The resurgence of Detroit can be seen through many lenses. Whether the city is bouncing back quickly for neighborhoods in need of revitalization after the historic bankruptcy depends on whom you talk to.
And what does the comeback look like from the perspective of those who once sat at the helm of the city’s government?
I asked two former mayors — Dennis Archer and Dave Bing — for their perspective. A third, Ken Cockrel Jr., who served as interim mayor following the resignation of Kwame Kilpatrick in 2008, could not be reached in time for publication.
Archer and Bing gave starkly contrasting views about the direction of the city under Mike Duggan. And their views on the ever-vexing question of inclusion, a dominant theme in this current dispensation, were also markedly different.
“Mayor Duggan has done a fine job,” said Archer, who served two terms from 1994-2001.
“We are doing exceedingly well given that we went through bankruptcy and came out thanks to all of our city employees, foundation community and other individuals, all of whom helped to protect real damage that could have been done to our retirees.”
Archer said Duggan had the benefit of inheriting a clean slate — taking over after the city emerged from the United States’ largest municipal bankruptcy — unlike previous mayors who came in facing numerous challenges.
“We came into office with a city having serious challenges and took on that responsibility,” Archer said.
Archer said one sticking point regarding the Duggan administration is the ongoing demolition probe, which is reportedly the subject of a federal grand jury investigation determining if crimes were committed in the appropriation of millions of federal funds.
“I’m concerned about it, I would like it resolved and beyond us as a city,” Archer said. “But we should not jump to conclusions. It’s an issue that keeps coming up on his watch, but it is not him being looked at.”
Though the demolition probe raises questions about the administration’s stewardship of federally funded programs, many city-wide conversations have focused on questions of diversity and inclusion and whether Duggan and his team have an effective plan to address those gaps.
That was, until his seminal address at the 2017 Makinac Policy Conference on the history of discrimination in Detroit housing and its impact on African-Americans and their need to be a part of the economic resurgence of the city.
On the question of black participation in today’s Detroit, Archer said:
“It is easy to say what has not been done. But people are not fact-specific. Nothing has prevented anyone from buying a building downtown. There is nothing that stops people from buying property when Dan Gilbert was buying all these buildings. It’s all relative to what people want to point out.
“It’s all kind of developments taking place downtown. There is always going to be people who will sit down and say more ought to be done.”
He said he is impressed with Duggan’s performance on inclusion.
“He certainly has a diverse and inclusive cabinet, and on the basis of investment we have seen the Paradise Valley project, which targets people of color for development,” Archer said.
Archer, 75, who is chairman of his own law practice and is also involved with various charities including fundraising for the $50-million expansion of the Motown Museum, acknowledged the debate about the need for the mayor to define an inclusive agenda.
“There is room for everyone to contribute and there is absolutely freedom of speech to criticize and point out issues because we can look back and see what areas can be improved upon,” Archer said.
“I take no back seat to diversity and inclusion.”
Dave Bing, 74, who was mayor before the city went into bankruptcy from 2009-2013, said his views about the direction of Detroit have not changed since last year, when he lambasted the lack of a strategic initiative to include blacks in the revitalization of the city.
“There is little real inclusion or real opportunities for Detroit businesses or its residents. It is critical to have diverse participation, particularly in a city that is still majority African-American. Black contractors and developers find themselves on the outside looking in. When given an opportunity, it’s miniscule,” Bing said before a business leadership conference.
While Archer sees the recently announced Paradise Valley redevelopment project downtown as an example of Duggan’s commitment to inclusion, Bing was not as effusive.
“This is just one block, with five or six black developers vying for a piece of the action,” said Bing, who also serves as chairman of the Bing Youth Institute that is helping mentor and empower young black boys. “Many African-Americans do not feel that they are part of the redevelopment or resurgence of the city.
“As much as we say or think we are inclusive, the reality is we are not. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger that could lead to a negative outcome ... a repeat of 1967. We ought not to feel comfortable about revitalization without inclusion.”
Archer and Bing agree on one thing: the need to build a strong public education system in the city.
“We absolutely need to have strong public education in Detroit. We don’t need anything that would hurt our children’s ability to compete with others around the world,” Archer said.
For Bing, “We must advocate for and support the appropriate revamping and improvement of Detroit’s educational system. Local schools should be controlled by local communities.”
Bing and Archer are like the W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington of our times, two black pioneers in history who sharply disagreed on the methods to achieve black economic progress.
Du Bois pushed for agitation in the same way Bing is publicly summoning the conscience of city and corporate leaders to make diversity a mandate. Washington hammered on self-help similar to Archer, who said that blacks too are free to buy a building in downtown Detroit, and that no one is stopping them from doing so.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.