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Beyond the Rhetoric: Detroit Unable to Outrun its Past



By Harry C. Alford

NNPA Columnist


I visited Cleveland a few years ago.  As I was heading towards downtown I noticed a sign that showed pictures of blighted structures.  There was a quote at the bottom of the sign which read, “Cheer up – we are not Detroit!”  I guess all major U.S. cities can say the same thing.  Nowhere in this nation is a city so ravaged with blight, poverty, drugs, violence, crime and hopelessness than Detroit, Mich.  It didn’t happen overnight but the disaster is just about complete.

I lived five years in Detroit.  It was the city where I met the love of my life, beautiful Kay DeBow, a native of Indianapolis. Gone are the days of great night clubs such as My Fair Lady, Lafayette Orleans, etc.  There were so many pretty girls and before Kay I tried to love each and every one of them. The city had many challenges during the late 1970s and early 1980s but the people were tough and proud.  Just like today, they ignored the ills.  But now the ills are too big to ignore.

In 1950, the census reported Detroit had a population of 2 million.  Today, there are less than 700,000 residents and that number is dropping as you read this article.  This is a testament that many people during this time were miserable and decided to move out to the suburbs or even out of state.  There are more than a few ex-Detroiters living in Texas, Georgia and California today.  One of its pride and joy was Motown Records and it moved out completely.  There are many empty corporate offices and plants now.

It all began to decline in the 1950s as this city became a complete “Union Town.”  Cost of labor skyrocketed as unions demanded more and more pay and benefits which often the city could not afford (city, county and school employees).  This pushed the pace for tax increases and many residents responded by moving out of the city.

As the more affluent (Whites) left the city limits, the Black vote became more powerful.  By 1974, Detroit elected its first Black mayor.  Coleman Young was a strong individual with a union background.  Not only were people starting to leave but White business began to seek other venues.  As the tax base weakened, the demand for higher taxes grew. It became a vicious financial cycle. Meanwhile, Mayor Young changed the city’s charter.  All nine city council members became at-large. Consequently, he handpicked his city council members who happened to live in just about the same neighborhood.  The people had no immediate representation for their particular neighborhoods – no accountability.  Detroit has just nine city council members compared to 28 in Indianapolis.

Corruption became rampant.  Even the Chief of Police William L. Hart was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing $1.3 million.  His deputy, Kenneth Weiner, went in for five years.  This epitomizes a deep problem in this city.  It is a problem that still exists today.  A former city council woman is in jail as you read this.

Then, during the late 1970s came the crack cocaine invasion into our cities.  Detroit caught it steroid style.  Murders plagued every section of town.  But unlike the other cities, the drug problem has not subsided.  It and its “first cousin” crime are worse than ever.  The city just reported its highest homicide rate in 20 years.  Detroit leads the nation in violent crimes for cities with 200,000-plus population.

The city is unable to shake off the ills.  As Justice Croise says, “I’m a native Detroiter (born and raised), lifelong Democrat, and I voted for President Obama (twice), so I am well aware how “Republican” my stance on Detroit is, but having been on the inside of City Hall I have the first-hand experience to tell you that waste, fraud, ineptitude, selfishness, and a complete lack of personnel and financial management controls are holes in Detroit’s boat which no amount of bailing can keep afloat….Fundamentally obsolete union contracts… falsely protect underserving workers and processes….usurp the city’s ability to manage operations effectively and efficiently.” (The New American magazine)

Detroit cannot pay its bills and has no credit left.  Its bonds are junk status and pretty soon the creditors are going to pounce.  Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has pledged to step in and hire an emergency financial manager to try and right this struggling ship called Detroit.  The City Council and civil rights groups are crying foul.  How can they when their backs are up against the wall?  There is a child of Michigan who is equipped to handle this situation as he has done in the past.  Yes, the best thing Gov. Snyder could do is convince Mitt Romney to come in and give Detroit a good scrubbing.  This may be the only way to save it.


Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®.  Website: http://www.nationalbcc.org. Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.



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