My family on my dad’s side hails from downriver Detroit going decades back. The epithet “downriver rats” is not unknown to us, and my great-grandfather was once described as “the poorest dirt-farmer in the state” — by those who loved him best, of course. This history drifts further and further into the past as each of us capitalizes on the American Dream one step more than our predecessors. It would have baffled that same great-grandfather with how many teachers our family now holds, considering he had no more than an eighth-grade education.
Of course, too many of us have had to leave Detroit to make that dream possible. The ones who stayed, however, are fighting for it. More than that, we’re fighting for ourselves, and the city that once made that possible.
This does not mean a return to some mythical past, because Detroit’s problems originated long ago. It means capitalizing on Detroit’s unique opportunities.
The first task is to monetize the non-essentials. Few would argue that the precious works of art in the Detroit Institute of Arts should be snapped up by any stray carpetbagger, but what about selling Belle Isle to a private holder? It was a shame that idea — championed by our very own board member Rod Lockwood — was passed over. Owning property you can’t manage or protect is about as useful as screen doors on a submarine.
Next is to take a cold, hard look in the mirror at what calling yourself a city really means. Because if it takes two hours for the police to come to your home in the city that invented modern transportation, you’re doing it wrong. Same goes for trash collection, animal control, street lights and cemeteries. The response time isn’t the police officers’ fault — there’s no different brand of humanity in Detroit than anywhere else in the world. It’s the misadministration of the city that’s wrecked it for everybody.
Above all else, Detroit must learn to meet its obligations. That means tackling the pension problem head on. It doesn’t take an eighth-grade education to do the math: Whoever is correct in calculating the amount of gap between revenue and obligations, the fact is that obligations aren’t being met, and that’ll only get worse. City pensioners have been investing in Detroit for a long time, and to very little avail. Reform must happen, so that Detroit can meet its obligations both existing and future. This used to be called basic housekeeping.
Once these steps are taken, I think Detroit will look around and see a lot of room for opportunity — if it will get out of its own way by not scaring potential investors, workers and habitants away through high taxes, limited school choice and onerous regulations. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit that longs to exercise itself in Detroit, from new American chefs to engineering talent close-by to technological start-ups.
They will lay the stepping stones to Detroit’s future, rather than those insisting on reclaiming a less-than-perfect past. And those in favor of a bailout forget the very spirit that made Detroit great in the first place.