Tuesday, August 9, 2011

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.


  1. Detroit was my home and my youth.  Grew up there and we had excellent schools that were beautiful.  Our classroom had an American flag on the wall by the door and were all paneled with large blackboards in front and wooden desks.  The halls were wide and were marble and the bathrooms were huge and all done in intricate tile.  I also remember the Carnegie Libraries that were there and the large couches and chairs on the spacious rooms and the books all arranged neatly with prim Librarians.  To see the blight and decay when the memories are filled with richness is beyond sad.  But to think regime after regime gets in power and nothing happens is very troubling.  Good question, will Detroit survive.  As you can see Mona, I did use disqus.  Good to see you writing again.  Nedra

  2. It worked!  And I love your name.  Yes, my dear, you and I remember Detroit when it was in its heyday.  It was beautiful, wasn't it?  And the schools and libraries were great.  I felt privileged living there. It really is like watching an old friend die a slow death.

  3. I grew up near Detroit as well.  (My early years: Lincoln Park.  Later: Southfield, right at 81/2 Mile Road.)  But my grandparents lived on Bentler Avenue in Redford Township.  It was a nice old neighborhood with big trees, lots of squirrels, parks near-by.  My grandmother would walk with us to the movie theater for matinees, to the dime store for little toys and Barbie clothes.

    My grandparents are long gone (first to Florida, then the great beyond).  I haven't been back there in decades.  It seems like Detroit grew and flourished with the auto industry, and is dying from it now.  If any place could benefit from a concentrated modern WPA project, Detroit could.  There is so much to do, so much that could be done.

  4. Magatha, my high school years were spent in Southfield.  I was in the second graduating class of the then-new Southfield High. We were near enough to Detroit to feel an actual kinship, and of course the best shopping was still in downtown Detroit.

    I think before anything can be done for Detroit, a whole new appreciation for the former glory of the city must be felt by the current powers-that-be.  It isn't, and hasn't been for a very long time. I saw in the Freep this week that Mayor Bing is promising big things for the city.  I hope he can deliver.  But the first thing he has to do is clean out the dirty corners and get rid of the rats.  He has to be held to his promise of thorough investigations of city departments.  They all need to be swept clean, and if he can't do that, there's almost no hope for a revival. 

    But the last thing Detroit needs is an emergency financial manager under the current privatization-crazy state regime, and I'm afraid that's where it's headed.  The justification is obvious when these stories of corruption and graft keep surfacing.  I want the truth to come out, of course, but we've been down this road before with various Detroit offices and boards.  I hope this time they can actually strike fear in those people and end the cronyism and nepotism.  The inevitability of what happens so often in that city is disgusting.

  5. Yikes.  I was in the last graduating class of Southfield High before the opening of the new new high school.  There 1100 of us in that senior class.  We had to hold the ceremony at Cobo Hall in Detroit.  I boycotted the ceremony because they wouldn't let my friend Dave participate on account of he refused to shave his mustache.  I thought my parents would be angry, but they were happy not to have to drive to Cobo Hall.

    Now I must go think about Detroit some more.  You are exactly right about the deliberate absence of public transportation.  And yet the automakers could have branched out into manufacturing the world's most innovative public transportation system instead of reacting like Dracula to the cross.  They could have made money.  Get people to and from their jobs so they can spend more time on the back roads in their sporty new Detroit cars.  Feh.


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