I’m old enough — 74 —to remember the days when Detroit was a thriving city and a magnet for folks throughout Michigan.
When I was a little boy, my mother would put on her white gloves and hat and take me to the enormous J. L. Hudson store downtown. At that time, it was one of the biggest department stores in the nation, chock-a-block with wonderful things. To top it off, we would have chicken sandwiches for lunch in the cafeteria.
It was a big deal for my parents to take the long drive on Ford Road from Ann Arbor to “the city” for dinner at Al Green’s, a place that remains dim in my memory, except for the enormous mirrors in the dining room. People from all over the state trooped to the Detroit Institute of Arts and shopped on fashionable Woodward Avenue.
And spring was incomplete without a visit to the Eastern Market to stock up on all the flowering plants for sale … and maybe have a sampling of strange but delicious Middle Eastern dishes.
Thousands and thousands of people in this area treasure these memories of a Detroit that was truly “the arsenal of democracy” during World War II. The Great Migration drew hundreds of thousands of people, black and white, to the city where a working man could make enough to buy a car and, maybe, even a house.
For a time, the city boasted the highest concentration of owner-occupied houses in the country. Like most big thriving cities, Detroit spawned larger than life characters.
I knew Jerry Cavanagh pretty well when he was mayor from 1962-1970, about the time I started my newspaper company. In those days they said you could see all the way from the mayor’s office atop the City-County Building to the Capitol in Washington, and Jerome P. Cavanagh enjoyed that psychological view as much as anybody.
So much, in fact, that he spent a lot of time in Washington. Returning on a 2 p.m. flight to Detroit Metro airport, he was startled to see the television lights blazing in his face, a reporter’s microphone pushed forward: “Good morning, Mr. Mayor. What brings you to Detroit?” Cavanagh was nothing if not quick-witted.
He responded with a spout of profanity that assured the film clip never made it on the air.
Things were already heading south when Coleman A. Young was mayor from 1974 to 1994. The arc of white flight to the suburbs had already taken hold, and the mayor displayed no interest in trying to fix the deteriorating Detroit public schools, thereby ensuring that few young families who had the choice would ever settle in the city.
The Great Migration from the South to the North was succeeded by a Great Migration out from a city that once had almost two million people but now may have fewer than 700,000 residents, many illiterate, unemployed and angry at what’s become of Detroit.
So now Gov. Rick Snyder has formally declared the city is in a financial emergency; he plans on naming an Emergency Financial Manager within a couple of weeks.
And we shall now watch a great experiment in whether a once-great city with a tough political culture can claw its way to financial sanity without imploding over racial and economic tensions.
So far, two Michigan leaders deserve praise for standing tall. One is the governor, whose “let’s just solve the problem” approach has sparked anger among some Detroit politicians but admiration elsewhere. “I look at today as a bad day, a day I wish had never had happened in the history of Detroit, but also a day of optimism and promise,” he said last week when he announced his decision to name an Emergency Financial Manager.
The other is Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, the largest newspaper in Michigan.
Over the past months, Henderson’s candid, direct, insightful writing has provided consistent insight and leadership for Michiganders, whether Detroiters or not.
Here’s an example from March 3: “The Emergency Financial Manager is coming to repair the covenant between the government and the governed. … Keep the streets safe. Pick up the trash. Run the buses on time. Fight the fires and rescue the wounded.”
Here’s hoping the relentless positive attitude taken by this governor and this editor becomes the majority one in both Detroit and Michigan during what is certain to be a trying and difficult period.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.