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Detroit vulnerable but on the mend

Jack Lessenberry

On Earth Day eight years ago, General Motors and Detroit were in bad shape and getting worse. Detroit was still suffering under Kwame Kilpatrick, the most corrupt mayor in its history, even as events were beginning to unfold that would send him to prison. 

Soon, the city would add a council president who would later vanish into thin air after he was accused of trying to seduce a high school boy.

Far worse was to come before the year was over. General Motors, which had been losing close to $10 billion a year, would come very close to going out of business, as would Chrysler.

Had they been allowed to fail, industry experts said they would have taken hundreds of suppliers with them and possibly Ford Motor Co. as well. The Center for Automotive Research estimated that would've meant a permanent loss of one to three million jobs.

Nobody wants to begin to think what that would've meant for Michigan’s economy.

But the auto companies were saved, largely by the insistence of the nation’s first black president. They and the city itself went through near-death bankruptcy experiences, were cleansed, resurrected and reborn. This week we learned that General Motors posted a staggeringly huge first quarter profit. GM is on pace to make more than $10 billion this year.

Chrysler was sold to Fiat but is doing fine too. Eight years ago, many experts strongly doubted that the mostly white American voters would really elect a black president. What none of them foresaw was a future in which the mostly black voters of Detroit would elect a white mayor, and a woman would be installed as CEO of General Motors.

Today Detroit has evolved into one of the most fascinating places in the nation. A bustling, pushy Irish-American mayor has gotten streetlights on again throughout most of the city. The pension funds have been fixed.

The budget is running a surplus. Small and precarious, vulnerable to the least downturn in the economy, but a surplus. Detroit is still losing people, but a trickle, no longer a flood.

The city desperately needs jobs, and there are neighborhoods where even the cops don’t much like to go. The schools still need fixing and are the one thing that has gotten worse. But in what’s called Midtown, you literally can’t find an apartment to rent.

There are too many new restaurants for the reviewers to keep up with. Last night I went to see John King, who runs one of the nation’s best bookstores and lives in an exquisite apartment he built on top of his building, close to the Detroit River.

We ate dinner at El Barzon, an exquisite Italian-Mexican restaurant in Southwest Detroit, in a neighborhood that’s full of deserted warehouses and growing vitality. I felt as safe as in Grand Rapids. This has been a year of grim headlines, poisoned water and poisonous rhetoric, but Detroit and its key industry really have come back.

As we head into the weekend, that might be good to remember.

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

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