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What’s Next for Detroit

While Detroit can technically appeal the governor’s decision to appoint an emergency manager, it is clear that the city is going to get one within the next couple of weeks.

Detroiters are now waiting to find out the identity of the person who will have more power in their city than any mayor has ever had. 

No large American city has ever been in this position. But it might be worth remembering that exactly eighty years ago today, Detroit was, in many ways, in worse shape than now.

That was at the height of the Great Depression. Although the nation’s banks would soon be closed for a few days, Detroit’s already were. There was no money and next to no welfare of any kind.

No Social Security, food stamps, anything. Historians believe unemployment was greater than forty percent. People were hungry, cold and desperate. But that was also the day a new president took over.

Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath, and then said to the nation: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He immediately began to act. Some of what he did worked, some didn’t, and some was ruled unconstitutional.

But the mere act of trying something new had a positive effect. What had been happening wasn’t working. Trying to draw historical parallels is dangerous, but there is one very clear one here.

Whatever they have been trying in Detroit isn’t working. Now, the city is going to get radical change. Most of the city’s elected leaders don’t want that. They don’t want to lose their power and their salaries. But what about the average Detroit resident?

I attended the governor’s town hall announcement Friday, and sat with Sheila Cockrel, who served on city council for sixteen years.

Prior to that, she managed her husband’s office when he was a councilman. She is white, he was black, and probably would have been mayor had he not died of a heart attack at fifty.

Cockrel, who was born in Corktown near old Tiger Stadium, knows the people of Detroit.  She told me the citizens are desperate for anyone who can restore public safety, get the street lights on and services restored. She believes that the black residents of Detroit would vote for a white candidate for mayor if they thought he or she could get the job done.

They want results, not rhetoric. Mayor Dave Bing seems to understand. After the governor’s announcement, he said if appointing an emergency manager stabilizes the city fiscally and takes steps, quote “which improve the quality of life for our citizens, then I think there is a way for us to work together.”

Cockrel herself believes an emergency manager is needed. Someone, she told me, in whom Wall Street has confidence, so that some of the city’s massive obligations can be renegotiated.

It would be hard to disagree with what Governor Snyder told the Detroit News: “I think (Detroit) is critical for the future of Michigan and that the citizens deserve better services than they are getting. Just think about the power of our state if Detroit is moving in a positive direction and problems are being solved. It would be huge.”

Let’s hope what comes next helps get us there.

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