Monday, February 02, 2009

Broken Record on Detroit

Broken Record on Detroit: The powers du jure of the City of Detroit have been repeating endless mantras about rebirth for the last 50 years. The Lions have been talking about "restoring the roar" for the last 50 years. And I have been hammering Detroit mercilessly on this site for the last 3 or 4 years. It's all a broken record and you are probably getting sick of it. There's nothing I can do about the Lions or the City, but I should probably lay off for a couple of months in the interest of not boring you to death. But permit me one more rant...

My problem is that I want to scream when I read some of the profoundly delusional opinions on Detroit -- the same things that have been said in various ways for the last half-century to no effect whatsoever, yet people keep repeating them. The latest overarching case-in-point comes from Detroit's favorite celebrity writer and hometown hero Mitch Albom via Sports Illustrated. I'm afraid I'm going to have to rip into it:

"There's a little too much glee in the Detroit jokes these days. A little too much flip in the wrist that tosses dirt on our coffins. We hear a Tennessee player tell the media that the Thanksgiving win didn't mean much because "it was just Detroit." We hear Jay Leno rip our scandalous former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, by saying, "The bad news is, he could be forced out of office. The good news is, any time you get a chance to get out of Detroit, take it."

We hear Congress tongue-lash our auto executives for not matching the cheaper wages of foreign car companies. We hear South Carolina senator Jim DeMint tell NPR that "the barnacles of unionism" must be destroyed at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Barnacles? Barnacles are parasites without a conscience. Sounds more like politicians to us.

Enough, we want to say. The Lions stink. We know they stink. You don't have to tell us. Enough. The car business is in trouble. We know it's in trouble. We drive past the deserted parking lots of empty auto plants every day.

Enough. We don't need more lofty national newspaper laments on the decay of a Rust Belt city. Or the obligatory network news piece, "Can Detroit Be Saved?" For too long we have been the Place to Go to Chronicle the Ugly. Example: For years, we had a rash of fires the night before Halloween -- Devil's Night. And like clockwork, you could count on TV crews to fly in from out of town in hopes of catching Detroit burning. Whoomf. There we were in flames, on network TV. But when we got the problem under control, when city-sponsored neighborhood programs helped douse it, you never heard about that. The TV crews just shrugged and left."

Unbelievable. What an enormous load of tripe. And the fact is, sentiment like that has been a rallying point for Detroiters for decades. Read through the entire article. It all comes down to "It's not fair" and "People are picking on us" and "Nobody talks about the good stuff". Then we get to the punch line:

"Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won't have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole?"

So let me see if I have this straight: Everyone is mistaken, Detroit is really a fine place with lots of good stuff; and even if it's not you shouldn't talk about it; and even if you do talk about it you should realize that Detroit is just a victim of circumstance, and you could be too one day if your city is ineptly governed as Detroit has been for decades on end. Unbelievable.

Mitch Albom is a paradigmatic sentimentalist. He sells billions of books with maudlin storylines that really tug at the heartstrings. I say that in admiration, by the way: all successful writing in any venue or genre takes talent, and Mitch's talent for goosing your emotions is second to none. But -- and this is the key thing I am trying to get across -- sentiment don't feed the bulldog. Detroit has fought the world using sentiment as its primary weapon for fifty years and look at the results. People who live in Detroit, who experience the reality of it -- not just the view from afar or the words in the press -- have been fleeing like Cubans in a boat lift.

Mitch thinks he is doing good by bucking up the fine folks of Detroit but we have long passed the point where bucking up is damaging. I do not know how to fix Detroit. In fact, I suspect it cannot be fixed, that it must simply die. That is mere supposition, of course. There may be people out there with the ideas and energy to save the City. I will guarantee you that if there are, the decisions and the actions they will have to take are draconian, cold-hearted, and hard-headed. How can anyone pedaling such a painful strategy compete with the uplifting prose of hope from Mitch Albom.

For a clearer, more honest picture read Matt Labash's stunning elegy from the Weekly Standard:

"Its recently resigned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, he of the Kangol hats and five-button suits, now wears jailhouse orange as he's currently serving a four-month sentence as part of a plea agreement for perjuring himself regarding an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, which yielded soupy love-daddy text messages that would make Barry White yak in his grave. Those in Detroit who are neither recipients of sweetheart contracts nor Kilpatrick family members on the city payroll at inflated salaries think he got off easy. Because what led to the perjury was concealing an $8.4 million payout from city coffers to settle a whistleblower suit brought by cops who'd been fired for investigating, among other things, the murder of a stripper named Strawberry who, prior to her death, was allegedly beat up by Kilpatrick's wife when she caught her entertaining her husband.

In a city often known as the nation's murder capital, with over 10,000 unsolved murders dating back to 1960, the police are in shambles through cutbacks and corruption trials. (They have a profitable sideline, though, as one of the nation's largest gun dealers, having sold 14 tons of used weapons out-of-state.) Their response times are legendarily slow. Their crime lab is so inept that it has been closed. One Detroit man found police so unresponsive when trying to turn himself in for murder that he hopped a bus to Toledo and confessed there instead.

Detroit schools haven't ordered new textbooks in 19 years. Students have reported having to bring their own toilet paper. Teachers have reported bringing hammers to class for protection. Declining enrollment has forced 67 school closures since 2005 (more than a quarter of the city's schools). The graduation rate is 24.9 percent, the lowest of any large school district in the country. Not for nothing did one frustrated activist start pelting school board members with grapes during a meeting. She probably should've reached for something heavier.

An internal audit, which was 14 months late, estimates next year's city deficit to be as high as $200 million (helped along by $335,000 embezzled from the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion). With a dwindling tax base--even the city's three once-profitable casinos are seeing a downturn in revenues (the Greektown Casino is in bankruptcy)--the city has kicked around every money-making scheme from selling off ownership rights to the tunnel it shares with neighboring Windsor, Canada, to a fast food tax. It's perhaps unsurprising that Detroit now has the most speed traps in the nation.

It also has one of the highest property tax rates in Michigan, yet has over 60,000 vacant dwellings (a guesstimate--nobody keeps official count), meaning real estate values are in the toilet. Over the summer, the
Detroit News sent a headline around the world, about a Detroit house that was for sale for $1. But it's not even that uncommon. As of this writing, there are at least five $1 homes for sale in Detroit."

And that is quite literally the least of it. Read the whole thing. It's mind-blowing. And if you can stomach anymore, the very best ongoing documentation of the death of Detroit is done over at Try this entry for example, which starts off: "Throughout Detroit there are still little libraries full of books that half the residents can't even read", and goes downhill from there.

Thanks for pat on the back, Mitch, but the bulldog is still starving.