Howes: Detroit narrative turns on redemption, change

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The hits keep coming here in Motown.

Mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert's prodigious wallet acquired 70 buildings, invested $1.2 billion in downtown real estate and is finalizing plans for a blockbuster project on the historic Hudson's site. The Ilitch family's plan for a massive arena complex is moving forward, augmented by businesses clamoring for office space.

Municipal bankruptcy cut or refinanced $10 billion of the city's $18 billion debt load. It mostly rescued public pensions, protected the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts, rallied state politicians of both parties and freed cash to improve service delivery.

The hometown automakers' booming production and sharply lower break-even points are delivering sustainable profits from the U.S. market. That's not been seen consistently here in the past 50 years, a feat that is changing market perception of the automakers and their ability to compete.

Detroit skyline as seen from Windsor.

A new Detroit narrative is emerging. The reckoning that weighed heavily on a generation and pushed this town's cornerstone institutions to the brink of collapse, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, is giving way to a new tune: With apologies to Aretha Franklin, it's called R-E-D-E-M-P-T-I-O-N.

Calm down, cynics. An online dictionary defines redemption as "the act of making something better or more acceptable." It's a journey, not a destination, that will take years to complete; but it is underway, unmistakably, buttressed by facts.

If Gilbert, and Chapter 9, and $2 billion in downtown investment, and the "grand bargain," and a retooled auto industry, and effective regional cooperation, and the lowest state unemployment rate since 2002 aren't endeavoring to make "something better or more acceptable," what are they doing?

If the influx of downtown workers, the replacement of streetlights, a broad coalition to improve city schools, revived cultural institutions, collegiality at City Hall and with Lansing aren't evidence of making "something better," what are they?

If the spate of new restaurants, bars and promised retail doesn't signal the existence of a viable markets for their goods and services; if soaring demand for urban housing and Detroit's growing reputation for a smart place to invest don't tell a more positive tale about this given-up-for-dead metropolis, what do they say?

Look, we know: Violent crime remains a serious problem, particularly in the neighborhoods. Mortgages are difficult to obtain. The city, less than three months out of bankruptcy, has yet to demonstrate it can hew to a tight budget or collect the revenue it is owed. Bus service is improving, but is not what it should be.

Detroit's schools are a mess, beset with too much debt, too many buildings, too high costs and not nearly enough revenue-producing students. Nearly half the city's population is functionally illiterate. Neighborhoods remain marred by blight, despite progress removing it.

The record is mixed, no question. But considering how decidedly negative that record was for so long, the forward progress of the past few years and the momentum they are generating have long-time Detroiters figuratively smacking their foreheads in wonder. "Never thought I'd see ... ."

There are no guarantees that Mayor Mike Duggan and City Council won't descend into the petty, non-productive squabbles of yore; that the leadership of the automakers and the United Auto Workers won't squander their competitive position; that Gilbert's empire building, and the activity it spawns, will not stall; that the bipartisan cooperation between Detroit and Lansing will continue.

But the arc of change is moving upward, not down. Optimism that intractable problems — corruption, political dysfunction, managerial incompetence, business indifference — are not so intractable outweighs pessimism because the evidence of positive movement is too hard to ignore.

Today's Zeitgeist, exemplified by a mostly new generation of political and business leaders, prefers solving problems to managing them, favors plain talk over politically correct rhetoric, values results over the emptiness of good intentions.

Detroit's reckoning, often chronicled with a distinct whiff of condescension, is becoming a tale of American redemption. It had little choice: the exemplar of post-war prosperity, home to the highest per capita incomes in the nation, had to change or keep dying.

Its leaders, from the auto C-suites and City Hall to leading cultural institutions and the state Capitol, chose the former — and that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, has made all the difference.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at