Well, the tall ships have sailed away, and Stevie Wonder has gone home, wherever that is. We’ve been through another clever re-enactment of the sudden arrival of Tony Laumet, a party-crasher who took to calling himself Cadillac.
So … now what?
Frankly, it would be easy to be snarky and cynical. It would be even easier to point out all the terrible problems, especially compared to the last really big blowout a half-century ago.
But that would be wrong. The celebration was worth it, if only because it served to remind us that we’ve been through a lot, good and bad, and that there was a city called Detroit long before there was a United States of America.
We’ve burned ourselves down more than once, fought with outsiders and each other, traded languages, battled change and been on the cutting edge of it.
More importantly, people ought also to have noticed that plenty of folks a long way and long years from the city limits still think of themselves as Detroiters, including Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps.
Hopefully, a few million folks in the suburbs realized they are too. Nobody in Orion Township or Grosse Ile tells people in New York they are from those places. They are Detroiters.
Those places exist because of what a new book called “the forgotten city of the straits.” They wouldn’t be anything more than insignificant towns or goat pastures if it weren’t for Detroit.
Detroit today has massive problems, which everyone — wrongly, I think — took great pains to downplay last week.
For years, it’s been fashionable to blame Coleman Young for everything wrong. Truth is, he stayed too long and was occasionally a demagogue. But when I think of all the problems the city has, I often think of the blinding truth of what he said of the night he was first elected mayor in 1973.
“On one hand, it was a preposterous, impossible dream come true, an only-in-America kind of thing. On the other hand, I knew that this had only happened because my fortune was the direct result of my city’s misfortune … I was taking over the administration of Detroit because the white people didn’t want the damn thing anymore. They were getting the hell out.”
Yes, they were. Not all of them. There are heroes like Jim McHale, a retired tool-and-die worker born not far from Tiger Stadium in 1928. He’s stayed in the city his whole life, except when he went off to fight for his country in Korea.
He and his wife Dolores could have left, but didn’t, and for years used their video camera to drive the hookers and johns away from their east side neighborhood. But most did leave, taking money made here and scuttling across the border to avoid paying for the problems. Today, there are many thousands who actually believe they owe nothing to Detroit, when their families wouldn’t have been anything without it.
Forget moral responsibility. What those outside the city all at least ought to see is that our net worth and quality of life, even out in the Bloomies, all would be a lot higher if Detroit City were a lot better off. Not to mention that anyone near a ticking time bomb is bound to be affected if and when it goes off.
Now — this is not leading up to a “liberal” plea to throw more money at the city and those who run it. That’s been tried. What we have to do instead, however, is figure out regional strategies for dealing with poverty and urban sprawl and the blighted environment and water, and lots else.
No, that doesn’t mean busing, though it would be nice if we found other ways to share educational resources. What it does mean is some form of mass transit, and sensibly shared revenues.
What I would recommend is that everyone concerned — the mayoral candidates, the county executives, the state legislators — go to Charlevoix, lock themselves in their rooms and read David Rusk’s Inside Game/Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Saving Urban America, just coming out now in paperback.
Then get together and talk. Figure these things out. Here’s news for the black folks who run Detroit: Not every idea white suburbanites have is wrong.
Whether or not you approve of the Legislature’s takeover of the Detroit Public Schools, the brutal fact is that your politicians and board members bear a vast responsibility for destroying them.
Whether or not black Detroiters can get past their resentment at suburban whites for a century of slights, and for taking the money and running, the brutal fact is, without suburban help and cooperation and money, Detroit is only going to get worse.
But we can make Detroit worth living in again. Again, if we want to. And we really should too, if only — just to put it in solid Detroit terms — to give the finger to all those assholes who think there’s no way this city can ever come back.
Hell, we’ve always been a rough, brawling bunch, part adventurer, part roughneck, part of us posing, just like ol’ Cadillac, who was really about as aristocratic as a ’68 Chevy.
We’ve fooled them before. Nobody in 1901 imagined the boom that created 1951; nobody in 1951 imagined the bust. But just think: If you’d told the city fathers a century ago that by 2000 we’d have 971,000 people, and automobiles and flush toilets everywhere, they’d have been thrilled. It isn’t over till it’s over. And if we ever get it together, this city may kick some serious butt yet. We really are all that.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org