There was an interesting song written back in 1967 called “It’s a Strange World that We Live in, Master Jack”. Imagine writing that without even having lived in Detroit in 2013!
“You took a colored ribbon from out of the sky,
And taught me how to use it as the years went by,
To tie up all your problems and make them look neat,
And then to sell them to people on the street.”
Hmmm ….tie up all your problems to make them look neat. I don’t think we’ve quite done that in Detroit. Detroit is about to become the biggest city ever to go belly up, or at least to be termed “financially insolvent.” The leading candidate for mayor just got knocked off the ticket on a technicality and the city council is disappearing before our very eyes. For some inexplicable reason we’ve had the highest gasoline prices in the continental U.S. We have a jail under construction and on hold in the heart of the city that’s about $200 million over budget, and in a location that surely could have been used for something more beneficial to a city center than a jail.
Wayne County is providing outlandish pensions to people who are neither old enough nor talented enough to have earned them. We’re about to get $3 billion from the state to widen two expressways that hardly have enough traffic to fill them now. Is that really the best use of $3 billion for Detroit? We’ve booted two judges from the bench and sent them to jail while another is awaiting censure for having an affair with a witness in a case before him and also for mailing pictures of his shirtless self to an employee in the Wayne County Sheriff’s office. Huh?! And, of course, our ex-mayor is still in jail awaiting final sentencing for racketeering, conspiracy and other random acts of city hall corruption.
It sure as hell is a strange world that we live in Master Jack! Especially here in Detroit.
But wait! There’s good news, too, and lots of it.
According to Business Insider, Detroit is “on the verge of an epic comeback” with huge auto industry gains in both sales and quality, a big and consistent increase in housing sales and prices, increasing payrolls (especially in manufacturing), increased jobs in technology, winning sports teams and the recent naming of the city by Sporting News as “the greatest sports city of all time.” And this was even before the Ilitch family announced the new $650 million arena district or Max Scherzer pitched his 11th straight winning game.
Oh, yes, and a native son cared enough about his home town and the place where his mother worked to put up the $142,000 to save the Masonic Temple from foreclosure. Thank you, Jack White! (White’s too young to have been the “Master Jack” in the song title but there’s no reason he couldn’t fill that role now.)
As I’ve written so often in this space, Detroit is about as interesting a place as there is on the map. But being interesting and being successful are two very different things. The Detroit Lions were sort of “interesting” for more than half a century.
How can the City of Detroit get past just being “interesting” and get back to being successful?
Bankruptcy or financial insolvency may actually be a start, certainly interesting as heck but hopefully the start of being successful, too. At least the word is out for all the world to hear and we’re finally being forced to do something about the city’s financial mess. There will undoubtedly be some real pain for the city itself, for its residents, and unfortunately for thousands of pensioners who spent their lives working for the city and who, through no fault of their own, are the primary victims, along with the city’s creditors, of decades of fiscal mismanagement. They’ll feel the most pain and deserve whatever consideration they can be given.
Eventually the financial veil will be lifted, the clouds will disperse, and Detroit will be able to focus on its future for the first time in way too long. We can all stop looking back at how big and how important our two million inhabitants and our shiny new cars were to the world 50 years ago and focus instead on the 715,000 souls we are today and how we can grow together to a better and more successful future tomorrow. We can focus on our expanding technology base, our research-laden Lansing to Rochester university corridor, our location within 300 miles of 46 million people, our wealth of outstanding medical facilities, our at long last regional approach to transportation and governance, our springing back to life downtown, and, finally, water, water, water, the probable ultimate answer to Michigan’s long-term future success.
But there is one area that most agree still needs to improve before the city can become truly successful.
Detroit likes to think of itself as “America’s Melting Pot” and in some ways we are. We have large populations of a variety of races and religions – African American, Caucasian, Indian, Eastern European, Catholics, Jews, Muslims – but we’ve never fully “melted.” We’ve never come together in the way we need to come together to understand and share each other’s insights and maximize our combined brainpower. We have lots of individual ethnic communities but we continue to segregate ourselves from each other. We’re assuredly getting better at getting along and because of our long multi-ethnic history we’re probably better at it than a whole lot of other communities are, but we aren’t there yet.
Now’s the time. If we can get it right and include all the players in our future planning, Detroit will be on the way to once again being interesting and successful, a true rock ‘em, sock ‘em, triumphant and successful city. No longer such a strange world, Master Jack, but one that works and can be a model for other cities to emulate. It’s within our power to make it happen.