03/16/2012 11:09 am ET Updated May 16, 2012

Thinking for Ourselves: State of Our City

Mayor Dave Bing gave his third State of the City Address last week amidst one of the most difficult moments in Detroit history. A looming financial crisis threatens local control of the city. An emergency manager or a consent agreement forced by the state may strip the city of elected government, set aside union contracts, and sell off public assets. Violence has increased the feelings vulnerability of people on the streets and in our homes. The tragic killings of children have cause everyone to mourn the senseless loss of life that is becoming all too common. Basic services continue to erode, breakdown and close down.

At such a moment, people look to elected leaders to provide some direction. Mayor Bing seemed to understand the depth of challenge facing us. In his understated way he began saying: "Tonight, we are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history. It requires real talk, continued transparency and real action. I want you to know my commitment remains unwavering as I work towards my primary mission to bring financial stability to city operations and to improve the quality of life for our citizens. Without that, our city faces an uncertain future."

After acknowledging the seriousness of the moment, however, the mayor undercut his own purpose by clinging to the tired public relations line, "But I'm a believer, and I know we deserve nothing but the best."

He then went on to offer a speech with little imagination or substance. It is good to know that he opposes the appointment of an emergency manager, that he has been talking with the governor and they are "working hard toward a solution." His commitment to improving core services is welcome, as are his efforts to keep open recreation centers and encourage local business development. His plan to sell vacant lots to neighbors in Hubbard Farms and Springwells residents seems a good idea, although why he did not restore the policy of Coleman Young to offer adjacent vacant lots to any homeowner for a dollar seems a mystery.

What was lacking in the speech was not so much the specifics, but the inability of the mayor to follow through on the recognition that we need to think very differently about where we are and what we need to do. At the conclusion of his speech he said: "We are at a different time and place that requires different acts and actions... These are transformational times for the city of Detroit, and government must change to face and navigate this new reality."

Even Mayor Bing's most ardent supports, like Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, couldn't pretend that the speech was much more than a small effort. In his response to the speech Henderson said, "I desperately want to believe that Dave Bing is the right fit for Detroit." He wants Bing to be the "one who will step forward to save the city from its most critical problems."

It is just this kind of thinking that is making it more difficult for Detroit to recreate itself. No individual has the capacity to redevelop and redefine our city. Whatever Mayor Bing's character or competence, the need for "transformational" thinking and acting that he recognizes cannot come from the top down. Officials at the top are too invested in preserving the very ideas and systems that have created the problems we face.

To really understand the state of our city and its dynamic future, we need to look to our friends and neighbors, churches and community groups, who are daily finding ways to turn to one another to create new life and meaning. The imaginative power that is emerging everywhere in response to this crisis is already transforming our city with new ways of thinking and acting.