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Commentary

Resurget Cineribus (it will arise from the ashes)

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Thanksgiving always has reminded me of the famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Some of this goes back to my childhood, when President Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving, and a gloom hung over the nation in a way now hard to imagine.

Add to that the fact that I seem to be deeply un-American in that I would rather do almost anything other than spend hours trapped in front of a TV watching football.

Unless, that is, it involves that form of mass hysteria known as holiday shopping. Last week I overheard two excited women sharing the news that they weren’t going to have to wait till Black Friday. This year, the shopping malls will open on Turkey Day itself.

You youngsters out there may not believe this, but there was a time when you had to wait until the day after Thanksgiving to get into a fist fight with a perfect stranger over a Cabbage Patch doll.

But enough nostalgia. For all of us, especially perhaps Detroit, this seems to be a uniquely best and worst of times week. Today, Federal Judge Steven Rhodes is expected to set the date on which the city will finally emerge from bankruptcy.

Detroit will emerge earlier than once expected, in better shape than many expected, and with some hope for a better future.

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Obama today will be presenting John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in history, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award any civilian can receive.

These are nasty and poisonous times in Washington, but honoring Dingell has received bipartisan praise.  

But on Detroit’s east side, artist Tyree Guyton is coping with having yet another of his legendary Heidelberg Project homes hit by an arsonist. That brings to a dozen the number of his houses that have been partly or fully destroyed in the last 18 months by someone who keeps evading both police and private security cameras.

Guyton’s wild and fantastical folk art may not be popular with everyone, but it has won him, and Detroit, worldwide recognition; he’s been treated as a hero in Japan and Australia. Yet people here in his hometown are burning his work down, This isn’t a good sign, in a city where the post-bankruptcy future depends on everyone working together.

More than 200 years ago, after the small town of Detroit was utterly destroyed by fire, Father Gabriel Richard came up with the city’s motto. You can look up the Latin; in English, it means: "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes." We’ve had a lot of ashes and broken dreams ever since.

But incredibly, those are Tyree Guyton’s sentiments exactly. Yesterday, he talked to one of my former students, now a reporter for the Detroit News. He said, “Mother Teresa said what you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build it anyway."

” And he added that his grandpa, on his deathbed, told him, “Son, don’t you stop – no matter what happens.”

Apologies to Gabriel Richard, but for Detroit going forward, that might just be the best motto of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays 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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