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Detroit has come a long way in its fragile comeback

Jack Lessenberry

There’s an old joke that asks, what’s the difference between an optimist, a pessimist and a Detroiter?

Well, the optimist, of course, sees the glass half full; the pessimist, half empty.

And the Detroiter asks: Who stole my glass?

Years ago, I found it interesting to tell that joke to different groups, suburbanites and city dwellers, and ask what it meant.

Detroiters, most of whom were black, often said it referred to the business interests who used the city up, then took their jobs and factories and left. White suburbanites, on the other hand, would say it referred to the corrupt black politicians who fleeced their own people.

That, or to crime in general, by which they meant black crime.

Those attitudes seemed set in stone.

Well, the city has evolved a lot during the past decade, and especially perhaps in the last 18 months. We now know precisely the scope of the city’s problems. We know the size and shape of Detroit’s debt; of its unfunded liabilities, of its infrastructure problems. We have a complete catalogue of its blighted buildings.

Failure in either the courts or in the financial coffers would be, as Kevyn Orr put it today, catastrophic. Not just for Detroit, but for all of Michigan.

Detroiters elected a white mayor because they felt he was their last best hope of leading them out of this mess.

A white governor whom almost none of the city residents voted for or will ever vote for has invested a considerable amount of his energy in trying to save the city. Now, the city has a plan.

But Detroit’s future hangs by a thread – two threads, actually.

Two things have to happen to give the city a shot. First, the “plan of adjustment” devised by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has to make it through the current bankruptcy trial mostly unscathed.

Beyond that, the plan calls for reinvesting $1.4 billion in city services. But that money is, frankly, largely based on hopes and assumptions, which may or may not happen.

The city needs that much, at a minimum. And even Mayor Mike Duggan, the biggest Detroit booster of all, admits that all it would take to torpedo this is another recession or a cut in revenue sharing and other assistance from Lansing, both real possibilities.

Yet there is something very stunning here in a positive sense: How far the city has come in a few short months.

Homicide and other violent crime rates are dramatically lower, thanks perhaps to new Detroit Police Chief James Craig’s policies.

Working street lights are going in all over the city. Belle Isle, now being run by the state of Michigan as a park, is vastly improved.

While the long-term future and ownership of the water and sewerage department is yet to be determined, something fascinating has happened there too. As Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr notes in an interview in today’s Detroit Free Press, the system has gone from junk bond to investment grade status.

That means borrowing the money to make improvements will be cheaper. Detroit now has perhaps its last best chance to rebuild.

Failure in either the courts or in the financial coffers would be, as Kevyn Orr put it today, catastrophic.

Not just for Detroit, but for all of Michigan.

To a very real extent, the nation, and the world are watching.

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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