Get ready, folks! It's time for another progress report on America's most forlorn and depressed city, now even deeper in the throes of bankruptcy than ever before.
July 18 marks the day Detroit filed for bankruptcy, which means you'll likely be inundated with one-year anniversaries on the topic in the next week. The Freep's going to do it. The News is going to do it. Rumor has it you're going to read about it in The New York Times Sunday magazine this weekend. So we decided to get our analysis out a little early.
I decided to spare you the details of the actual bankruptcy proceedings — do you really care what kind of cufflinks emergency manager Kevyn Orr is wearing? Instead, I tried to answer the questions you really wanted to ask. I tried to answer before, two months after bankruptcy. A full year later, what has changed?
Nothing happened overnight, but it sort of feels like it.
Probably the worst part of researching this was reading all the silver-bullet suggestions to save Detroit. "Can't the city just ______?" "What would happen if Detroit just _______?" "Is it possible for the city to just ________." NO. STOP. You can't "just" do one thing and boom, problem solved. A magic factory doesn't solve unemployment. Absorbing other cities doesn't fix population loss. Selling the art doesn't turn the water back on. Detroit's problems are systemic. Breaking down those systems seems to be top priority, though.
The new regime is all about simplifying and consolidating departments, moving funding where it needs to be and eliminating red tape. So, for example, the number of houses that the city has owned all these years? They're for sale now, and people are buying them up. The time it takes for a demolition of a vacant house? Seems to be faster, since the city has approached local contractors big and small.
The police department improved.
A lot of this is anecdotal, but as I said in my previous progress report: Whenever you call the police, they show up on time. I said back in September they'd show up in about 10 minutes. Almost a year later, they still do. I've noticed more and more police cars patrolling the residential streets as much as the main thoroughfares. Despite some earlier reports, the department didn't initiate any stop-and-frisk policies. Cops haven't been intimidating to the point of harassment. And Police Chief James Craig has been all over TV every time he wants us to see a drug bust.
I'm a little uncomfortable with Craig always being on TV showing the bad guys getting caught (it's a little reminiscent of the time when a reality show was filming one of our other police chiefs and a little girl's murder was caught on tape). But Craig says violent crime has gone down since he took office last year. Crime isn't gone completely, obviously. But it seems OK to be optimistic instead of cautiously optimistic.
Some other city services improved, too.
My trash got picked up every week on the same day, but when the garbage men actually came was anyone's guess. Lately, they've been coming down my street at 7 a.m. on the dot every week. I used to be able to get away with not having to put our can out until, like, the middle of the day. Yesterday, I was hustling to get it out on time.
And we have recycling now, too! Congrats to Detroit for catching up with 1993.
A lot of city services still suck.
The blighted structures are coming down, finally.
As part of its continued obsession with Detroit, The New York Times came out with a big ol' blight map showing that there were thousands of blighted structures in the city. And then Times profiled a bunch of people who were living in houses that were "sliding into blight." So if you saw the blight map first, took that, and ran with it, you might think that a large chunk of Detroit is blighted and that the whole city just needs to be torn down. But we here locally know that the technical definition of blight is all-encompassing, and that many people are either improving blighted structures or struggling to keep up what they have under the worst circumstances. If I set my house on fire and leave it gutted, my house is blighted. If I go two weeks without mowing my lawn, my house is blighted. The definition is just too vague. (This video is a good example).
So what's being done about actual homes that can't be saved? Drive around town — I'll give you West Euclid Street or Calvert Street in the North End, for example — and you'll see big yellow signs on broken-down homes that say the city of Detroit will demolish that home on a particular date. The administration says it will ramp up demolitions from 200 structures a month to 1,200 a month. Yeah…I'm taking that with a giant can of Morton's. Sorry, Duggan. But there is slow progress. (If you're wondering how it's paid for, it's through millions of dollars in federal grants.)
We still elected a few ridiculous politicians but they weren't all terrible.
Lots of people — myself included — were hesitant about Brenda Jones, a longtime city councilwoman who was elected president of the nine-member panel for this term. She represented the "old," someone who may have clung a little too tight to increasingly antiquated ideals about how Detroit should be run and could stand in the way of real progress. We were wrong. Turns out, Jones has not only been cooperative with city leaders and emergency management, she's also been a voice of reason when it comes to the concerns of longtime residents. When the state took over Belle Isle and went gangbusters with the police force, Jones wondered aloud if the amount of force would scare regular, law-abiding people away. She might have been right.
