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Commentary: A Detroit valentine

Last night I listened to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s State of the City address.  There was a certain poignancy about it. He has to know it’s extremely likely that an emergency manager will be appointed soon, which will make him a virtual figurehead.

The speech was positive and upbeat, and listed the good things he has done and he is trying to do. There will be, he promised, yet another crime strategy. More vacant structures will be knocked down. The new authority will try to get the street lights back on.

When it was over, the speech was criticized by some for emphasizing the positive too much. I could see their point. But that’s not what this speech was for, really. Bing was speaking to history. He was, in a sense, justifying his time as mayor.

Bing has been a Detroit icon for nearly half a century, as basketball player, then businessman. People begged him to run for years before he finally did four years ago. He hasn’t said whether he’ll run for reelection.

But in any event, this was the report of a good and decent man who inherited a mess too big for anyone to solve. “My administration inherited a $332 million accumulated deficit,” plus nearly 14 billion in long-term liabilities, he said. He added, “there have not been any payless paydays, no Emergency Manager  -- to date.” He knows one is coming.

The night before his speech, I went to dinner in a rough part of the city with a man who is, in his own way, a cultural icon. John King owns one of the largest used book stores in the country, which sits at the intersection of Lafayette Boulevard and the Lodge. People come from all over the nation to see some of his treasures.

King, who looks a little like Ichabod Crane and a little like General Custer, turns 63 tomorrow. He has lived in the city his entire life. Most of his employees are Detroiters whom he hires and trains. But Detroit’s bureaucracy doesn’t make living and doing business there easy.

A few years ago, King built a lovely little apartment for himself atop one of his buildings. When he tried to sign up for cable TV, the city tried to charge him $3,000 a month. He bought a satellite dish.

In December the city informed him they had been undercharging his water bill. He said, okay, I’ll pay more. Then they sent him a bill for more than $13,000 dollars. He hasn’t had any luck getting them to return his calls.

He told me about this as we drove down Fort Street, past mile after mile of deserted factories with roofs caved in, too many even to count. “East Berlin,” he said. Circa 1950. We ate in a tiny hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant on a street called Lawndale, where there are no streetlights and everyone was Hispanic. 

Living in the city is gradually wearing him out. His significant other, Janelle, would like to give up and move to San Francisco. King admits it’s more tempting all the time. Thousands and thousands like him have left. What’s not clear is what any mayor, or emergency manager, can do to get them to stay.