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Commentary: Where Detroit stands

If you haven’t been to Detroit lately, it’s easy to have an image of a ghastly ruin full of ominous criminals waiting behind the rubble to shoot you, Well, there are areas where it’s not a good idea to go. But there are plenty of wonderful places too.

On Saturday afternoon, we went down to Eastern Market, shopped, and tried to get into two good restaurants for lunch, only to find  both had waiting lists more than an hour long.

So we went to a great place called the Bucharest Grill in back of the Fox Theatre, where Leonard Cohen will perform tonight.

Yet city government is dysfunctional and heading for a complete breakdown. There are plenty of amazing and capable people in Detroit. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with one, Glenda Price, a scientist who came here from Atlanta f15 years ago. Price took over the presidency of Marygrove College, a tiny, struggling Catholic liberal arts school in the city, and revitalized it with the help of an innovative distance learning program. 

Recently, she took on what might be the toughest development job in Michigan: She’s now the head of the Detroit Public Schools foundation, and is raising money to help supplement the meager resources the state’s most troubled school system can offer its kids.

Glenda Price is also on the financial advisory board set up to try to help the so-called consent agreement between the city and the state,  succeed. She is impressed with her fellow board members.

But though she is always a diplomat, it is hard to see how anyone could be impressed with the conduct of Detroit’s City Council, believe that the consent agreement is working, or that the city can continue very long the way things are going now.

There is no money. The city hasn’t even made the reforms it needs to continue to draw on an emergency cash reserve provided by the state. When city council last week was asked to approve a contract with a law firm that was a condition for the city to get more money, it refused.

Like petulant two-year-olds, a majority of the council members repeatedly reject proposals clearly in their own best interests, and those of the people who live there, not to mention the entire state. No to the state fixing up Belle Isle and making it a state park. No to reforming the city water and sewerage department, even though a former head of that department just pled guilty to corruption charges. They won’t even allow a developer to put in a tree farm. Some say they fear “outsiders” stealing their city.

Well, what they, and we, don’t understand is that Detroit belongs to all of us. Our economic fortunes are tied together, wherever in Michigan we live. Legislatures can create or dissolve cities. Here, they need to fix one.

By whatever means necessary. The voters narrowly rejected the old emergency manager law earlier this month. Our lawmakers need to craft something new to provide the power to do what needs to be done to get the city on a path to recovery.

That won’t be easy.

But saving Detroit may be the most important task facing our state, this year, and for a number of years to come.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry 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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