But man, did we facepalm when fellow city councilman George Cushingberry, Jr., started showing his ass this year. From driving with pot and open intoxicants to allegations of stealing classic cars to roughing up reporters to abandoning his own houses (does he even live in his district?) — just a mess. Add to this the recent news that another city councilman, Scott Benson, was arrested for suspicion of drunken driving.
My position is as long as they're not being bribed with sausage, the current crop of politicians is mostly OK. B-minus overall.
Wild dogs didn't take over the city.
I walked my three dogs this morning and saw a stray dog following us for a bit. Turns out he was lost when I saw a collar around his neck. But when I kept looking for the thousands of other stray dogs, I didn't see them. Maybe they're hiding in the train station.
Lots of riffraff started invading downtown.
And also, this.
The average cost of a house went from a price of a budget-lot used car to a J.D. Byrider overpriced one.
You still can't buy a bunch of $1 houses in Detroit and even if you could you wouldn't want to. But the housing market is slooooowly getting better and if the sales of homes in the Detroit Land Bank are any indication, people are still crazy enough to live here.
But population did drop off.
Unlike the trend of other cities, the city's population continued to dwindle below 700,000 while the suburbs gained population. Wild stab in the dark suggests better education options were the reason. Which brings us to…
The education is this town is absolutely dismal.
Never mind the fact that the Detroit Public Schools system has been under state oversight longer than the city and still can't get it right. The city's other public school system, the completely unnecessary Education Achievement Authority, has been a disaster since day one. I know this, because I used to cover education.
The department spent thousands of dollars sending its staff to conferences all around the country when it couldn't fund its own overcrowded classrooms. A teacher in one of the schools was fired — and later re-hired — when she broke up a classroom fight with a broom. The chancellor resigned after two years of non-results from the district. Enrollment fell. State test scores were terrible. Nobody wants to work there. State lawmakers have wondered whether they should pull the plug on the whole thing. And students and their parents, as it has been in Detroit for the last seven years or so, continue to get the short end of the stick.
Gentrification did and didn't happen.
There's a saying in Detroit that "there hasn't been enough people in Detroit yet for gentrification to happen." This is really code-speak for "there hasn't been enough white people in Detroit yet for gentrification to happen." Because as long as this city is majority black and brown, people will continue to think that gentrification isn't happening. But it kinda sorta is.
Hands-down the best piece of thought to come out of the city this year came from Laura Hughes of the Skillman Foundation, who wrote about "psychological gentrification" going on in Detroit. It perfectly encapsulates what many of us in Detroit are saying, but can't seem to get across to visiting reporters, entrepreneurs, business interests and everyone else buzzing around here:
I first heard the term ‘psychological gentrification’ from George N’Namdi of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art just over a month ago at the Michigan Citizen’s “Two Detroits? Gentrification?” forum. As George eloquently shared, the future of the city does not include images that look like him or me, while subtitles of Detroit’s narrative point to folks who look like us as responsible for the city’s demise. To me, psychological gentrification is the first step in a shifting narrative of who belongs, who is responsible for past, and who will shape our future.
I am a 34-year-old African American woman who has lived in the city for 10 years. I came here by choice and have the privilege, accountability, and responsibility associated with my choice. My personal mantra is to ensure that the world I touch is a better place for the children who will grow up in it. I am committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity in my work and play. And I straddle the “Two Detroits” most visibly as part of an interracial relationship and the narrowly constructed bookend black-white conversation. Many of the images of the city’s futures show young vibrant couples walking dogs who all happen to not look a thing like me, but almost always, reflect my partner who is white.
It's the constant reinforcement from any story about Detroit that all the blacks are poor and the only ones to save us are the young, white entrepreneurs, despite the fact that there are thousands of people of all races getting along just fine and they're even opening up businesses of their own. Even the NYT sort of trolled us by putting a white entrepreneur in its spotlight and asking him, "so, how does it feel being in the spotlight?"
We still aren't talking enough about making sure that everyone is at the table for the conversation. We have things like "Detroit's Largest Selfie" where only people downtown are invited to take a picture in the middle of the workday. We have all these panels and discussions and conferences where the same 30 under 30 Crain's-listers lecture us about how they've made their lives wonderful in Detroit — in the three years they've lived here. We see the Detroit Bus Company all the time as a paragon of transportation of Detroit. We never see Safeway Transportation, which has been run by a black woman for years.
