Ramona's picture

    Poor Old Detroit: Who is going to save it from itself?


    Detroit is my unofficial hometown.  I spent more years in and around Detroit than anywhere else in the country. I loved growing up there, so it would be hard not to have feelings for the city now, even after all of the scandals, the neglect, the excesses, the tearing-down of beautiful landmarks, and the destruction of entire formerly lovely neighborhoods for no earthly good reason other than that nobody cared.

    Even though I don't live there any longer, and haven't for years, I keep Detroit in my sights.  It's like an old friend gone weary and self-destructive.  All the hand-wringing in the world isn't going to save it from itself, but a friend is a friend forever, and often we delude ourselves by living on memories alone.  We just can't let go.

    My adopted city has long been at the mercy of elected officials gone greedy and potentatish.  Once in office, the lot of them come to see the city coffers -- taxpayer money -- as their own personal gold-stores ripe for the taking.

    Detroit Public Schools, the sole resource for educating the city's poor youth, has a dismal history of allowing the school board to spend much needed funds on fancy office furniture and through-the-roof expense accounts for exotic trips and chauffeur-driven limos.  (Dan Rather ran a two-hour special on the DPS in May.  They called it  "A National Disgrace".  That's putting it mildly.)

    I was a student in Detroit Public Schools in the 1940s.  Our buildings were beautiful, and so were the grounds.  We had gorgeous conservatories and libraries filled with stacks of leather-bound books, made cozy and welcoming with huge stone fireplaces, polished oak walls and sparkling leaded-glass windows.  I can still conjure up feeling pretty special while wandering around inside one of those schools.

    I don't know what happened -- the blame is often put on White Flight, on racism, on the movement of factories outside the city -- but whatever it was, all that was golden and promising in Detroit is no more.

    I blame some of it on the dissection of the neighborhoods by ill-placed freeways, and on the serious lack of any kind of useful public transportation.  There simply is no way to use public buses to get around the city.  Huge sections are left to fend for themselves if cars are not available.

    I blame some of it on the wholesale destruction of historic buildings and neighborhoods where, along with the demolition of thousands of tons of brick and mortar, a sense of belonging, of history, of continuity, was crushed beyond repair.

    But I blame most of it on a lack of caring.  Jobs have left the city, leaving poverty behind.  Any attempt at gentrifying the city is met with suspicion and a lack of support from city services, including police and fire departments.  It's big news if a major chain looks to build a store in Detroit proper.  The bigger news is how many choose not to build in Detroit. 

    I know for a fact that there are people in Detroit who hate what has happened to their city and are working to make it better. (Eleanor Josaitis was one of them.  She passed last week and will be forever missed.)  Former basketball star Dave Bing is the current mayor, having taken over after Kwame Kilpatrick's reign as head poobah of one of the most corrupt regimes in Detroit's history.  I want to believe Bing when he says he's working hard to make life better in Detroit.  I want to believe him when he says he's investigating this latest mess concerning the outright theft of monies meant to go to the poorest of the poor. (See below)  I want to take him at his word, but when I see that he has warned his staff not to talk to the media about this, I would be a fool not to wonder why.

    In a revelation that's almost hard to comprehend in a city as poor as Detroit, it's the city's Human Services Department that is currently under fire for personal and possibly illegal spending sprees.  The Human Services Department is the place where the poor are supposed to be able to get the help they need. Funding comes in the form of Federal Community Services anti-poverty Block Grants, which are meant to be used for employment, education, income management, housing, nutrition, emergency services and health, according to federal guidelines.

    Instead, they've been used to buy top-of-the-line washers and dryers, refrigerators and freezers, a laptop computer, a Wii Fit game, and assorted gift cards, none of which ever benefited the poor. This is the same department that was under fire earlier this year for spending $210,000 of the block grant money to buy expensive office furniture.

    Three employees of the Detroit Human Services Department, including the director, have been fired after a Free Press investigation revealed mismanagement and misspending.

    Mayor Dave Bing announced the firings after the city investigated the newspaper's report that $210,000 in federal funds intended for poor people were spent instead on office furniture.
    Bing said the investigation found nothing "fraudulent or criminal in nature" and then revealed that "most of the furniture purchases have been accounted for, however, two televisions and 10 computers have been determined missing."

    Bing said the investigation found "a lack of oversight and poor inventory management."

    Good Lord.  That's how Mayor Bing sees it.  It'll be interesting to see how the Feds see it.  An investigation follows some time this week.

    Meanwhile, if that's not depressing enough, there's this story by former Free Press columnist Desiree Cooper in her "Detroit Diary".  She writes that, in modern Detroit, people are going to jail for stealing things like diapers, formula, and vitamins, and not being able to pay fines for taking a fish out of season.

    "Long thought to be a relic of the 19th Century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” my good friend, Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan’s executive director, said in a press release. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. Our justice system should be a place where freedom has no price and equality prevails regardless of a defendant’s economic status.”

    But a 2010 multi-state study by the ACLU entitled, "In for a Penny," showed that Michigan is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to jailing people who are too poor to pay fines.

    "Michigan, a state hit harder than most by the recession, is trying to find operating funds in the most unlikely of places: the pockets of poor people who have been convicted of crimes," concluded the report. "Though the Michigan Constitution forbids debtors’ prisons and state laws explicitly prohibit the jailing of individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees because they are too poor, judges routinely threaten to jail and frequently do jail poor people who cannot pay."

