Detroit, outstate: Same problems, different attitudes

Jack Lessenberry.
Jack Lessenberry.

MARQUETTE, Mich. — Technically, this lovely little city on Lake Superior is part of the same state as Detroit. It has the same governor and sends lawmakers to the same Legislature.

Both cities operate under the same laws and are in the same time zone, though it gets light and dark later in Marquette.

Yet though they are fewer than 500 miles apart, the biggest respective cities in Michigan’s two peninsulas, are in utterly different worlds.

“Yes, I‘ve been south of the bridge, but I don’t like to go,” says Andrea, a bright young woman who works at Doncker’s, a more than century-old candy store and restaurant in downtown Marquette.

Once, she went down almost as far as Flint. “But I really didn’t like it — no offense,” she said. Downstate is crowded and feels different, said Andrea, who is working on a master‘s degree in psychology at Northern Michigan University here.

She also resents paying the $4 fee every time she has to cross the Mackinac Bridge. When she learned I was from the Detroit area, her eyes widened a bit. “Things are really troubled there, aren’t they?” She sounded as if she were speaking of, say, Syria.

From time to time, residents of the Upper Peninsula grouse that they should be a separate state. That’s unlikely ever to happen. Besides all the state constitutional difficulties involved, the population is too small (311,000) and the economy too poor to make it work.

Nobody doubts that if the U.P. were a separate state, gleaming little Marquette would be its capital. But it would be a tiny one; the city has fewer than 22,000 people. Once, pretty much everyone in town was involved in the iron-ore business — mining it, loading it onto immense freighters, shipping it all over the world.

Mining continues, and freighters still come to the one still-functioning ore-shipping dock. But the biggest employers in Marquette are government — in one form or another — and the university. Like Detroit, it is still struggling to find replacements for a once-key industry that has seen better days.

Like Detroit, Marquette tends to vote staunchly Democratic. The staff of Doncker’s was thrilled two years ago when President Obama stopped there for a sandwich on his way to a speech. They were even more thrilled when a picture of him browsing the candy displays made it onto the official White House calendar.

But there are vast differences. When people talk about ethnic diversity in Marquette, they are likely to mean Finns and Norwegians.

There are a few hundred African-Americans and Asian-Americans, many of whom arrived when Marquette was home to an Air Force base during the Cold War. The base closed in 1995; the effect on the local economy has been devastating.

“The base also gave us some diversity,“ said Tom Baldini, a lifelong “Yooper” who has divided his life between politics and education. Mr. Baldini, a former high school and college teacher, also worked as a Lansing-based aide to then-Gov. Jim Blanchard.

Mr. Blanchard used to call Mr. Baldini, half-jokingly, the “governor of the Upper Peninsula.” Mr. Baldini knows both the U.P. and downstate better than most.

“Folks in the Upper Peninsula are aware of the Detroit situation,” he said. That is especially true, he said, of their understanding of the effects of the auto industry’s decline as a major employer. “Many of the communities that had a copper or iron-ore mine or paper mill close” felt much the same impact, he notes.

But while Yoopers tend to be “very understanding and generous,” he said, “they are believers in the need for the locals to solve some of these problems. They believe they made the difficult and tough decisions to reduce operating budgets — and Detroit hasn’t.”

Yet he added that most folks are appalled by the idea of cutting pensions and benefits for Detroit retirees. “Not fair, because it is the breaking of a commitment made by a government,” he said.

Detroiters might complain that their problems are greater and more complex than any that Upper Peninsula folks have faced, in large part because of the racial dimensions and the size of the populations involved. Even today’s shrunken Detroit has more than twice as many people as the U.P.

But Upper Peninsula dwellers say, with equal justice, that the “trolls” — those who live south of the bridge — don’t get them either.

I asked Andrea, the Doncker’s clerk, when she next planned a foray into troll country. She made a face: “Never, if I can help it.”

She is perfectly happy in the world of her peninsula. Later, looking out at the stunning Lake Superior sunset, over earth tinged with red, I began to understand why.

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.

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