LET’S DO BETTER by Brenda Robinson
Back in the ’60s, a female singing group, The Shirelles, recorded a song titled “This is Dedicated to the One I Love.” A portion of the lyrics became and remains a cliché:
“The darkest hour is just before dawn.”
If there is any truth to the cliché, then “dawn” is years away in Detroit. That city is “pitch black” in more ways than one and America must come to Detroit’s rescue. Detroit needs a “breakthrough.”
The city filed for bankruptcy on July 18. Perhaps bankruptcy could have been avoided if Governor Rick Snyder and his “posse,” the Barack Obama administration, previous federal administrations and present and past U.S. Congresses were committed to, at the least, saving a city that virtually created a middle class with its auto industry. And, the same aforementioned groups, you would think, would want to save retirement packages for thousands of Detroit city workers. Finally, Detroit’s “Motown Sound” and Barry Gordy essentially gave black and white teenagers a route to building better race relations. The smooth, melodious, nonthreatening moves and sounds of the Temptations and The Supremes, prompted young people to connect—ethnicity didn’t matter. Couldn’t some people in power have argued, “Detroit deserved a breakthrough?”
Last March, Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager of Detroit, stripping Dave Bing, current mayor, of any responsibility. Bing stated he expected to have a partnership with Orr. Bing believed his administration had some answers to some of the problems and since he had governed for four years, he said he could help save Detroit. The governor thought not. The police and fire chiefs, and leaders of the city’s law, finance, building and transportation departments report to Orr’s appointees. Orr initiated the bankruptcy. Bing was in disagreement with the filing.
Bing must assume some of the responsibility (not much) for that city’s economic crisis. According to critics, Bing could have cut city services, upon the beginning of his tenure as mayor, because Detroit’s population had been on the decline for several decades. We suspect he could have saved, yes, in some administrative areas, but certainly not in police, fire, medical emergency and various code and sanitary services.
Bing could not cut police personnel. In 2012, Detroit had the highest rate of violent crime of any city of more than 200,000 people. Detroit tied with New Orleans for the highest murder rate in the nation. On the other hand, let’s give Bing credit.
During his administration, the overall crime rate dropped 24 percent. Abandoned structures (homes, churches, businesses, not-for-profits) make up nearly one-fifth of buildings. City officials estimated 78,000 structures are abandoned. Again, Bing proposed a potential solution; tearing down the structures and turning the land into farming entities. His suggestion was not taken seriously. Bing said the abandoned dwellings were safety hazards—139 square miles of these structures. He was correct. One example was and remains, roaming stray dogs. Fifty-four postal workers have been attacked by these animals.
Bing became mayor in 2009. He completed the remaining months of the term of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted for lying on the stand and is currently imprisoned. Bing’s term will end in December.
There are sound reasons and precedents for the mayor’s disagreement with Orr’s filing for bankruptcy. Since 1954, courts have dismissed 29 of 62 municipal bankruptcies pursued in US courts. One hundred of Detroit’s creditors contended they were willing to negotiate financial settlements. Bing was not permitted, under a state policy to raise the city income tax by about one-half of one percent. True, the State of Michigan had its own financial crisis, but state officials did not attempt to secure funds for Bing’s demolition of abandoned structures and farming initiatives, according to Bing.
Commonsense reasoning and humanitarian thinking have not been revealed in this situation.
Federal and state administrations and legislators have known for decades that Detroit needed special attention. These politicians watched the auto industry exit from Detroit and go from 300,000 employees in the 1960s to a current 27,000. Federal and state officials “turned their heads” as the population dwindled from 1.8 million to a current 700,000. The federal government silently watched as the city’s unemployment rate tripled since 2000 and is currently more than double the national average. Citizens wait an average of 51 minutes for police to respond to their calls and the national average is 11 minutes.
The blame for Detroit’s crisis expands far beyond Bing and other mayors who preceded him. The blame, in addition to state and federal government, is directed toward previous U.S. presidents. And, yes President Obama, regretfully, you are in the mix. The auto industry was bailed out at a cost of $80 billion to taxpayers. Reportedly, Wall Street was bailed out for $700 billion and some estimates were as high as $12.8 trillion! Detroit’s troubles are peanuts in comparison, with a budget deficit approaching $380 million and long term debt of $14 billion.
Detroit warrants the same attention as the crisis in Syria. The city’s problems (crime, unemployment, abandoned homes, overall citizen distress) have led to deaths. Detroit’s issues can neither be solved only by the city, nor only by the state. Bankruptcy will not cause “dawn to break.” A breakthrough demands support from America. A good start would be to “think Wall Street.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 25 print edition.