There may come a day when self-identified Detroiters stop taking umbrage at the way outsiders regard the city, its serial dysfunctions and epic collapse. But not today.
The CBS newsmagazine, “60 Minutes,” delivered its own take to a national audience Sunday, a predictable mix of “ruin porn” and bureaucratic incompetence offset by Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s downtown buying spree and the tough decisions being made in the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
Their take: the abandoned Packard Plant looks like Dresden after Allied bombing in World War II. Many streetlights don’t work. Buses don’t run on time. Cops don’t come quickly when called, if at all. Water tanks on fire trucks leak. Blight infects neighborhoods.
“I believe that people in the city have lived with it this way for so long that maybe they don’t understand that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Jeremy Mullins, a Detroit firefighter, told CBS’ Bob Simon. Mullins is right, of course. For way too long, Detroiters either stayed and tolerated the slide from mediocrity to incompetence or they bolted — by the tens of thousands.
There’s more at work here. Gilbert’s real estate binge is transforming downtown into something modern and desirable, CBS reported. And Detroit is likely to force ugly choices between honoring constitutionally protected pensions and violating the sanctity of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ city-owned collection, a cornerstone of the city’s cultural heritage.
All of that is true. But it’s incomplete, backward-looking and mildly condescending, like so many other accounts of Detroit amid the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Where Detroit’s been is easy to recount; where it is going, even now, and how it could get there are what matter most.
Because a lot is going right. What about the successful effort to upgrade equipment for police and fire? Or the coming change in the elected leadership in City Hall? Or the new generation of business and foundation leaders — not just Gilbert — investing private capital in the city even as they raise corporate dollars to support functions of government?
What about the long overdue restructuring of the city bureaucracy, a process trying to do right what Detroit can and must afford and to privatize or sell what it cannot? Or a governor and state government more focused on fixing Detroit than at any time since at least the Milliken days? Or the feds’ crackdown on public corruption that jailed a former mayor, his cronies and continues its roll up of bad guys?
What about the soaring demand for Class A rental housing in downtown and Midtown, market-based evidence that the influx of employed taxpayers with real jobs is more than chamber of commerce hype? Or the planned retail and entertainment development around Campus Martius and the Lower Woodward corridor?
What about the fact that Detroit politics and government have been controlled by the Democratic Party and its allies in the public-sector unions for more than 50 years? Or that their preferred way of managing the steady exodus of residents, businesses and the tax revenue they generated amounted to raising prices while delivering fewer services, often badly?
As much as Detroit’s bankruptcy is focusing keen attention on the city’s plight — and the hard choices bearing down on public pensioners specifically — the Chapter 9 proceedings under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes are a trailing indicator. They show where Detroit has been the past two generations and how badly its leadership screwed up, not where the city is headed.
How those facts are interpreted means the difference between optimism for the city’s future and pessimism that Detroit never will escape its destiny of perpetual decline guaranteed years ago. The Detroit of 60 Minutes’s telling — and the conventional wisdom of its critics — is a prisoner of it past.
To a broader world disconnected from the everyday realities of the Detroit condition, nothing is done right here. Automakers botch their businesses so badly they need a federal bailout to avert extinction; unions squeeze their employers to the brink of collapse; residents elect the same kind of leaders and expect different results; employees and CEOs alike accept mediocrity.
That Detroit is disappearing quickly, a victim of its failure to manage change, embrace competition or acknowledge that the basic rules of economics apply here, too. The new Detroit emerging in autos, even the city itself, is showing one promising trait:
It’s learning from a past marked by bad decisions, entrenched entitlement and the embarrassment of decline and neglect. Ruins and incompetence are part of the Detroit today, but so are homemade opportunity and a path to rejuvenation.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.