Detroit’s Bankruptcy: A Beacon of Hope?

November 3, 2014 | by Stephen Henderson

The new streetlights bathe the city of Detroit in a decidedly blueish glow, brighter and more intense than the yellow tinge of the incandescents that have hung along the avenues for decades, some for nearly a century.

They’re LEDs, the new lights, and they last longer and are harder to sabotage (because they have less copper wiring) than the old ones. Of the more than 88,000 lights around the city, some 40,000 don’t work, which means nighttime brings a haunting darkness to nearly half of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Thousands of the new lights are going up each month, and by mid-2015, Detroit will catch up with, say, Mexico City in the delivery of one of the most basic city services.

It’s a simple fix, really, a matter of stringing government competence together with finance and organization to repair infrastructure. But to get to this point in Detroit, we had to create an authority that took responsibility for the lights away from city government, we had to get state legislation passed to finance the project, and—perhaps most important—we had to convince ourselves that we could take the other steps because we deserve better than the darkness.

Yes, in Detroit, we have to snatch ourselves back from believing that awful conditions—things people in other cities would never, ever tolerate—are just a by-product of the lives we’ve chosen.

Detroiters’ trademark affinity for independence and self-determination, forged from the city’s white working-class roots and seasoned by the rise of African-American political power in the 1970s, has often fueled a fatalism that prefers extreme self-reliance to cooperative solutions.

Thus, the darkness.

Everything is harder in Detroit.  From the work on the assembly lines that built the city and its economy, to the 60-year slide from economic vitality to abandonment and neglect, to the burgeoning efforts to find a new life for a former urban giant, we always seem to take the long way around. We always find a way to make the journey the most difficult.

A friend of mine who’s also a native Detroiter is fond of saying we’re raised in this city to endure, rather than hope. Those of us who stay here do it because we can take it, not necessarily out of a belief that things will get better.

I’ve tried hard not to pass that on to my own children, to instead teach them that hope is the lifeblood of a city’s future, and that the hard choices that lead to a reasonably governed city aren’t out of reach even in a place as far from the right path as Detroit.

For the first time, I think there are concrete reasons to invest in that possibility.

The city’s bankruptcy is at once wild-eyed and sane—the largest municipal insolvency in American history but also the most obvious. If successful, Detroit will write down huge chunks of its $18.5 billion in debt and liabilities, and free up as much as $150 million annually that can be spent on service. Police. Fire. Trash collection. Maintaining the streetlights.

The bankruptcy has also inspired a new sense of responsibility—one that might be fleeting, but could mark a significant cultural shift—for the city’s problems.

A scheme to save the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts and soften the hit the city’s under-funded pensioners would take raised $800 million from philanthropic, private, and government coffers. Legislators from across the state virtually stood and declared, “Ich bin ein Detroiter,” on the Capitol floor in Lansing, reversing decades of hostility between lawmakers and leadership in the state’s largest city. If that attitude is sustained, the city could see more regular cooperation and help from the capital.

Leadership, too, is coming on more strongly in Detroit. New Mayor Mike Duggan is shaking the city’s bureaucracies to their roots, holding employees newly accountable and upending standard practices that have left citizens on the short end. One staffer who’s a veteran of several administrations says that in the past, mayors might ask someone to do something and never follow up. Now, Duggan comes back again and again to be sure tasks are done.

Much of the groundwork Duggan is laying has yet to pay off, but some small victories are being recorded. Bus service has improved (more on-time routes, more buses on the roads), while the city’s new “blight authority” has catalogued, for the first time, the condition and ownership of every parcel in the city. The mayor has also begun limited private sales of the tens of thousands of properties the city owns, through tax defaults and other abandonments.

The city council’s leadership is also rowing in the same direction as the mayor’s office for the first time in recent memory. Council President Brenda Jones, a longtime union activist who was predicted as an obstacle to some reforms, has instead emerged as a cool-headed, steady leader who studies issues thoroughly and gets votes together along lines of reason rather than emotion. She is a critical partner of Duggan’s, often by his side, demonstrating the strength that can only come when executive and legislative leaders work together.

If Detroit emerges from the bankruptcy with a recharged balance sheet and leadership that’s poised to reverse the lousy service delivery that has helped drive people away for six decades, it will be the most dramatic turnaround in the city during my lifetime.

No, Detroit will not be “fixed” through bankruptcy. Enormous challenges still remain—declining population and tax base, aging infrastructure with no identifiable funds to improve, a school system that repels middle-class families—and the work to untangle all the messes has just begun.

But the bankruptcy resets the city’s financial picture and gives us opportunity to rebuild city government, in particular, in a more rational fashion. That’s the first step toward making life in the city better for those who live here.

That’s not just significant for me, but for the children I’m raising here.

It’s a reason to hope, rather than endure.

The blue glow of the new streetlights is a beacon. As Detroiters, we just need to follow it.

 

This article is part of a larger series about the impact of LSA students, faculty, and alumni in Detroit. Read more stories in the series:

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Stephen Henderson is the editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. His column appears on Sundays in the newspaper and at FreepOpinion.com. A Detroit native, he is a graduate of University of Detroit High School and the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of the financial crisis facing Detroit. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, or of the University of Michigan.

 

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