Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week eight of the occupation.
May 14, 2013
The Office of the Emergency Manager issued its “Financial and Operating Plan” for the city of Detroit. It is a limited document. As predicted, it said Detroit is in financial trouble. It repeats the concern for the $15 billion in long-term debt and adds that the city was out of money as of April 26, having $64 million in cash but $226 million in obligations. It goes on to tell us that much of the city is “dysfunctional.” Police, fire, water, lighting, transportation, and recreation don’t work. All require an overhaul. All will be studied for plans for improvement. And we have a problem with blight. That will be studied too. And then we can expect quick action.
The New York Times summed up the report as “dire.” The Times explains, “The picture of debt and disarray he paints may be bleaker even than earlier grim portrayals.” The best the Detroit Free Press could come up with was, “It’s hard to imagine how something could be disappointing and illuminating at the same time.” Nancy Kaffer noted it is “not exactly groundbreaking.”
As the Times suggests, the report is likely “to become a new focal point for debate for some in Detroit who have questioned the seriousness of the city’s troubles and the need for state intervention at a level rarely seen for a city of its size.”
But the limitations of the report rest more in the thinking it represents than in accounting.
Here unions are singled out as the major reasons for the problems of city finance. Pension and health care responsibilities are targeted as primary contributors to long-term debt.
There is no mention in this report of the serious, sustained disinvestment in the city by corporations. No mention of ill-conceived tax incentives given over the years to all kinds of development schemes. No mention of the role banks played in the encouragement of suburban over urban development. No mention of the foreclosure crisis and its acceleration of the depopulation of our city. No mention of the hostile state legislature that has done everything from remove residency requirements to renege on revenue sharing promises. No mention of the millions of dollars squandered by foundations.
The solutions the EM seeks will be directed primarily at what he has identified as the sources of the problem—unions, pensions, and healthcare. Moreover, the solutions are seen in isolation from one other.
He continues the worn out strategy of asserting “demolition” of abandoned structures will improve neighborhood life. He makes no mention of the use of “deconstruction” by neighborhood groups, churches and civic organization as a way to increase the economic activity in a community and to harness valuable resources. Instead, the current picture of “demolition” he advocates is one that conjures up destruction, dumping, and dollars leaving the city.
Nor does he talk about the connections between various sectors of public life. We know that increasing recreational facilities and opening public parks decreases criminal activity. Yet this report, in its desire to privatize and punish, talks of these areas as unrelated.
The Emergency Manager got one thing right. He said, “You don’t get the magnitude of neighborhood blight we have overnight.” He went on, “Without a vision for what you want your city to be three, five, 10, 20, 30 years out, the totality of those circumstances drove us here” will continue.
That is the challenge. We need to take every opportunity in our neighborhoods, block clubs, faith and civic organizations to talk with one another not only about how we want our city to look, but what values we want that vision to reflect. That, in the long run, is the only path to a new future.