As we know, no major city has ever been in the position Detroit is in now. What was once the Arsenal of Democracy, a proud and vibrant city of two million people, is now in bankruptcy court, asking a federal judge to let it be reborn.
The city has lost two thirds of its population and far more of its wealth. There are tens of thousands of abandoned buildings. Earlier this year, Detroit was taken over by the state, and is now being run by a state-appointed emergency manager.
City services are so bad the voters, the vast majority of them black, just elected a mayor who is a white political boss from the suburbs, in the desperate hope that he could somehow fix things. Mike Duggan clearly intends to try.
The scope of the problem is almost beyond imagining, in part because for too long, nobody was willing to admit the facts, not even to themselves. Now, the city has been forced into a rendezvous with reality.
The other night, I was invited to a dinner with some of the most powerful women in the metropolitan area. I was there with Saunteel Jenkins, the current city council president, and Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the Detroit News. None of us differed very much on the scope of the problems.
After we talked for a while, the wife of a different federal judge asked me a pointed question. Simply, is there any hope? I thought about this. Two easy answers came to mind. One, the obvious cynical one, which would be … not really.
How can you have much hope for a destroyed and blasted city, too many of its inhabitants unskilled, poor, sometimes not even literate and very often completely outside the labor force?
The other glib answer would be Pollyanna’s, or perhaps Annie’s, from the musical. The sun will come out tomorrow. We have so much wind and water and manufacturing talent something is bound to turn up soon.
Those answers, as extremely different as they are, have one thing in common: they aren’t helpful. So after I thought for a while, I said this: “Yes, there is hope. And the biggest sign of hope, in my opinion, is that we are all now talking about these things.”
For nearly half a century, Detroit has been sweeping the problems under the rug, and the media have let them get away with it. Now, however, the chickens have roosted. The jig is up, and we have no choice other than to face our problems.
We are going to have to fix Detroit, somehow, and prevent the problems from dragging the city, and the state, down the economic drain. And people are trying. They are working on innovative ways to try to save both city pensions and the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is a drive to get more police on the streets, more streetlights working, more garbage picked up for less money.
It will be a long hard slog, but pretty much everyone realizes that. Most of the old leaders have left the scene. And I think that’s good.
Detroit is on a long march. But for the first time in decades, there’s a feeling that we don’t have to be Sisyphus any more.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.