Saturday, December 05, 2009

[Detroit] Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!

Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!: Sorry for the obscure Life of Brian quote, but it's what comes to mind when I read the work of deluded apologists who seem to think things in Detroit aren't all that bad. First, a refresher on the situation from the WSJ:
The fiscal mess puts [Mayor Dave] Bing in a Catch-22. He can't cut the city's taxes because the short-term hit to cash flow would leave the city unable to pay its bills. But without tax reform the city can't lure businesses back.

Detroit may simply not be viable in its current form. Political and economic leaders need to rethink the notion that the city can regain its former status as a major American metropolis capable of luring large companies with tax breaks--which was [disgraced and felonious former Mayor Kwame] Kilpatrick's failed strategy.

Detroit now more closely resembles a frontier town that needs not flashy stadiums and art institutes but basic services: police, firemen and good schools.
Short term, Detroit's best hope may be to go bankrupt.

Dave Bing (of whom I was a fan during his playing days with the Pistons) is by all accounts a solid, moral, well-intentioned man, but his cause is truly hopeless. I have half-jokingly suggested that the end of Detroit will come when the Unions and the Drug Dealers are fighting tribal battles with rocks and sticks until there are no longer enough people for a viable gene pool. More seriously, I suspect the end will play out like this:
  1. City checks (including paychecks) start to bounce and creditors start eyeing assets to divvy up.
  2. The State government will step in and literally take over the city. Of course, they will realize in short order that the rest of the State has no willingness or ability to prop up such a charity case and that if they try to fob off the financial shortfall on Michiganders in general, they will get their asses handed to them at the ballot box.
  3. So the Feds will get called in to sort things out. Obama (or his successor) will lead a bailout effort, and why not, since the city's main industry is already in their hands? As a result, taxpayers across the country will get to have Detroit hanging on their wallets for decades to come.

That's just the financial trash heap. It doesn't even touch on the stratospheric drop-out and illiteracy rates or the blatant, even prideful, corruption and crime. I have hammered on the entire abysmal situation before so I won't rehash in detail. What's amazing to me is not the situation itself but the reaction to it and the outright denial that exists in many quarters. Are you listening Mitch Albom? (He would be, if he could hear me under that pile of six-figure royalty checks.)

The latest one to catch my eye comes from Ben Wojdyla of Jalopnik, an absolutely ace car blog. In it, he addresses the recently fashionable notion that Detroit can be reborn as a farming community: total nonsense, as Ben correctly points out. Sadly, he then goes on to try to defend the city itself, and since he is too ethical to lie, he is doomed.
We could go on about how this "Idea of the Day" is embarrassing from the farming angle, but almost as sad is the base assumption of Detroit as a "failed city," a "nightmare town" as the Times puts it. Saturday I went to Eastern Market, the city's hundred fifty year old farmer's market and picked up groceries, had breakfast and read the news.

I bet you could do that in Port Au Prince too. There's a real paradise. Lucky you live in the suburbs or you'd be buying a week's worth of food at Eastern Market on Sunday because there aren't any grocery stores left in the city.
Sunday, my girlfriend and I put our bicycles in the car, put the dog on a leash and drove from the nearby suburbs into the city to go riding. We drove up and down the Dequindre Cut, in the past a major rail line running to the water, abandoned during the population and business exodus, formerly the home of gangs and drugs but recently opened as an urban bike and walk path.

Well, yes. When there are no businesses or people left to prey on, gangs tend to leave the area. In Detroit that counts as a victory.
We drove around downtown to check out a new Cuban themed martini and cigar bar, and drove through Hart plaza, where kids were skateboarding and doing bike tricks.

Hart Plaza is OK. It's part of the one square mile around the waterfront that the Detroit powers keep viable while the remainder of the city crumbles. This area supports thousands of apologists.

And then, as in all honest Detroit apologies, we get to the qualifications.
Is Detroit the nicest city in the world? By no means. The city government is in a continual state of paralysis and corruption, taxes on decent property is painfully high and insurance rates are seriously eye-watering. Crime is certainly still around, but it's below the surface now, nowhere near historic levels. There are certainly many places those unfamiliar with the city should not go. South Detroit is a scary place at night. The neighborhood around City Airport would probably make most softened Americans pee their pants. There are a lot of abandoned and broken-down, burnt-out places. I go to these places because I'm curious. I've lived in the metropolitan area for over a decade, and in that time I've gone from a naive farm boy to a naive auto journalist, but I've watched Detroit get better. Much better.

I'll leave the comment about crime being below historic levels and "under the surface" (huh?) to be chuckled at by anyone who can appreciate good solid dissembling. The point is that an outright Detroit booster has to describe his city in such a way, just in the interest of basic honesty. As for Detroit getting "much better" in the ten years he's been around, well I don't see it. Neither do any of the tens of thousands who fled the city in those years. I can tell you that after hearing the same apologies and claims of renaissance recited for over forty years, it's not getting better, it's getting worse. It's not failing, it's already failed.

What is most astounding about the apologists is their utter lack of any sense of irony. Look at the list of sins in that last quote. Then read Ben's closing:
I spend as much time as I can in Detroit not because of a morbid curiosity but because it isn't the varnished over, pretend perfect suburbs. It's honest and interesting.

But whatever. Since it's apparently okay to destroy things that might not be running at full tilt, maybe a little frayed around the edges, perhaps for want of better times, we're assuming it'll be cool to make the argument the NYTimes offices would look great as a PetSmart.

All that stuff he said about the burnt-out buildings and scary neighborhoods gets dismissed a paragraph later as merely a place that's a "not running at full tilt." The level of denial is truly astounding. Referring to a neighborhood that would make most people "pee their pants" as a place that's "a little frayed around the edges" does not make it a place that's a little frayed around the edges. Might as well put lipstick on a pig and call it Megan Fox. Or, more accurately in this case, lipstick on a dead pig's rotting corpse.

Then, after nicely varnishing the city which such delicate language he claims to love Detroit because it's unvarnished, as opposed to the "pretend perfect" suburbs (where he chooses to live). Ben, you owe me a new irony meter because you just exploded mine.