|The Spirit of Detroit bronze statue, in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit. Source: mlive.com|
Before we start, I think it’s important to acknowledge how far Detroit has come since I first started writing about it 2 1/2 years ago. Last Friday, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan, allowing it to shed more than $7 billion in debt and establish a credible plan going forward that would allow the city to repair and reinvest in its infrastructure, its systems, its housing, its people.
The Detroit Free Press just published a fascinating series entitled “How Detroit Was Reborn” in the wake of the bankruptcy approval, and it is a fitting complement to the Free Press’s equally fascinating series, “How Detroit Went Broke” published a little more than a year ago. The report takes the approach of viewing the bankruptcy as the city’s ultimate existential crisis, in a city where many others could have qualified as such, and offers exquisite details on the things that happened that drove the process to completion in just 16 months. The city, the state, the residents and pensioners, even the creditors, deserve acknowledgment for the expedited process, and setting the table for the city’s return.
These are indeed heady days for Detroit. The Big 3 are doing well (even if the city’s over-reliance on them hasn’t significantly changed), and the economy is doing better as a result. Downtown development has accelerated. Detroit is indeed turning the corner, but Detroit is indeed coming from a place no other city has been. This is just beginning.
Because of that, all is not rosy. In addition to publishing its series on the city’s bankruptcy, the Free Press also published a story that highlights the skepticism that many residents feel, summed up in one quote from Detroit native, former GM worker and current cab driver Charles Richardson:
“You can see the city’s changing, and people are investing, but they’re not working with the neighborhoods,” he said. “Don’t forget the neighborhoods.”
Detroit’s neighborhoods have long been forgotten in part because of a unique governance system for a city so large — a city council all elected at-large for nearly 100 years, in sharp contrast with the district or ward approach in most large cities. This, I believe, contributed to the stunted growth of Detroit neighborhoods, and contributed to the lack of advocacy at the neighborhood level that allowed the neighborhoods to physically and socially collapse.
Here’s what I said earlier on this:
“In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.”
Political reform had long and deep roots in Detroit in the late 19th and early 20th century, and starts with Republican mayor and reformer Hazen Pingree. Pingree was a four-term mayor who ran Detroit from 1889-1897 who came to office on a platform to wipe away the kind of ethnic-based, machine-oriented corruption that characterized many cities of the time. Being a businessman, he brought a businessman’s sensibility to the office and sought to root out inefficiencies, but he was sensitive to the conditions that ordinary Detroiters endured. So while business had a higher profile in local government, Pingree also instituted an expansive public works program that paved streets, and launched crusades against privately-owned services and utilities like streetcar systems, and gas, electric and telephone companies. Pingree left the mayor’s office to become governor of Michigan in 1897 and served one term, through 1901, choosing not to seek re-election. He died just six months after leaving office.
Pingree and the progressive community from which he emerged left an indelible mark on Detroit. Pingree and business leaders tilted early Detroit’s corrupt tendencies toward more efficient and accountable local government. By the mid-1910s, Progressive Movement reformers were pushing for a new city charter that would codify many of the changes they wanted. What did they want? At the time there were four primary policies that Progressives wanted:
- Civil Service Commissions to oversee the hiring of qualified city workers and put an end to political hiring.
- The ability to establish an initiative and referendum process to create policy at the grassroots level.
- Non-partisan elections for all city elected offices.
- At-large representation for local leaders.