For conservatives it is an open wound on the state of Michigan, festering with crime and joblessness, a sinful entity beyond atonement. For liberals it is an illegitimate child run amok, needy and defiant, perpetually in need of “saving.” But for the almost 900,000 people who live there, Detroit is simply home.
I am told that the city was great once, a glimmering product of the nation’s love affair with the automobile. Detroit’s grand avenues were filled with expensive shops and wealthy shoppers, and its downtown boomed with culture. There was a time when people of all faiths and ethnic origins came to the city, searching for a job in one of the great car companies. For over half a century, Detroit was the epitome of the cutting edge.
But that Detroit is gone, long ago replaced with sprawling ghettos and tremendous poverty. Today it is the most dangerous city in the country and the second most racially segregated. Its public school system alone boasts a $198 million dollar deficit, and its mayor is ranked as one of the worst in the nation by Time Magazine.
In the past two decades, politicians from Eight Mile to Lansing have created careers out of declaring Detroit to be in a state of renaissance, and the city has become a graveyard of bad ideas and shortsighted schemes.
We were told, for example, that the Renaissance Center would bring jobs and prestige to the city. Instead it became an oasis for businessmen and women, who can now enter and leave Detroit without ever having to set foot in the actual city at all. All the ideas were ineffective and ill-conceived; some were just plain insulting. The People Mover, for instance, was supposed to improve public transportation. It has instead been called “the road to nowhere.” It was grossly under-funded and badly executed.
Politicians are not the only ones who have jumped on the “save Detroit” bandwagon. A community service group for University students, the Detroit Project runs an array of initiatives, from tutoring to home-building. Though the Detroit Project seems good-natured, you have to wonder who really benefits from its generosity. Because while its abject poverty and close proximity to Ann Arbor may suggest otherwise, Detroit is not a very large community service project for the University. Detroit Day is nothing more than an opportunity for students to spend a few hours with a hammer; when they return to the ivory tower they can sleep soundly wearing their badges of righteousness the other 364 days of the year.
We are all guilty of seeing Detroit as a problem instead of a city and it is proving far easier to address the ugliness we see in Detroit than the ugliness in our own hearts and minds.
Liberals see a cautionary tale in Detroit — a shameful example of the catastrophe that results when white businesses and taxpayers wrongfully flee a city, leaving darker residents to fend for themselves.
Conservatives see Detroit as the bane of Michigan’s existence, a city seething with indecency, surging with drug use and overflowing with an illiterate black population who are to blame for their continued misery. Both of these sentiments are useless: Detroit is neither a lost cause to sweep under the rug nor a dumping ground for the guilt of the more fortunate.
Detroit is a city and its needs are far from ideological or abstract — its residents have real problems that require tangible solutions.
It is not a renaissance Detroit needs but an education system, one accountable to its citizens that can help create a high-tech job market independent of the dying manufacturing economy. The city needs a real public transportation system to bring small businesses into the city that will build strong communities; transportation is key in combating the intense racial segregation that plagues the city.
None of these things are easy to accomplish but all are possible. If we are serious about creating real change, we must confront an uncomfortable reality: It is we who are most in need of saving, not Detroit. Grand schemes like the Renaissance Center and the Detroit Project fail because they are not designed to improve the city of Detroit at all. It is, in fact, our consciences they are attempting to redeem.
Gay is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.