Judging by some of the comments I’m getting when I’m out walking my dogs, everybody and his dog knows the bad news. That’s the old news. The real news about Detroit is the good news.
Not that things haven’t been tough up there. A new movie coming out next month will depict the 1967 Detroit race riot, or as some people call it, the Detroit uprising. Uprising, riot, I don’t know. It was bad.
I was a young man watching the TV news in a nearby university town when the story broke. A guy with me was home on leave from Vietnam.
He leapt to the TV when he saw U.S. tanks rolling down urban streets, thinking he was looking at Saigon, which he had just left. I still remember his shocked exclamation: “Oh my God. It’s Detroit.” We were 45 miles away.
To call what followed “white flight” doesn’t quite get it. It was more like a refugee crisis. Everybody who could afford to, black, white, whatever, hit the road like the Oklahoma land rush. Later, in the early ‘70s, when I was a reporter for The Detroit Free Press and living downtown, my parents’ pretty little hick town in the orchards of Oakland County turned into a mega-burb overnight.
I hated going out there. I have never heard white people anywhere else speak with such awful vituperation. It was race talking, of course, but there was something else as well. They were like Cuban refugees in Miami talking about Castro. Something about getting pushed off your turf at gunpoint scars the soul deeply. It does not make us pretty.
By the way, that area has remained affluent and stable. Part of who packed up and took a hike in that direction was a big chunk of the engineering and design end of the car business, along with no small portion of the manufacturing, so it’s not as if the entire Detroit area went down the tubes. Just Detroit.
Detroit was the Titanic, and the people who escaped into the life boats took all the cash, the silverware and the musical instruments with them. For refugees, they did OK.
At this distance, most of us know the subsequent story of Detroit only by the occasional horror story, the shrinking of the city to a third of its former size, bankruptcy, vacancy, abandonment and a crime rate that could make anybody run for the orchards.
If Detroit has learned some things the hard way, why wouldn’t we want somebody from Detroit to teach us the same things the easy way?
That story, the grisly saga of Detroit’s decline, is by no means over and done with. Detroit’s murder rate is still three times Dallas' — roughly 44 murders per 100,000 people there versus about 15 here. The unemployment rate is still three times ours. Household income is only 60 percent of ours.
But that doesn’t make our numbers in the city of Dallas something we want to start bragging about right away. Surrounded by suburbs that have seen growth rates in the 20 percent range in the last five years, the city has seen a much more modest growth in the 10 percent range. Nearly a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. One report last year said Dallas had the highest child poverty rate of the nation’s major cities. Another report found us with the fastest-growing murder rate.
And we don’t even need to talk too much here, do we, about our infrastructure issues? I know this isn’t scientific, but last year I did a story about a pothole in my alley so huge that we were convinced for a while there were homeless people living in it. We wondered if it was some huge, cyclical thing in which civilization was starting all over again from scratch right in our alley. I even thought about joining them. I was kind of in the mood for a do-over.
Meanwhile, I have no family back in Michigan, and for years I have kept up with Detroit in only the broadest brush strokes, without any personal detail. But then two great big wake-up calls hit me, the first a few years ago and the other just a couple of months ago.
The first involved a young person I know who was looking at Wayne State University School of Medicine for a residency in ophthalmology. She came back and said it was a great program. But one drawback, she said, would be finding a good place to live near the university.
I said, “Oh, yeah, I bet it’s rough.”
She said something like, yes, it would be challenging because the area was so hot. The medical residents she met in Detroit told her the nice places near campus were all in the $1,500 to $2,200 range, and even at that it was just impossible to find a building with a vacancy.
More recently I was sitting on a front porch sipping a warm buttermilk with neighbors when I overheard my most entrepreneurial neighbor telling someone else that she and her sister had launched a new store in downtown Detroit.
I interrupted and said, “Why?”
She shrugged and said, “Oh, well, you know. To get in on it.”
No. I did not know.
I have been trying to get a little smarter since then. Recently, Blair Kamin, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, wrote a fascinating report on what’s going on in Detroit now. So many of the core principles he found in Detroit’s startling renaissance speak directly to issues we have been struggling with here.
For example, he talks about the way Detroit approaches basic infrastructure — street lights, in particular — as the building blocks for everything else. OK, street lights, maybe you think that’s boring. But I think stuff like that is everything.
Detroit also is approaching development and growth with a very deliberate eye on gentrification, thinking ahead about ways to foster growth and bring back the middle class while also doing what it can to stabilize the lives of the poor. All of that sounds to me a whole lot like what I have been hearing lately from civic leaders like state Reps. Rafael Anchia and Eric Johnson and from the new group on the City Council.
I gather that part of the effort to both revive and stabilize Detroit’s economy has been a very conscious outreach to neighborhood leadership by the police department. Apparently, Hall has been at the forefront of that effort. As I said before, I don’t have any good skinny on Hall. My Detroit sources are all either dead from natural causes — well, natural for reporters — or they’re fishing in Canada, the bastards. I do know exactly what many seasoned cops will think when they hear the term "community policing": “Oh, great, now we have to address the guy who’s shooting at us as sir.”
But Hall, according to her bio, is a lifelong cop, a cop’s kid and, may I say again, a Detroit cop. I seriously doubt she’s naive.
If Detroit has learned some things the hard way, why wouldn’t we want somebody from Detroit to teach us the same things the easy way? And the place does have history.
One of the coolest things I have read that Detroit is doing is using vacant land to create narrow bands of green that will reach all the way from the Detroit River, which forms the border with Canada, up into the neighborhoods to the northwest.
It struck a bell. I was once an amateur student of Detroit’s early history. In the decades after the city’s founding by the French as a fort in 1701, the river was the main source of water for farmers just outside the fort. Farmers divided the land into what were called ribbon farms — bands of land reaching far to the northwest but each with a narrow access to the river at its southeast extremity.
As soon as I saw the new plan for green bands from the river, I thought, “Oh, wow, 300 years later they’re going to re-create the ribbon farms to bind the city together again.” I’m telling you. These are some people worth talking to.