State of Detroit

Feb 23, 2011

You may think I am a little crazy, but while I was listening to  Mayor Dave Bing’s State of the City address last night, what kept running through my head was an ancient rock and roll song.

An early hit called Chantilly Lace, by a now half-forgotten artist called the Big Bopper, whose main claim to fame is dying in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly more than half a century ago.

That song features a poor guy who keeps telling his girlfriend that he‘d like to do all sorts of things, except for one problem: “I ain’t got no money, honey.” Which is actually a pretty concise statement of the problem. Actually, that pretty much sums up the situation in all Michigan, with Detroit being an especially acute case.

Seventy miles away in Lansing, lawmakers spent the daylight hours yesterday considering Governor Rick Snyder’s proposed spending cuts. There’s a three percent cut to Community Health Programs. A forty percent cut to graduate medical education. Cuts to revenue sharing, cuts to schools, cuts that will affect Detroit and other cities like a blow falling on a bruise.

Some legislators raised objections.

They spoke of the pain this would cause, and the long-term damage it would do to people and the state itself. But the answers from the administration were variations on the Big Bopper’s theme. In nuanced, professional and bureaucratic words, they told lawmakers like Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib, “We ain’t got no money, honey.”

There’s little doubt in anybody’s mind of that. Then last night, the mayor took the stage at the Max Fisher Music Hall. The venue itself was ironically symbolic. To get inside, you had to cross a picket line supporting musicians from now what may be the former Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The season was finally canceled last weekend after a long strike. And frankly, it isn’t clear to me if Detroit will ever have a symphony again. Incidentally, both sides agreed that the musicians would have to take a massive pay cut. The impasse was over how massive. This is no longer Walter Reuther’s Detroit.

The mayor, in keeping with the kind of man he is, gave a dignified speech, as optimistic as he could honestly be. “We are a work in progress,” he said. It made me wonder how different things might be had Bing succeeded Dennis Archer, another honest and intelligent man, in 2002. But instead, Detroit had to endure six years of plunder. Mayor Bing said he believes his city has turned a corner. In one sense, that is true. It is no longer a government of thieves.

But neither is it one that can balance its books, and the governor’s budget makes things that much harder. As the mayor said, with the governor in the audience, the budget “has potentially devastating consequences for Detroit. It threatens the fragile gains we have made, and we simply can‘t afford it.”

It’s easy to imagine the governor giving him the Big Bopper’s answer. Elsewhere in Lansing yesterday, other lawmakers toiled away on new Emergency Financial Manager legislation.

Everybody expects Michigan is going to see a lot more of these. Whether one will someday be in charge of Detroit is something no one yet wants to try to say.