Once upon a time, the United States of America was in even worse shape, on paper at any rate, than Detroit is today. Unemployment was spiraling out of control; the people were desperate, the housing stock rotting and increasingly abandoned.
They called that the Great Depression. Violence and crime were increasing, and there was a growing sense the system might fall apart. Seventy-one years ago this week, a new president addressed his frightened people. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said. He didn’t attempt to deny how bad things were. He faced the mess squarely, and told the people they would find a way out together.
That is the sort of speech — laced with gusts of bracing honesty — Detroit needed from its mayor last week. The city is in a sad mess, and getting worse by the day.
What they got instead sounded like Kay Everett on inhalants. “Together we will dare mighty things. Mighty things are not easy. Mighty things take time. I love Detroit. Together we will grow Detroit,” the boy mayor intoned.
Yes, well, it ain’t growing, captain. Unemployment has more than doubled in the last four years, to an official 14-plus percent, though that doesn’t count the legions of “discouraged workers” who have given up, a few of whom are spending this bitter winter tucked into little nests under freeway overpasses on the Lodge.
Infant mortality is more than twice the national average. The partial economic comeback the city made in the 1990s is fast ebbing away, Comerica economist David Littmann tells me, and those who can afford to leave are still fleeing. Homicides are way up. Even the mayor had to take notice when two young cops were brutally slaughtered in their police cruiser last month while checking some young punk’s driver’s license.
Later, when he was arrested (he hadn’t bothered to retrieve his license) he reportedly mumbled it was “a mistake.” But nobody — not media or mayor — bothered to ask whether it was a mistake to allow this creature to roam around with a weapon of mass destruction in his pants. Was this a legal weapon? An illegal one?
Who knows? Who cares? What difference does it make? We all know the moral criminals who run the National Rifle Association control our lawmakers and make any sane policy changes impossible. Why waste time banging our heads against the wall?
Accept that we are powerless to change a culture of death. Today, our leaders are united in the belief that in the war on gun violence, the guns have won.
Little, if any, of this is Kwame Kilpatrick’s fault. But pretending that the city is not a mess is. Increasingly, it seems that the mayor isn’t really interested in the plight of the average Detroiter. There wasn’t even lip service paid to the folks he supposedly was running to help three years ago, the people who live in the neighborhoods amid collapsing houses and long-dead streetlights, trying desperately to live normal lives.
His honor, the son of the fur-coat-wearing congresswoman, uttered not a word about them when he announced a few weeks ago that what Detroit needed most was a brand-new convention center. Detroit’s dwindling common folk were also largely ignored during his long and self-indulgent State of the City address.
However, the rich and powerful were not. Imagine, for a moment, this wild scenario: Detroit’s elected leaders all go to a Pistons game (not that unusual) and Oakland County is destroyed by an earthquake. Desperate, what is left of the power structure summon yours truly from my Wayne State University office to run things.
Having taken the oath, I announce that what Detroit needs most is a new police headquarters to replace its dilapidated, 80-year-old structure. To replace it, I have decided to buy an immense 91-year-old ruin from a shadowy businessman who hasn’t kept his word to the city before. I won’t tell you what we are going to pay him for it.
Matter of fact, I haven’t even talked to City Council, which has to approve the money. They just damn well better do it. What will it cost to renovate this mess? I haven’t a clue, and the city does have a $120 million deficit, but, tell you what: Remember that law about hiring Detroit firms to do construction work on civic projects?
Well, screw that. What I propose to do is let the present owner, Manuel Moroun, a Grosse Pointe millionaire, and his Warren-based firm do the work instead. Forget bidding it out. We’ll depend on him to charge us a fair price.
Now, okay, I know he lied to us before. Three years ago, Moroun’s CenTra firm was hauled up before council and asked to show why they shouldn’t force him to demolish the rotting, crime-breeding hulk that was once Michigan’s premier train station.
Moroun’s firm promised to turn it into an International Trade Processing Center — which would allow Detroit to become a North American hub for trade transactions — include a cultural arts center, and spark an area of residential housing and shopping. Blueberry pie would drop from the sky daily.
Council gave him exactly six months to come back with concrete plans. Then they forgot about it. But I propose to exhibit this ancient reptile as a culture hero at the State of the City address, where he will receive thunderous applause.
Naturally, you’re thinking I would be hung from the flagpole for even suggesting such nonsense. But everything in my nutty scenario is just what the mayor did last week. City Council needs, for once, to exhibit a few vertebrae and stop this insanity. Then somebody, anybody, needs to propose a rational solution for the police station, and better yet, a long-term strategy for Detroit. We have to do better.
We can’t possibly afford to do worse.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org