What Detroit Could Learn From Richard Linklater

Illustration for article titled What Detroit Could Learn From Richard Linklater

I worked a late shift Monday and woke up late, so, in the spirit of embracing a morning full of nothing, I popped Richard Linklater's 1991 classic "Slacker" into my roommates' Blu-ray player and diligently went about my morning routine of sitting on my couch.

(For anyone unaware of Linklater: Before directing 2003's "School of Rock," he made a number of great films, including "Dazed and Confused," "subUrbia," and, the first of what I think is an excellent trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, "Before Sunrise.")

"Slacker," a sort-of plotless film that portrays a day in Austin, Texas around 1990, is seen as one of the decade's classic indie films. As a bonus to a 2004 reissue of the movie, Linklater's first feature film "It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books," is included. I chose to watch that instead. And, as asinine as it sounds, I think Detroit's officials could maybe learn something from Linklater's first long-term effort.


"Plow" follows a character (played by Linklater) who travels the country and has very little dialogue. Nothing really happens, it's a meditative experience about the mundane, and, to Linklater, that's OK.

"It's easy to look back on something you did so long ago and think, 'Oh, you know I didn't really put much thought into that, I was really young," Linklater says in an added audio commentary track. "But, I think you are kind of who you are, and that's why I sort-of in a strange way stand behind this film. ... That's where I was, that's what I could do at that moment."

That last point struck me. I'm going to come back to it, but, for now, walk with me.

For weeks leading up to the federal judge's ruling today that determined Detroit is officially bankrupt, we've heard the city's Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr talk at length about how the Chapter 9 process will be painful for some employees whose pensions may be cut. He noted today at a press conference following Judge Steven Rhodes ruling that it may be a long, painful process, too, for residents dealing with a low quality of life.


Tom Walsh of the Detroit Free Press banged it over our heads this afternoon, saying in so many ways that the city's bankruptcy will be painful. "The rehab will take awhile. It may not even work as well as planned," Walsh says, letting us know just how much writhing pain the city is about to feel.


Except, conditions in the city during The Largest Municipal Bankruptcy In U.S. History won't necessarily be that painful because things already are painful. Yeah, Kevyn Orr is aware of that, so is Tom Walsh. But pushing the idea that bankruptcy will be complex and painful is an effortless, if not pointless, exercise of huffing air and slinging ink.

Why do I say that? As a third-party observer who has watched this process unfold, two things have stuck out as the nastiest warts of the matter: 1) Police and fire protection in the city is deplorable, and, 2) People aren't working; and, if they are working, they're not making much money.


These things are painful, yet they are not complex to understand.

But understanding all the nuances of how a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing can save the city, that's a bit more difficult and sounds like it'll be awful.


A fact I didn't get into my story today on the bankruptcy eligibility hearing, was a comment made by Cooley Law Professor Curt Benson during an interview.

Benson, to keep it simple, said if more Detroit residents aren't working in some capacity, while earning a decent living, some time soon — the city's unemployment rate is somewhere around 16% and it's median household income is around $25,000 — there's no reason to believe, even after successfully emerging from the current petition, that it can't end up back in bankruptcy court. Benson said this is something not nearly being considered enough right now. Who knows, maybe he's right.


So, in the spirit of Linklater, why not consider what we can do — right now. Let's focus on those two aforementioned points: improving fire and police protection and creating jobs. (As Charlie Pierce likes to say of his blog's first economic principle: "Fk The Deficit. People Got No Jobs. People Got No Money.")

Well, the recent announcement of a $24 million federal grant to hire 150 firefighters is great. And Detroit's newest police chief seems to have a good sense on how to possibly get a better hold on the city's crime rate. New police cars and ambulances, sure, sure. Incoming Mayor-elect Mike Duggan says he wants to do whatever he can to reduce the crime rate, and has continually touted his time as Wayne County prosecutor, where he says in 2003 the county had the fewest murders its seen in 30 years thanks to his strategies.


I haven't heard much about jobs, though. I tossed out the idea before of implementing a regional, merged government between, say, Wayne County and Detroit, as a way to boost much needed revenue or funding. One of Michigan Radio's local commentators, Jack Lessenberry, has touted the idea for years. Ted McClelland pitched the idea at Salon this summer, too.

But here, the idea of creating what Lessenberry calls Greater Detroit, is a nonstarter. The state legislature would have to pass a bill allowing the merger. And the political will to pull such a stunt in Lansing is nonexistent.


Something else: a jobs program. The idea's out there, from one of Detroit's own. U.S.Rep. John Conyers, Jr. has a bill floating around that would target areas in need of putting bodies to work.

"The most palpable issue facing [Detroit] has been the chronic lack of access to sustainable employment," Conyers told me in a story I did for In These Times. He said the jobs package would create somewhere between 3 to 6 million full-time, market wage jobs building roads, schools, parks; hiring teachers and staff for blight-removal projects.


Maybe efforts like that could help, but spending money right now is like drinking gasoline — we're just not into doing that.

Orr, Gov. Rick Snyder, the whole group, all have mentioned how there's Good Things happening in Detroit that we should be excited about — downtown and midtown are just booming, ya'll. At the press conference today, Orr said we need to make the city a place where people want to live and feel comfortable residing...like, you know, in downtown, where people already feel like that.


Except, the majority of people living in this city probably have no interest in living at non-market rate lofts and apartments. Some, surprisingly, probably don't want to be stuck in a place near a college campus with loud-ass students bar hopping every night. Again, probably not the best talking point to incessantly reiterate.


No, a lot of people just want to have a decent paying job with a nice home in a nice neighborhood. They want to know if they call the police, a cop will arrive soon after. It's that simple and there are examples on how those two points could be achieved. What we could do — right now — is continue to implement initiatives that improve the city's crime rates and start putting people back to work.

If that doesn't happen — even if the city emerges from bankruptcy and Orr leaves a clean slate behind — then, who knows, maybe Detroit could end up back in bankruptcy court.


I'd hate to see this entire painful process be done in vain. But, if more people aren't working and earning an OK wage while doing so, Orr's legacy may simply be just what he intends to achieve: a clean slate.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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