DETROIT — There’s no doubt that Detroit is in far better shape than it was just a few years ago. The city is out of bankruptcy, the budget is balanced, and downtown is booming.
Population decline has slowed, and Mayor Mike Duggan believes it is actually starting to grow once again.
But can Detroit really make it?
Can the city get to the point where middle-class families with children will willingly locate there? Can the city get to a point where crime is manageable, where residents can find jobs?
Realistically, Detroit still has a long way to go. You might compare the city to a seven-month premature baby that has survived a difficult rebirth and is in intensive care.
There’s a long way to go, and three or four major challenges are biggest of all. This is an election year, and Duggan, who wants a second term, will face State Senator Coleman Young II in November.
Few expect Duggan to have much difficulty; he took almost 69 percent of the vote in last month’s primary election.
But whoever wins will face these major problems:
· Crime. Though Detroit has an infamous reputation and was once known nationally as “murder city,” crime may in fact be the least of the city’s big challenges. Property crime, violent crime and arson all have been decreasing in recent years.
However, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who Duggan defeated in the mayor’s race four years ago, thinks there should be more focus on crime. “You’re always hearing about all the murders in Chicago, but the fact is that the per capita murder rate in Detroit is higher,” something that is indeed true.
He would like to see the mayor both talking more about crime, and putting more money in the budget for more police officers. “That’s true for the county too – I’ve got a lot of positions I can’t fill, partly because our pay isn’t competitive.”
Still -- the sheriff gives his old opponent high marks overall, and this year, he plans to vote for the man who defeated him.
“He has taken on one of the toughest jobs in America, and I don’t think people realize how complex the problems are.”
· Education. Mayor Duggan has said fixing the schools is the single biggest challenge Detroit faces. That hasn’t happened. There are some encouraging signs. Detroit’s schools, like the city itself, were bailed out of massive debt by the legislature. Last year, after years of emergency management, they returned to governance by an elected school board.
The mayor and other city leaders have been impressed by the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, and the school board president, Iris Taylor. But the legislature gave the new Detroit Public Schools Community District less money that Gov. Rick Snyder said was necessary to put them firmly on their feet.
Nor did the lawmakers grant the mayor the right to determine where new schools could open – meaning charter schools, many of dubious quality and some run by for-profit companies can continue to “poach” students.
Today, more Detroit children are in charter than traditional public schools, and thousands more go to schools in other cities.
Too many Detroit public school buildings are in dreadful physical shape, with heating, rodent and insect problems.
Until Detroit is a city where middle-class residents can confidently put their children into the public schools, the comeback will at best be limited to that of a boutique culture.
· Jobs. Everyone knows there aren’t enough. What may come as a shock is that in a city where the population is 80 percent black, only 33 percent of all jobs are held by African-Americans, according to the non-profit Detroit Future City, corporation – a figure that has been falling in recent years.
That’s because many of the jobs that have been created in Detroit have resulted because of suburban firms choosing to move downtown – and because white suburbanites generally have higher education and trained skill levels.
There’s another problem too. To attract major new employers to build plants employing hundreds or thousands of workers, the city would need large parcels of vacant land.
But there essentially aren’t any. Duggan told me he fully realized this during the efforts to attract Foxconn, a Taiwanese technology giant, to Michigan.
In the end, Foxconn went to Wisconsin, but long before that decision was made, it became clear that Detroit was out of the running, because the firm wanted a thousand-acre site, and the city had nothing like that.
“Foxconn was a real eye-opening experience for me,” the mayor said. Detroit does, in fact have 24 square miles of vacant land – but mostly in tiny, unconnected parcels.
Assembling the large tracts needed will be difficult, since courts have said the city can no longer use eminent domain to put together land for private employers to use.
Unless a way around this is found, “the manufacturing boom may pass by one of the world’s great industrial infrastructures,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor active in urban development for decades.
· The underclass: Finally, the elephant in the room that no one wants to address is the existence of what might be called a large underclass – thousands of working-age adults with few or no skills, many of whom are not even fully literate.
Many are not technically in the labor force, because they are not even looking for work. They are not going away, nor are they about to become venture capitalists.
Yet there is, as yet, little discussion as to how to make them part of a productive and vibrant city. Detroit is a vastly improved place from the city lurching into bankruptcy five years ago.
But the hardest challenges may still lie ahead.