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Putting focus on city neighborhoods instead of downtowns

Jack Lessenberry

Historically, Detroit has often served the function of sort of a national canary in the coal mine. Miners used to take canaries down the shafts with them, because the birds were much more susceptible to dangerous and invisible gas. When they keeled over, it was time to get out, fast.

Similarly, Detroit’s boom-and-bust auto economy has been an indicator of national trends. When we got rich, the world was better off. When Americans caught an economic cold, Detroit got pneumonia.

This analogy may also apply in connection with the Detroit pension fund crisis. One reason the city is headed for bankruptcy today is that its pension funds seem to have been woefully underfunded. I’ve suggested that, if you live elsewhere, you might want to inquire about the health of your town’s pension funds, and don’t take, “oh, nothing to worry about,” for an answer.

But looking back at last week’s election, it seems to me that the most important message for our state may have come not from Detroit at all, but from Toledo, which is technically in Ohio. Technically, I say, because the city is really part of the southeast Michigan automotive economy. It is a small manufacturing city of just under 300,000 people.

In many ways, it resembles Detroit in the 1960s in that the minority population is still under 40 percent, and most of the metro area’s population still lives in the city. But they have slowly been leaving for the suburbs.

The favorite in last week’s mayoral election was the incumbent, Mike Bell, a much-beloved former fire chief. He is charismatic, athletic and a good speaker. He has heavily courted investment from China during his term in office, and focused on overall economic issues. 

His opponent was somewhat of a surprise. Toledo is a heavily Democratic city, and two well-funded Democrats had battled for the right to get into a runoff against Mayor Bell, who has been cozy with the state’s conservative Republican governor.

But to everyone’s surprise, the second-place finisher was D. Michael Collins, a former head of the police union. Mr. Collins, a longtime councilman, is rumpled, notably overweight, and not an eloquent speaker. He will be 70 soon. But he had one major cause: The condition of the city’s neighborhoods, and one simple slogan: Collins Cares.

Toledo has had a succession of mayors who, as in Detroit, have concentrated on building up the downtown. Collins called on the city to reopen a closed neighborhood police station, and to put more money into neighborhood programs and homeless shelters.

Mayor Bell said the investment wasn’t worth it. He shrugged off a bid-rigging and cronyism scandal in the city’s badly administered neighborhoods department.  He seemed to regard the neighborhoods issue as an unwelcome distraction from more important stuff.

On Election Day, the vote wasn’t even close. Michael Collins defeated Mayor Bell in a 57 percent landslide. There were other factors; there always are. But concern over neighborhoods was key. 

Those weren’t misplaced concerns. Detroit’s downtown is in better shape than 30 years ago. The city’s neighborhoods are a national disgrace. If you live in another older Michigan city, you might want to think about this.

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.