DETROIT — There was something poignant about Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s annual State of the City address last week.
“Despite the naysayers’ predictions,” he said, “there have not been any payless paydays. No emergency manager — to date. And no declaration of bankruptcy for the City of Detroit.”
He had to know, of course, that an emergency manager, and probably bankruptcy, are almost certainly coming.
This was quite likely Mr. Bing’s last State of the City address. The mayor has not said whether he plans to seek re-election this year. If he does, he may not win.
But Detroit is almost certain to be under an all-powerful emergency manager soon. Any mayor would be a mere figurehead.
This year, Mayor Bing did all he could to put the best face on what he has managed to do. The city has, he said, torn down 6,700 vacant and derelict structures. He didn‘t say that tens of thousands more need to be razed.
He proudly said that Cobo Center, Detroit’s main convention center, has been renovated. There will be a new police headquarters, the mayor said, and yet another “crime reduction strategy,” though no more police officers.
The Michigan Legislature, the mayor added, has agreed to create a public lighting authority that he hopes will invest the money needed to make Detroit’s ancient street lights come on again.
Yet he had to know it was all too little, too late. His speech was, in a sense, a letter to history written by a good and decent man who was faced with a mess that it’s hard to think any elected leader could ever handle — even if he was not faced with a city council that seems determined to ignore reality.
Not that the mayor’s speech was entirely realistic itself. “Every day, there are more signs of hope and possibilities,” he said.
Well, maybe in newly fashionable Midtown, an area sparkling with new condos and young adults flocking to move in. Maybe downtown, with its theaters and sports stadiums.
But not in most Detroit neighborhoods, some of which even the police enter only in broad daylight and in force.
The mayor seems worn out by his job. A superbly toned athlete and member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, he looks and sounds older than his 68 years.
Living in the city wears private citizens out too. The night before the mayor gave his speech, I went to dinner with one of the city‘s better-known residents, in a neighborhood where hope and possibilities are words one finds only in the dictionary.
John King is one of the city‘s cultural icons. A lifelong Detroiter, he founded one of the nation‘s largest used-book stores, which fills a giant former glove factory on Lafayette Boulevard.
Mr. King, who looks a little like a 63-year-old Gen. George Armstrong Custer, drove me west on Fort Street, past block after block of abandoned and collapsing warehouses and factories.
We went to a tiny hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant on a run-down street called Lawndale. Mr. King wanted to show me his water bill.
For years, his store had been billed $12.90 a month for a separate “fire line” water service. Last December, he got a letter from the city: “We have recently discovered that our billing system has not billed correctly.” From now on, his monthly bill would be $255.44.
Plus, the city seemed to be telling him, if he ever has a fire, he’ll have to pay extra for the water. He swallowed hard and paid.
Last month, he got another bill for back charges of $13,661.64 on the fire line service he never used, and never knew he had.
Repeated attempts to dispute his bill got no response. Janelle, his longtime companion, urged him: “Why don’t we just forget it and move to San Francisco?”
“I’m getting close, I’ll tell you that,” Mr. King said. If he leaves, it would be a cultural and economic blow to the city. His three Detroit bookstores employ more than a dozen neighborhood residents, whom he hires and painstakingly trains.
Mr. King, the son of two blue-collar Ford Motor Co. workers, has lived in Detroit his entire life. He stayed when it seems everybody else left, putting up with car insurance rates three times what he would pay in the suburbs.
Rather than leave, he built a beautiful little apartment atop his second building. Then he tried to connect to the city’s cable TV service. “But they said I was a business and would have to pay $3,000,” he said. He bought a satellite dish instead.
Mayor Bing has been fighting too, also without much luck. A successful Detroit businessman after he left the NBA, he had been urged to run for mayor for two decades. Finally, after the national embarrassment of Kwame Kilpatrick, he did.
But after he took office, he found that getting anything substantial done was infuriatingly difficult. Too often, council members seemed more interested in posturing than progress, as when they rejected a state offer to renovate Belle Isle park.
It is unlikely even a superhuman could have saved Detroit from insolvency. Mr. Bing noted that he inherited $13.8 billion in unfunded, long-term liabilities. Two billion dollars of that will come due within five years.
Last week, word leaked that a state-appointed review team had told Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder there was virtually no chance Detroit’s elected officials could get the city‘s finances under control.
Nobody, least of all Mayor Bing, can be surprised.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org