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Commentary: What’s next for Detroit

Last week, Detroit City Council faced a choice. The state was offering to take over Belle Isle, the largest island city park in the nation, fix it up and run it as part of the state park system.

Had this happened, Belle Isle would have had a new lease on life. The city is unable to maintain it adequately, and many of its once-lovely features have been falling into a shabby state of disrepair.

The city would have still owned Belle Isle, and could cancel the lease and take back park operations in ten years if it decided to. In the meantime, turning Belle Isle over to the state would save the cash-poor city more than six million badly needed dollars a year.

This was a no-brainer of a deal. But alas, brains were not involved in the decision. What prevailed instead were toxic, self-destructive racial identity politics.

Polls showed a majority of Detroit residents wanted this deal. But hysterical protestors jammed council chambers to urge rejection. The state was trying to steal one of the city’s jewels, they shrieked. Detroit didn’t need any help from “outsiders,” a woman said, by that clearly meaning white people from the suburbs and beyond.

They found demagogic allies on the council, who in the end were able to prevent a vote on the issue. The governor then withdrew the offer. Within days, Mayor Dave Bing announced that the city would now be forced to close fifty-one other city parks.

Grass and weeds will grow, trash will accumulate, and, he added, conditions on Belle Isle, the city’s premier recreation spot since 1845, would also get worse.

The ignorant, and one mayoral candidate pandering to them, said the city should charge admission and fix up Belle Isle itself. But that is economically impossible, and would take floating a bond issue, something a city on the verge of bankruptcy can’t do.

Yet there may be something of a silver lining in all of this. The city was likely to get an emergency financial manager before. It is almost certain to get one now. My reading was that Governor Rick Snyder probably wants to wait until after the end of March, when a new law kicks in that gives emergency managers expanded powers.  The whole idea of an emergency manager for Detroit has long been bitterly controversial.

That’s especially true because Michigan voters overturned a law last November giving emergency managers expanded powers, many of which were promptly reenacted by the legislature. But the city council’s irrationality in turning Belle Isle down seems to have made an emergency manager more acceptable in many circles. 

Harry Cook, a retired Episcopal priest who was born in Detroit and worked there for many years, told me “The Belle Isle fiasco proves that the Detroit City Council is out of touch with reality.”

What they did, he added, “was not an exercise of democracy but anarchy. If and when Governor Snyder does appoint an emergency manager, I hope that person will understand that Detroit is a one hundred and thirty-nine square mile emergency with sirens wailing, people dying; a city at war with itself.”

My guess is that Detroit’s troubles are going to dominate our news this year, as they never have before.

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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