SOUTHFIELD, Mich. – Mayor Dave Bing has begun town hall meetings to discuss restructuring the City of Detroit. His dilemma is monumental. Detroit consists of 143 square miles. The population has declined from two million at its peak in the 1950’s, to less than one million residents. The cities of San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston can all fit within the city limits of Detroit.
The problem is population loss resulting in residents living spread out all over the Detroit city limits. Mayor Bing would like to downsize the residential area to maximize city services.
Driving through the city is heartbreaking. As a native Detroiter, I have fond memories of the way things used to be in Detroit. Neighborhoods were vibrant and well kept. There were places to shop within the city limits. Most important, you could expect a response when you called for help. Now abandoned structures are everywhere and fires are destroying the remaining homes. Many areas of the city have reverted to prairies with grass 5 feet high because no one is rebuilding or maintaining the area. In the midst of the urban prairie, you may find a well kept home.
The recent Detroit fires punctuated the extreme need for improvement of basic services. Detroit firefighters battled 85 fires one day when the usual daily number is 35. Staffing and equipment problems hindered their progress. The response times were so slow that many homes burned to the ground.
Detroit’s claim to fame in modern times has been the automotive industry and the Motown music contributions. In historic times, Detroit was renowned as a shipping port and was once the capitol of Michigan. The name Detroit means “strait”. Detroit is the only U.S. city that looks south to Canada.
Detroit was hit hard by the recession. In fact the recession was felt in Detroit before the rest of the country. It was exacerbated by the problems of the automotive industry. The situation was further aggravated by the large lawsuits paid out by the city for large judgments such as the judgment paid to the police officers in the city hall scandals.
Many Detroit residents have left for the suburbs because of crime and the lack of city services. They were encouraged by the fact that there is a hefty black tax associated with life in Detroit in the form of higher insurance rates, higher utility taxes, poor city services and limited shopping.
Racism plays a large role in segregating the citizens and disenfranchising Black and Hispanic citizens. Michigan has a checkered past when it comes to racism. While the State was once a haven for runaway slaves, the hiring and promotional policies of Whites in power often have the effect of suppressing upward mobility for Blacks. It is a form of covert racism.
In Detroit basic services are lacking. Vital services such as EMS, Fire and Police response are substandard. Police response in the city has been a joke for decades. Many are familiar with the smart talking 911 operator who argued with a child over the phone when he called for help. The mother died while the operator chastised the child for “Playing on the phone”, instead of dispatching help.
Mayor Bing has a huge challenge. He will need the support of everyone to improve Detroit. Many Detroiters are suspicious because of past experience with failed urban renewal programs. And who can convince a senior whose home has been owned for years to move? The meetings continue this week.
WDIV Flashpoint September 19, 2010
Detroit Free Press, September 20, 2010
Michigan Chronicle September 15-21