    So stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a poor folks fund is simply "a lack of oversight and poor inventory management" but stealing a few dollars' worth of necessary food and goods, or not being able to pay a fine, is reason enough for a jail sentence?

    Detroit in the 21st century. "Les Miserables" all over again, as Cooper says.  What makes it even more disheartening is that these stories and others like them are all the ammunition Gov. Snyder and his Koch-addicted bunch need to get away with appointing "emergency financial managers" to take over school districts and municipalities and give them to private interests to do with them as they will.  The question, as always, is will Detroit survive?  The answer, as always, eludes us.  It's up to the people now.  We'll see if they think Detroit is still worth it.

     One evening, little Gavroche had had no dinner; he remembered that he had had no dinner the day before either; this was becoming tiresome.  Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.


    Last week I was reading a little history of Detroit (link lost) that related a drop in population of 50% over the last ten or fifteen years?

    I was thinking of doing a blog reflecting on how the nation as a whole is treating poverty as a crime:


    This is a really fine article at Salon dated today in fact.

    It covers the idea of putting folks in jail for lurking with intent to loiter

    That was an old attorneys maxim railing against the police state. But folks like Guilliani used this strategy to good effect in order to clean up Times Square and such.

    One of the laws discussed in the article is what I call the don't feed the pigeons ordinance.

    Charitable organizations were actually being prosecuted for taking vans filled with food and handing out the products to the homeless.


    That is a great article, Richard.  Oddly enough, I've just started reading "Nickle and Dimed" again.  I didn't make the connection until Ehrenreich said it in her article that she wrote that book during good times.  She's right when she says she couldn't have flitted from job to job as she did when she was researching her book. 

    We're living in bad times.  I don't know what it's going to take to turn things around, but I do know that whatever it is, it's not now being done.

    Barbara Ehrenreich is Rachel Maddow's interview tonight.  I'll be watching.  Staying up to catch the Wisconsin returns.  Hope it's not a long night...

    Detroit. Put all it's eggs in one petroleum powered basket.  Cleveland and Pittsburg had their eggs in a steel basket but they have faired better. Possibly because they are also big college towns as well. As is Chicago and Phillie.

    During the 1950s and 1960s a number of people who worked in Detroit lived in Windsor.  Some because of white flight.

    Detroit had nothing to replace the auto industry with. No foresight.

    Lack of mass transit had a lot to do with Detroit's failure to thrive. That, plus no appreciation for our history.  They failed to build a fine waterfront when they could have, and they tore down some of our most beautiful buildings, designed by world-class architects.

    U of Detroit and Wayne State University are both there and prominent, so the college town aspect doesn't fit.  We have a first class museum in the Institute of Arts.  The Science Center around the corner from the DIA is great.  We had some of the best shopping in our downtown, along Woodward Ave., and some pretty spectacular parks within the city limits.  Palmer Park was a jewel.  So was Belle Isle.  And the Detroit Zoo.

    With the right kind of leadership it might have survived the downturns.  We had leaders who only cared about greasing their own palms.  They watched blight grow and when it was bad enough, instead of fixing it, they tore whole neighborhoods down.  They had no concept about how to keep a city alive.  The first thing you do is retain the history, restore the beauty and nurture the pride.  They forgot that part, or never knew it.

    With mass transit it requires planning but in most major cities their bus system runs along the same routes the trollies did. Unfortunately areas change and grow that these routes become unviable and need to be changed and updated. If not you wind up with a system that no longer serves the needs of the populace. And if each little surrounding city and/or burb has its own system, then things become even more dysfunctional.

    There's more to it than that, C.  The Big Three automakers made a concerted effort to keep mass transit down in Detroit.  They lobbied to build criss-crossing Freeways instead, thus forcing people to buy and drive cars.  Buses would have been major competition.  They couldn't have that.  So Detroit became one of the few large cities with no mass transit.  When the city and the suburbs worked on a long, complicated agreement to create something similar to a Bart System, they fought that, too.  So it never happened.

    Considering the city and circumstances, I would have been surprised if it had not turned out that way. But that is a damn shame.

    East Cleveland



    But Youngstown is so much worse.



    I feel the same way about Flint, MI, that you do about Detroit, Ramona. Born and raised in and around, couldn't wait to get out of it, glad that I escaped, but so many memories and family history is linked to Flint, I simply cannot abandon it completely.


    Keep yer eye on this Dan Kildee mentioned in the above link. His uncle, Dale, is retiring from Congress and Dan's name is being bandied about as the candidate to replace him. He took a stab at running for MI Gov, but dropped out early, leaving the Dem nod to Bernero.

    I'm thinking now that Uncle Dale gave him a head's up of the upcoming retirement giving Dan an opening to run for U.S.Rep. if it is something he would wish to pursue. Even if he doesn't run for Representative, he has great potential as a progressive leader in some form or fashion. I'd even put money on him eventually becoming the person who could actually replace our Senator Levin when it comes time for him to retire. I mean, if Sander doesn't want the job. wink

    Ok, sorry I got a little off topic.

    The other day I caught a PBS show called Under the Radar Michigan, which had a segment on a jazz place in Detroit, Cliff Bells. It has been renovated to reflect its' 1930's jazz club aura and as much as I do not hanker for an urban existence, I'll be damned if I don't want to give this place a visit one of these days.


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