Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 15, 2014

Phil Power: Fortitude, patience will preserve Detroit

In the very early morning hours of July 24, 1967, I stood on the porch of my apartment in Livonia and looked east to see Detroit burning. I had just started my community newspaper company in the Detroit suburbs, and during that terrible time my newspapers struggled to fact-check the rumors that were running wild.

“They’re coming out Grand River!” Gonna go for the suburbs!” ran one hysterical — and entirely false — bleat.

And for nearly all the years since, relations between Detroit and much of the rest of the state have been, at the very best … difficult.

Former Mayor Coleman A. Young was a polarizing figure, usually depending on whether you were white or African-American.

So, too, was L. Brooks Patterson, now the Oakland County Executive, who began his political career in the early 1970s as an attorney for a group opposing cross-district busing that was supposed to achieve integration by mixing white and black children in school.

The Detroit metro area was the most segregated metropolitan region in America, and it showed in the racial politics that came to affect nearly every regional political and policy issue.

The auto industry that made America the arsenal of democracy during World War II gained enormous power for both itself and for organized labor; after dwindling for decades, both faced near-death experiences during the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Detroit politics for years involved a mixture of corruption, incompetence, and wholesale denial. Denial, especially, of the increasingly apparent truth that the city was going down the tubes unless big-time change happened … which, of course, it never did.

Not, that is, until the city admitted the jig was up and filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013.

The prospect of impending death does, indeed, have a remarkable way of concentrating the mind. Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes put it well last week: “At least a decade in the making, Detroit’s complex workout is pushing disparate interests … to abandon entrenched positions long considered permanent fixtures in the landscape of southeast Michigan.”

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