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Commentary: Today's Detroit compared to 60 years ago


Sixty years ago today, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the  nation, vibrant, rich and powerful. The city wouldn’t begin losing people till the first freeways opened up in the next year.

The population had probably reached two million. The summer before, the President of the United States had come to help the city celebrate its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary.

Nobody sixty years ago could have imagined today’s Detroit; broken, dysfunctional, home to perhaps no more than a third of its peak population. Most are poor, a staggering number jobless; nearly half functionally illiterate.

City services have largely broken down. The street lights don’t come on; the cops take forever to come, the schools are a scandal.

My guess is that if you transported a Detroiter from nineteen fifty-two into the present, his or her immediate reaction would be that there must have been a nuclear war.

This day and this anniversary has personal meaning for me; I was born sixty years ago today, into that vibrant city which today, in many respects, is as extinct as the Ottoman Empire. The place where my family lived has long since been bulldozed.

The small community hospital where I was born has become a nursing home, and yes, it has crossed my mind that it might be poetic justice if I ended up back there. But not quite yet.

My own health, knock on wood, seems quite a bit better than that of my birthplace. For much of this week, it looked like this would be the day a state-appointed emergency manager took over Detroit.

Yesterday, that was narrowly averted, at least for now, by a single vote, when city council approved a consent agreement which turns much of the city’s power over to a financial advisory board.

Much, but not all. The agreement creates a complex framework designed to restore the city to functionality and solvency, but a lot could go wrong along the way. First of all, the nine-person Financial Advisory Board has to be appointed. The city will name four members; the state four.

The ninth member, however, and the potential deciding vote, has to be mutually appointed by the governor, the mayor and the city council. So far, these three actors have had difficulty agreeing on how to pour water out of a boot. After that, a whole sequence of complex actions begins, many steps of which need city council approval.

It is far from certain that somebody won’t sabotage this at some point, and an emergency manager will come in after all. Or the city could wind up under the supervision of a federal bankruptcy judge, which would be worse. For Detroit, the hard part is just starting.

But there’s no point in being pessimistic. I’ve been talking about what Detroit was like sixty years ago. Sixty years before that, it was an ordinary town of two hundred thousand people, where the inhabitants made fertilizer and stoves, and an unknown engineer named Henry Ford was tinkering in his garage.

Let’s hope that Detroit lives up to its motto, which, translated from the Latin, literally means “it rises from the ashes.” And let’s a hope a far better Detroit comes to exist before sixty years from now.

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