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Detroit's two identities

  If you just arrived from some exotic place like the planet Mars, or maybe the city of Marquette, you would have to be puzzled about the twofold aspect of what’s going on in Detroit these days.

Take a look, for example, at today’s newspapers. Half the stories are about the city’s looming bankruptcy filing. Yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes told state courts to get lost and forget about getting involved in any matters regarding all this.

It is “within this court’s exclusive jurisdiction,“ Rhodes said, and since one of the few completely clear things about all this is that federal law always outranks state law, that settles that.

The judge further justified his taking command by saying that trying to deal with two different court systems would be “costly, expensive, and inefficient,” which sounds perfectly true. And he added, “my orders enhance the likelihood of a Chapter 9 reorganization, speeds the bankruptcy case and cuts costs to taxpayers.”

That would seem to be about as clear a sign as you could get that those trying to stop Detroit’s bankruptcy filing aren’t going to get anywhere. Except the judge then claimed that he had not decided whether or not the city is eligible for bankruptcy, or whether the governor went about authorizing the filing in a legal and proper way.

Please, give us a break. Of course the bankruptcy is going through. This is what Rhodes has done for a living for almost thirty years. Bankruptcy is a done deal. To add to the atmosphere of Armageddon, we learned yesterday that officials from Christie’s, the art auction house, visited the Detroit Institute of Arts last month. My guess is that they were not there on a date, but to appraise the art.

Appraise it for a possible fire sale. Now, this may not happen. But it is perfectly clear that Detroit’s economic mess is serious business. However, now for the paradox. While all this is happening, other stories in the same newspapers make it look like Detroit is boomtown. Quicken Loans Czar Dan Gilbert is talking about building a new residential, office and entertainment complex on a site that was supposed to hold a jail. Another developer wants to put a major-league soccer stadium there. Meanwhile, sports and pizza baron Mike Ilitch got the go-ahead to build a six hundred million dollar-plus hockey arena downtown, a structure to be financed at least partly with taxpayer dollars.

Last weekend I was at a party with a lot of rich people, some of whom were trying to get in on the action in Detroit. Their Detroit is real, but very small. It includes downtown, and a narrow strip up Woodward about as far as the Fisher Building. Beyond that, are miles and miles of frightening, blasted and dangerous neighborhoods, some ruled mostly by gangs.

When I asked about them, I was mostly ignored. Yes, parts of Detroit are booming, and it is exciting, though looting the DIA would damage this tiny Renaissance.

But unless somebody figures out a way to reach the world without hope, the world behind the glitter, bankruptcy and new arenas won’t be enough to save Detroit. Or, in the final analysis, any of us.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.