February 28, 2014 at 11:09 am

Daniel Howes

Temper optimism for Detroit with reality

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Leave it to the guy who wrote the book on Detroit’s implosion to lay a proverbial wet blanket on building enthusiasm for where the city is headed, bankruptcy or not.

But there was Thomas Sugrue, author of “Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-war Detroit,” warning that the city’s latest effort at revival “will not be easy.” Nor will overcoming divides cleaved by history; nor burying the record of racial polarization; nor building a different Detroit on the rubble of de-industrialization and dysfunctional public education.

“If Detroit is left to fend for itself, it will face troubles,” Sugrue, the David Boies professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference Thursday. “Region matters now more than ever. Detroit does not have the resources — it has the will — to go it alone.”

A downer? Sort of, notwithstanding a distinctly audible ring of truth. For all the promise rising from new leadership, a financial restructuring in Chapter 9 bankruptcy and billions in corporate investment in downtown and Midtown, the harsh reality is that Detroit’s comeback is likely to be a fraught series of steps forward and back.

How could it be otherwise for a city whose population crested around 1950 and has been declining ever since? It’s a cliche, but 60 years of decline, disinvestment, deindustrialization and the culture that made it all possible cannot easily morph into some Promised Land, whatever the hopes of boosters or the infantile demands of social media cynics lobbing potshots at the doers.

Bankruptcy is not the Next Big Thing guaranteed to deliver Detroit 2.0. Nor is Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and his turbo-charged powers. Nor is Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, his fat wallet and insatiable appetite for downtown real estate. Nor is Mayor Mike Duggan and a City Council that may be — gasp! — showing signs of actually working together.

No, Detroit today is each of those, and a whole lot more, helping to drive a process beginning to demonstrate change in the city. It’s business and the philanthropic community; it’s the fruit of restructuring and criminal investigations; it’s a rejuvenated cultural sector and burgeoning entertainment; it’s new municipal management and Chapter 9 bankruptcy; it’s Republicans in state government and Democrats in the federal government.

Dave Egner, CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and executive director of the New Economy initiative, calls it “alignment,” a confluence of influential forces and new leaders combining with a very rare commodity now available on the streets of Detroit: market demand.

An influx of full-time employees downtown is making Class-A rental space almost impossible to find. Office space of appreciable size in the core business district is in short supply. Retail is poised to pop, new projects are moving ahead, and Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration is demonstrating a bias for business.

“There may not be a better time to come to Detroit than right now,” said Tom Wilson, CEO of Olympia Entertainment. “We’re alive, and we’re open for business.”

True enough, and it feels like it. Check the buzz inside Motor City Casino, site of the policy conference. Did you hear the mayor last night in State of the City, several asked. He didn’t sound like the usual vague platitudes; he sounded like a guy ready to make decisions, take action and show results.

This is a consequential time for Detroit. Bankruptcy likely will produce a smaller city government that does less with fewer people. Business investment and philanthropic support are creating hubs of activity and commerce that many, including Detroiters here and in the ’burbs, thought they would never see again.

All good. But it’s not sufficient for Detroit, anymore than it has proven to be in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Sugrue warns that “hipsterification” is a “false hope” because “such enclaves by and large don’t play a significant role in urban revitalization because they don’t scale up.”

The glitz of downtown newness and Midtown style can easily mask the scale of problems stretching across 139 square miles that include neighborhoods still untouched by revitalization and enthusiasm. Detroiters live there, too.

Optimism unhinged from reality is dreaming. The arc of Detroit’s downward spiral is more complicated and more discomfiting than oversimplified narratives shifting blame, one of this region’s favorite pastimes.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2106
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.