At the Detroit Department of Transportation headquarters on September 17, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced the implementation of an improved bus system in Detroit. Instead of the bus sign behind them blinking a destination, as is usual with buses, it flashed, one by one, “Welcome — Joe Biden — Detroit.” 

Though the initiative to bring new buses to Detroit may not be flashy, it has the real needs of Detroiters in mind to help them in their day-to-day lives and to bring them into a more stable standard of living. In the past, people have had to stand in the frigid Michigan cold for long hours in the winter waiting for buses that may have already been full. It impacts the lives of so many Detroiters who, with this new system, can get to work or school on time, safely and effectively.

Biden has been a supporter of Detroit in the past. He, alongside the rest of the Obama administration, invested $40 million from the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation funds to create a research and development project in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. 

As Biden spoke of how “Detroit is off its back, off its knees, standing up again,” I felt a hope welling up inside that there’s potential for real change, but I also began to feel uneasy. His words echoed in my head: “We would never abandon the people of Detroit. It’s like abandoning the heart of America.”

Though I believe in this effort and the work that Biden has done for Detroit in the past, I couldn’t stomach the idea that Detroit has never been neglected, to say the least.

This isn’t to say progress in Detroit is not being made, but there are substantial problems in the city that have been overlooked. Every minute we avoid talking about the big picture and the complexities of the problems in Detroit is another person’s life negatively affected. So, instead, let’s talk about the good and the bad in Detroit, so that we are able to move forward together.

Let’s start a real conversation about Detroit.

At DDOT, as Biden talked about bringing in the brightest young people to Detroit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the young minds growing up in the city. Children in Detroit are suspended in an education system where teachers and faculty do most of the groundwork to improve their schools.

I spent some time volunteering at Detroit Achievement Academy, a charter school in Detroit for children in kindergarten to third grade, where the teachers truly care about their students and spend time encouraging them. While volunteering, I watched the children become excited to learn and to spend time with the volunteers. However, a looming reality hangs over them, as premature birth and violence are the top reasons for the death of children in Detroit in January 2014. Almost 500 children have been killed by homicide since 2010, and Detroit has had a higher homicide rate for children and adolescents than any U.S. city of equivalent or larger size. These are Detroit’s bright minds that need to be nurtured and kept in a safe environment, yet they’re often not.

Though some people may want to make progress in the city, others are discouraged by high property taxes that cripple entrepreneurs while making it difficult for people to get out of homelessness, as suggested by the Detroit News in 2013. It also creates an extra burden on those that already reside in Detroit homes, and though the city may be in need of this money, high property taxes may not be the best alternative, as they push people away, hurting the Detroit economy.

While listening to Biden speak about Detroit and its transportation system, my heart hurt the most when I thought about the recent Detroit water shutoff, which went without enough attention from the public, media or politicians. The city’s leaders gave out 3,000 notices to people that their water would be shut off if they didn’t pay their bill in 10 days. Furthermore, Duggan went against the Detroit City Council’s resolution to temporarily freeze the shutoff. Although delinquent water bills were a large problem that cost the city money, it ignored the public health issues this created for people who legitimately couldn’t afford to pay their water bills. This financial situation and health crisis shouldn’t have become so severe, with the United Nations speaking about the shutoff as a human rights violation before our nation’s federal government. But it did.

I couldn’t fathom that something right in my backyard would be so terrible, but the situation is just a symptom of the attitudes and neglect Detroit has been through.

Trying to instill hope in the people of Detroit, reminding them they’re not being abandoned and that Detroit is back is a valiant effort. A lot of progress is being made with this new bus system; it brings the people of Detroit something they need that is long overdue. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to bring Detroit back on its feet.

My hope is that this really is a step to rethinking Detroit in terms of the most basic and urgent needs of the people.

As Biden said “This isn’t an investment in buses, this is an investment in the people of Detroit.” 

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.

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