But then people go back to the "well, there hasn't been enough people here yet for gentrification to happen" argument, but when a certain narrative is being pushed, could you blame people for thinking otherwise?
Detroiters fought for ownership of the city while letting others tell their story.
I've noticed these two constructs whenever having a conversation about Detroit with fellow Detroiters.
- "Detroit is a great place to live and I love it here": You're delusional. You're a pollyanna. All the parking meters are broken. The only improvements are downtown and even that's not a great place because there's no Macy's. My neighbor was just mauled by a dog and an arsonist burned down her house and now she's on crack, and you call that improvement? You must be new here, go to Royal Oak.
- "Detroit still has a long way to go before it can be great again": It's already great! This place is awesome if you know the right people! Downtown is getting better and better and I actually feel safe! You just don't see what we see every day! We have a Whole Foods! Crime went down 1% and here are the stats to prove it! Why are you so critical! If you don't like it, then just go to Royal Oak!
My fellow Detroiters, why must we be so divisive and sensitive? Instead of having yet another conversation about where Shinola's gift boxes are manufactured, how about standing up to whatever negative (and often erroneous) perceptions everyone else has about us?
I've noticed that in recent months, Chicago has been fighting back against the "Chiraq" label, and every time someone tweets a "this is how Chicago is really is and outsiders are getting it wrong," the general Twitter consensus is "why yes, we should be listening to actual Chicagoans." Is Detroit not allowed this same respect? Or are we still going to let Slate and the rest over-sensationalize the issues we know to be relatively trivial?
The water shutoff situation…
…is something I don't think anyone, not even the water department itself, is sure of. I honestly don't even know where to begin with this. But as someone who lives here and follows it just a bit more closer, I can explain it better than someone who had an all-expenses-paid trip to the region but didn't set foot in the city limits.
For one, let's talk about the coverage of this. There's been some talk that it's all a conspiracy against low-income residents and that there's no clean water available and we're no better than some third-world countries and certainly the United Nations should come and rescue us and et cetera, et cetera. Buried within all of this: The shutoff program started months ago and an overwhelmingmajority of customers who are shut off pay their balances immediately.
Are Detroiters too poor to pay their water bill? I haven't surveyed each and every one. But I know that money doesn't suddenly fall out of thin air when a utility is shut off.
My opinion here: If you live in Detroit, you know that you can go up to three, maybe four months on your water bill without getting a shutoff notice. Compare that to the electric company, which will cut your shit off the day you miss that payment. I'm not going to be all Hank Winchester and suggest that people would rather have cable TV instead of clean water, but it's clear the water department is sending a message that residents should get in the habit of paying their bills on a monthly basis (like we already do to keep our gas and electricity on) so that there is constant stream of revenue to keep things going, and to keep residents out the hole so they don't rack up insane balances.
I think if one were to survey any street in Detroit, you'd probably find a vast majority of households unconcerned with the water situation. At least that's the feeling around my parts, and I'm not in downtown or Midtown.
The art wasn't sold.
Thanks to a package of donations and state funds, the Detroit Institute of Arts is well on its way to being spun off from the city of Detroit and becoming an independent, non-profit entity. The art is still being appraised at the request of Detroit's creditors, but it's unlikely it'll be auctioned off. Even if it were — as we've been saying all this time — it won't turn the lights back on. Shout-out to all the art critics who spilled all that ink for nothing, though.
The lights came back on anyway.
New streetlights have been put in all over the place, and they're supposed to be scrapper-proof so we'll see how that goes.
The pensioners will still have to take a hit.
It's very likely that thousands of retirees will likely see reduced pension payments as the city continues to negotiate with its representatives. Funding for pensions will likely come from investments from foundations, as well as state funding from the Grand Bargain that also benefits the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The city is still negotiating with other unions, but if a deal with the Detroit Police Officers Union approved recently is any indication, there will be little pushback on all sides.
Detroit did OK, but the state of Michigan not so much.
For all the glimmers of hope in Detroit, the state of Michigan certainly did their damndest to make us the national embarrassment. From do-nothing action on the terrible roads, to halting gay marriage as soon as we got it, to letting prisoners eat maggots, to the controversial abortion rider, and just a general pessimistic attitude toward women from female legislators themselves, it was not a banner year for mitten-state politics.
Nothing changed and everything changed.
I hate to say "it feels like a new day in Detroit" but it does. I'm not going to try to explain it because you really have to live here (yes, everyone says that) to see it. But at the same time…eh. We still have our problems like everywhere else. And we're still going to.