(Note: This post was originally published on June 29, 2012. A lot of the events that were beyond the writing of this piece have changed, but many of the sentiments referred to here have sadly remained the same. This captures my thoughts on the particular dilemma of many Rust Belt cities, and quite possibly is the biggest obstacle to their revitalization. -Pete)
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Some of you may be familiar with some rather extraordinary events taking place in Detroit right now. The State of Michigan, under the authority of legislation known as Public Act 4, has been assuming control of fiscal matters of local governments and school districts across the state. Since the law was enacted last year, the cities of Benton Harbor, Highland Park, Pontiac and Flint, and the school districts of Muskegon and Detroit, have essentially become under state control due to deep deficit issues. The state appoints an emergency manager who has very broad and sweeping powers (for example, the EM can invalidate all union contracts) without the traditional oversight of a city council. The EM stays in place until fiscal responsibility is re-established in the community. Detroit’s problems have been well documented, and the state has entered into a consent agreement with the City of Detroit to begin similar actions there.
Of course, the move by the state has sparked a ton of controversy in the Detroit area. As is usually the case in metro Detroit, the debate has fallen along very sharp racial and city/suburban lines (which, in the Detroit area, are very nearly one and the same). Frequent comments on the suburban side of the debate mention the fiscal irresponsibility of Detroit’s leadership as evidence of a need for state takeover, while those on the city’s side see the state as orchestrating a takeover of the city to benefit suburban interests.
Unfortunately, that’s the mild version. If you take a look at the comments to stories about the consent agreement in the Detroit News, you’ll find strongly worded racist garbage that lays Detroit’s slide into the fiscal abyss squarely on the shoulders of the city’s black leadership and black majority population.
I could not disagree more.
Imagine a house party that starts up in a home on a quiet block. The party starts as a small gathering, but quickly develops into something that captures the attention of those from miles around. And as new arrivals become attracted to the party, the size of the celebration begins to overwhelm its hosts.
In addition to the new partiers a group of onlookers begins to gather outside the party. They wish to join in on the festivities and offer to help out, but their offers are generally rebuffed.
But the party continues to grow and become unwieldy. The onlookers are needed to help out. The craziness of the party is causing many of the early arrivers to leave and more onlookers are needed to contribute. The party spreads to adjacent homes, adjacent blocks. As the party spreads more onlookers are needed to keep the party going. Why? It seems that as the party spreads the partiers want to revel in the fun but leave the cleanup to someone else.
Finally, the party begins to die down but three things become clear – the party has left a huge mess; the manic energy that kept the party going has disappeared; and the former onlookers are being blamed for the condition of the neighborhood!
The former onlookers are ready to tackle the task of cleaning up the mess, and do their best to assure the early partiers that they have the ability to handle the cleanup. Unfortunately for the former onlookers, the mess is too large for them to take on and they are slow to realize they don’t have the manpower or the skills for the job.
The mess can’t be cleaned up until all those who joined in the party play a role in cleaning up the aftermath.
I don’t claim to be some master of allegory but that story seems to describe where Detroit is as a city today. The city’s revitalization needs people willing to pitch in, not point fingers.