August 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

Detroit narratives don't tell real story

A Michigan-born friend who lives in New York City now loves to remind me that few cities fascinate the Big Apple and its media more than Detroit, especially once its dysfunction became the epicenter of American bankruptcy.

And more — the ruin porn of its abandoned buildings, the renaissance of its hometown auto industry, the urban chic of brands like Shinola, or the undeniably legit local food scene that proves you can eat well in the industrial Midwest, too.

All cool, those, counterpoints to the alleged evil unspooling regularly in what is the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. There, in all its politicized caricature and ugliness, are serial travesties that would be just that if viewed without the vital context they require.

You know the list: There’s an unelected emergency manager endowed with unparalleled powers. The city’s water department shuts service to deadbeats who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — pay their bills, a prelude to all-but-certain privatization. Labor contracts the city cannot sustain and pension obligations its tax base cannot support are rewritten in bankruptcy.

“The banks” responsible for luring Detroit’s leaders into deals they could not afford (but desperately wanted because the alternative seemed too hard) are getting off easy, though the facts and the historic “grand bargain” are proving otherwise. And none of this would be happening had Gov. Rick Snyder and his Republican cabal not cooked the books and precipitated a crisis that didn’t have to happen.

To which I ask this: Where have these people been? How many times has Sally Kohn, whose Daily Beast screed this week lamented that “Detroit, the political entity, is dead,” been to the city over the past, oh, decade? How often did Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor, visit to see the reality of the city, or its allegedly functioning democracy, before his moralizing post on a Times blog?

Not often, I’m guessing.

This town, in this time, is not living theory. It is experiencing reality, reckoning with 50 years of bad choices and bad economic breaks, changing demographics and feckless leadership that combined to make the Arsenal of Democracy a hollowed urban shell. If anything, the story of the past year or so is one more of hope and possibility than despair and defeat.

Detroit’s last gasp lasted the better part of a decade. Its political culture, mired in ineffectiveness, demonstrable corruption, democratic failure or all three, is a monument to the toxic combination of mismanagement, de-industrialization, capital flight and general cluelessness. Its financial management, or what passed for it before the state Treasury Department started demanding accountability, is a sick joke.

All of that, and more, is real history. So is the inability of a former mayor and City Council to deliver on a consent agreement with the state. So are the collapse of Detroit’s public schools and the continuing exodus of school-age children accelerating decline. So is the persistent scourge of violent crime; roughly 70,000 abandoned structures across the city; a chronic inability to maintain prized “assets” that are no such thing if they are allowed to fall deeper into disrepair.

That, and so much more, are the real Detroit its residents lived, Snyder saw and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr inherited when he walked in the door 17 or so months ago. Those are the circumstances that nevertheless spelled opportunity, spawning billions in private-sector investment likely to change the arc of Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy.

Less prominent in the negative hand-wringing narrative are the facts that the bankruptcy is likely to erase $7 billion in debt from the city’s books; that a disastrous Certificates of Participation pension deal likely will be unwound; that the city and its unions reached new contracts that are believed to be sustainable over the near term; that Orr, in less than two months, likely will leave the city to the new mayor and a council elected by districts for the first time since 1918.

Detroit’s civic leaders raised the equivalent of $816 million to cushion pensioners against the blow of Chapter 9, rescuing the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts from creditors. Massive construction projects along the Woodward corridor are beginning, promising to lift nearby property values and spur demand for more downtown housing, retail, restaurants and bars.

Bottom line: Today’s Detroit, idealized by too many for what it was than what it is, is a story of redemption and reckoning all at the same time — not an oversimplified conservative critique of a half-century of Democratic Party rule and stereotypically liberal policies that failed to produce as promised.

It’s more, evidence that capital, business and people will leave where they are not wanted. And that debt, empty promises and entitlement cannot be sustained without the capital, business and people to generate it.
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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.