t say that, but many think it.

That’s not to deny that some Detroiters, including some recent former leaders, haven’t behaved as though they wanted to fulfill the worst stereotypes. But the craziest idea of all is that Michigan can have a prosperous future with its major city a hopeless ruin.

Right now a baffling drama is playing out in Detroit. The mayor wants to spend more money than the city council says is realistic.

They cut his proposed budget, which has to be balanced and passed no later than tomorrow night by $50 million dollars. He offered a compromise if they restored $30 million. The council said no, but offered to restore $20 million.

That apparently caused the mayor to have what looked like a temper tantrum.

He now says he won’t negotiate with council anymore. Instead, he will lay off policemen and firemen, and stop mowing the grass in city parks.

The summer festivals at Hart Plaza that attract hundreds of thousands will be canceled; neighborhood swimming pools won’t open, recreation centers will be closed and Sunday bus service suspended. Some of that sounds like a recipe for social unrest.

But regardless, neither the mayor nor the council is behaving in a manner designed to make people want to live in Detroit. Sometime in the next day or so, they may reach a compromise.

If so, and the festivals are restored, most of us will soon largely forget about the city again, at least till the next crisis.

But Detroit will still be a city with mind-boggling problems and too little money to cope with them. And ignoring this does no one in Michigan any good.