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Published: Friday, 7/8/2011

COMMENTARY

For a better Detroit, how about a Greater Detroit?

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- You have to wonder whether Detroit Mayor Dave Bing wishes he could go back in time a mere three years.

Back then, he was well off, famous, and universally admired. After a Hall of Fame basketball career, mostly with the Detroit Pistons, he accomplished the rare feat of building a successful inner-city business, Bing Steel, that employed hundreds of Detroiters.

For years, businessmen and politicians, beginning with the legendary Coleman Young, begged him to run for mayor. But Mr. Bing always refused. Finally, two years ago, with the city in shambles after the Kwame Kilpatrick scandals, he changed his mind.

Mr. Bing won a special election to fill the remainder of the disgraced Mayor Kilpatrick's term, and then a four-year term of his own.

Then he ran into the economic quicksand that is Detroit. He fought with City Council over the city budget. Rumors swept Detroit that Mayor Bing was plotting to have Gov. Rick Snyder name him emergency financial manager of both the city and its troubled public schools. That would have made the mayor a virtual dictator.

Mayor Bing vigorously denied it. But last month, a fired executive assistant made those charges in a $750,000 lawsuit against the Bing administration. The fired assistant and others also charged that top aide Karen Dumas, the city's communications director, had too much power and was driving good people out of the administration.

The mayor denied this too. But after a few days, he fired Ms. Dumas, saying he didn't need the "distraction."

Within days, the critics were back. Some, including the Detroit Free Press, openly questioned whether the laid-back Mr. Bing was the right person to run the city. That may be unfair.

The real questions are whether anyone can fix Detroit, and whether the city can ever thrive again.

The numbers are grim. The city's population was almost 2 million in 1950. Now it seems in free fall. The census last year found that Detroit lost a quarter of its population in the past decade.

Last year, there were 713,777 people in the city. The vast majority are poor and African-American. Mayor Bing, in an interview in April, suggested that when you count discouraged Detroiters who have given up looking for jobs, the city's real unemployment rate is between 42 and 45 percent.

Those people may be virtually unemployable in any circumstances. The National Adult Literacy Survey estimated that nearly half the adult population in Detroit is functionally illiterate. Many, possibly most, are high school dropouts.

The city has a $155 million deficit, and perhaps 40,000 abandoned and vacant buildings. Fitch Ratings recently further downgraded the city's bonds, which already were classified as junk.

The Detroit Public Schools, now run by an emergency financial manager, has been a disaster for years, with a history of academic failure and financial mismanagement.

Parents have fled the schools even faster than people have fled the city, sparking projections that soon there will be more city youths in charter schools than in public schools.

This spring, the governor announced a new Educational Achievement System, something amounting to a statewide school board, to run Detroit's spreading charter schools. That was a tacit admission that the traditional model for education is broken beyond repair, and that unless Detroit can fix its schools, it has no chance at being a city.

The New York Times ran a major feature this month on a handful of bright young entrepreneurs who are attempting to redevelop and revitalize the city. The downtown area does have a measurable influx of educated, young professionals.

Yet their numbers are small, and few have families. When they do, unless they are well enough off to afford private schools, virtually all will head for the suburbs.

Attracting a middle class requires good public schools. Kurt Metzger, the city's leading demographer, has long said that a city that doesn't have a viable system of public education can attract at best the "newly wed and the almost dead."

There are some positive things in Detroit. The downtown is nicer than it was a few years ago. Suburbanites are less reluctant to attend events in the city. There seems to be far less racial hostility. Crime, especially violent crime, is down.

People are working hard to find a new model. Ron Williams, 60, a native Detroiter and successful publisher, moved back last year after years out of state. His goal, expressed on his Web site, happyfrogdetroit.com, is to find a way to encourage sustainable communities in Detroit.

Yet economically, it is hard to see how Detroit can thrive in a post-automotive era. Urban expert David Rusk may have best analyzed the problem in his 1993 book Cities Without Suburbs: "Elastic cities -- those that can expand their borders by annexing territory -- survive. Inelastic cities decline."

Detroit's best hope, in this view, lies in a merger with surrounding Wayne County, a model that has worked in Nashville, Indianapolis, and elsewhere. Ten years ago, this would have been dismissed as politically impossible.

Nor is anybody in Lansing openly pushing it -- yet. But Gov. Snyder and the Legislature are calling for consolidation of public services and merger of local governments.

Greater Detroit may be an idea whose time will come.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.



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