Howes: 'Let us never forget what we did,' DIA chair says

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Leave it to Gene Gargaro, the consummate diplomat who serves as chairman of the Detroit Institute of Arts, to add some sweep to a historic occasion in the museum's Great Hall:

"Let us never forget," he told a crowd of 200 that included trustees of the Ford and Kresge foundations, Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan, Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen and others associated with the grand bargain, "what we did as a team together — to help Michigan, to help Detroit and to save the DIA."

The chairman's right, of course. They and so many others — Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's team and its army of lawyers, city unions, pensioners, a Republican-controlled Legislature in Lansing — defied the experts and their own past to devise a "grand bargain" that bolstered pensions, rescued the city-owned art collection and exited bankruptcy in less than 17 months.

This in a Democratic town known for its epic confrontation, its us vs. them vibe, its labor vs. management battles, its city vs. suburb whines, its Detroit vs. Everybody T-shirts. This in a town whose chronic (and well-chronicled) inability to reckon with its decline and dysfunction defied prescription or reconciliation — until, well, now.

The experts were wrong. Detroit's bankruptcy, the largest of its kind in American history, didn't devolve into the five-year war Duggan says he feared would further hollow out the city, effectively rendering revitalization impossible. Instead, the epicenter of industrial and urban decline is emerging as a model for the possible.

"We've been able to focus on the city because the financial issues are dealt with," Duggan said. "We're rebuilding the neighborhoods because we have time to think about it."

It would be easy — in fact, for many it already is — to cynically dismiss celebrations like the one that unspooled Tuesday, beginning in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History before moving to dinner at the DIA. More glad-handing and smiles; more gracious remarks from Gargaro, and Snyder, and Darren Walker, CEO of the Ford Foundation and host of the evening.

But the cynics would be misguided, if not flat-out wrong. In just a few short years, leadership, opportunity, circumstance and Chapter 9 bankruptcy shifted the arc of Detroit; who did it is less important than how and what they did. Decades of downward momentum are giving way to optimism and possibility — two sentiments seldom uttered in the same sentence with Detroit.

Until now. The mayor can run the city, pushing to improve its dilapidated operations, instead of worrying whether his CFO can pay the bills and make payroll. In two weeks, the city will close the books with a balanced budget — its first in 13 years. Within four weeks, streetlights in all of the city's neighborhoods are expected to be replaced, ahead of schedule.

Considered in the context of Detroit's long history of operational incompetence and financial mismanagement, those are huge accomplishments. Huge, if not sufficient; the point is that the forward motion, the results and the accountability make the Detroit story more than feel-good hype signifying nothing.

They make it, um, real. Real people opening real businesses and paying real taxes. Real would-be residents driving demand for new downtown housing. Real families buying real homes reclaimed from the wrecking ball. Real cops and real EMTs answering calls far more quickly than just a few years ago.

It feels different, in fact, tone and narrative. A grand rebuilding and reimagining is underway, fueled as much by disciplined management at City Hall as the business and philanthropic capital aimed at the city, its entrepreneurs and its neighborhoods — not just a bustling downtown corridor.

It feels the same, too. For every kudo heaped on the grand bargain, or thanks for the generosity of the foundations, or recognition of the shrewdness of Snyder and the state Legislature, or acknowledgment of mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert's multi-billion Detroit bet, there is nagging doubt that not enough is changing fast enough, that real people will continue to pay a price for a financial collapse mostly not of their making.

Their stories are real and should not be minimized or overshadowed by moderately swanky parties touting philanthropy and teamwork. They're not, as Walker pointedly remarked: "It was the workers and the retirees who helped make it come off. You are the heroes."

There are many others, as Rosen, the bankruptcy's chief federal mediator, is fond of saying. The test of their mettle, whether Detroit's second chance is sustainable or not, will come when the process of reinvention hits the difficult patches or personalities it certainly will.

"The real test of the city is not the bankruptcy," Duggan said. "The real test of the city is can we manage going forward" — and remembering the harsh lessons of a reckoning that cannot be repeated.

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