Opinion
8:45 am
Wed July 31, 2013

The U.P.'s view of Detroit

Lessenberry commentary for 7/31/2013

Michigan may be, in many ways, the most diverse state in the union. California and Texas are much larger. Alaska is out-of-the world vast, though fewer people live there than in Macomb County.

Yet only Michigan has two distinct peninsulas, which feel in many ways like separate states. Yet they are not. Today I am in Marquette, a pretty little city on Lake Superior, which for more than a century has been a major site for shipping iron ore.

If the Upper Peninsula were a separate state, which Yoopers sometimes grumble it should be, Marquette would be its capital. But it would be a small one. Though it seems bigger, Marquette has fewer than twenty-two thousand people. It is nearly five hundred miles from Detroit, but seems much further away. When they talk about ethnic minorities here, they tend to mean those who came from Finland.

There are a scattering of African and Asian Americans, many of whom came to town when this was home to a major Air Force base in the days of the Cold War. But that closed in 1995, which hurt both diversity and the local economy.

Today, though mining still goes on, governments are the biggest employers. Last night I spent some time with Tom Baldini, who former Governor Jim Blanchard used to call the unofficial governor of the UP. I asked him if people in Marquette resented the state’s preoccupation with the troubles of Detroit. Not really, said Baldini, a longtime educator and top aide to former Congressman Bart Stupak. What he said was exasperating was the vast attention given to the bizarre problems of New York’s Anthony Weiner.

“It was interesting for a day, but come on,” he said. The Upper Peninsula may, in some ways, be more like the Detroit area than people in either place think. Unemployment is a bigger problem in both than it is in Grand Rapids, say, or Ann Arbor.

Like Detroit, this is a place whose key industry has seen better days. For Baldini, a former economics teacher, one problem is that the Snyder Administration wants to treat the UP as a single region.

“We’re not. We are three distinct regions. It is a five and a half hour drive from Ironwood to Sault St. Marie,” he said. “They have nothing in common.” In some ways, Marquette may have a few things to teach Detroit. The city has gentrified its lake front, and put in pretty condos where warehouses for iron pellets once stood.

They have begun to fill with retirees, especially after CBS called this one of the best retirement places in the nation. Yet it is a world apart. I talked to a server in Doncker’s, a century-old restaurant and candy shop which is proud that President Obama visited there two years ago. An intelligent woman working on a masters’ in psychology, she seemed sympathetic to Detroit’s problems, and in mild awe that I was brave enough to live near there.

She told me she wasn’t comfortable south of the bridge, though she had once gone almost as far as Flint.

“Never again if I can help it,” she told me. Later, watching the summer sun set over Lake Superior, I understood what she meant.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.