Someone can take a look at Detroit and blame the politicians, blame the U.S. economy, blame unions, or even blame voters. In honesty, though, this has been a long time coming. It is a part of common knowledge for anyone living in the Metro Area of Detroit that people moving out of the city isn't just part of an American trend. The flight of the city's residents occurred on an epic scale from a city population of almost 2 million in the 1950s to about 700,000 today. This is more than a 1 million person migration, which means fewer residents and less revenue. The question may not be how the accounting books tell the worst story ever, but simply why did all the people leave?
The answer to that question is long and tired. Blame it on bussing, white flight, or suburban sprawl. Yet that just gets back to the blaming this and that. Maybe all someone needs to see is the present reality. According to the Detroit News, half of Detroit property owners did not pay their taxes last year. Detroit has long been the bad end of a reputation, but it isn't just jokes, it's reality. A place where students are robbed while waiting for their bus. A place where arson is a historic problem overwhelming firehouses year after year. A place with a stray dog problem, a blight problem, a street light problem, a garbage problem. A city with a never-ending murder rate.
Detroit is also home to neighborhoods of mansions, tech startups, billionaires buying up property, encouraging development in Midtown, and plans for a new hockey arena. Someone can point to the abandoned house, and then point to a community garden. They can see Detroit as a food desert, or step into the new Whole Foods and stroll the Eastern Market. Contradiction can be a cruel word because in the case of Detroit, it tells two stories. One story is what is left behind after an exodus, and the other is those who see opportunity like a fresh canvas waiting for creativity to take over. Yet the question I would like an answer to is if the canvas is a fresh start or just an opaque screen painting the same picture?
Bankruptcy will settle the debts, but it won't solve the fleeing of people from the city. Whether you see the bankruptcy filing as a positive or not, the real solution is people. Getting people to trust Detroit again, or maybe for the first time, has been hard for a long while and the latest chapter nine doesn't help, at least not in the short term. Bankruptcy, by design, should give the city a foundation to build up that trust again. Yet as the finances are being worked out, the city will go on living, surviving, and existing.
The sinking or sunken ship metaphor doesn't really pertain to Detroit. The phoenix rising from the ashes doesn't really either. The metaphor that I like to use is that Detroit is like global warming. The headlines keep coming, and there are many different viewpoints as to why it is happening, and some even claiming that it doesn't exist. The recent bankruptcy is like a hurricane hitting the shores of the Detroit river. Even after the tides of bankruptcy recede, the water levels will still be higher than they were 20 years ago.
What is needed is a radical change in the way people live their lives. The papers have been filed and there are going to be hard working people hurt. How as a community, a region, or a state will we take control of what is happening and form a culture of true renaissance. A rebirth not of a time, but of the capacity of the human spirit.
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