Out of Control Policy Blog

Singing the Motown Blues

Kathleen Bushnel Owsley, director of something called One-D, a collaborative initiative seeking to transform regional Detroit, launched a full-scale attack on my previous column examining the claim that Detroit was on the cusp of a major renaissance as artists attracted by cheap real estate move back to the city.

Owsley disputes my claims. She says that she's:

"encouraged by a multitude of recent initiatives that support the city, including a plan to increase the density of creative economy businesses, a strategy to get 15,000 more young college-educated people living in greater downtown Detroit by 2015 and a thriving, innovative association that supports the vitality of arts and culture institutions in metro Detroit--which are peppered throughout our community and are not, as Dalmia claims, limited to one block in east Detroit."

But after reading her column, I formed the impression that she doesn't live in a different city from me, she lives on a different planet. She claims that the Motor City is bouncing back. It would be nice, but facts are an inconvenient thing, and they don't support her happy little fairy tale. The fact of the matter, as I note in my comment on her column, is that:

"Detroit is facing a $300 million deficit and many fear that it might well have to declare bankruptcy before the end of the fiscal year -- an unprecedented step for a city its size. Its schools are a mess and facing a deficit as big as the city itself. They graduate 25% of their students and were recently handed over to an emergency financial manager. Detroit's unemployment is touching Depression-era rates of 30%. It has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the country. Seven kids were attacked by armed gunmen two months ago as they waited for a school bus outside their school. The city is so unsafe that ice cream trucks cruising through neighborhoods sport iron bars on their windows and backside to prevent attacks on poor drivers. Illiteracy rate is about 50% and illegitimacy rate is even higher. It's population is expected to drop to less than 800,000 by 2015 -- down from 2 million at its peak.

Yes, there are Campus Martius and Riverfront Walk -- efforts of misguided city leaders who think that the way to revive the city is not to do the hard work of providing basic services -- safety, schools, and clean streets -- but pouring subsidies into feel-good projects that people like Ms. Boswell can preen about.

I am used to Pollyannaish talk about the city's comeback. But at no time does this talk appear more quixotic than now when the city is in so much trouble and nearly every responsible adult is worried that it might have reached the point of no return. Detroit might overcome its challenges and reclaim its former glory, but it won't be because of dreamers like Ms. Boswell who refuse to confront the facts."

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst

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Comments to "Singing the Motown Blues":

Reader in Detroit | September 23, 2009, 10:01am | #

People who know Detroit would never call the East Side: "East Detroit." It reminds me of the Journey song that says "South Detroit," which makes any Detroiter laugh.
While you point out the obvious, couldn't there be truth in both what Owsley writes and what you write? Seems like the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
If you look back 10 years, Detroit is in a far better place than it was. So what will you do, Ms. Dalmia, to change the next 10? Sit back and navel gaze, crunch some numbers and preach a future of despair, I would guess. But kudos to others who actually work to make a difference where they live, who engage with people enough to know more about what's going on in their cities than what they see through their car windows. Maybe try getting out and talking to people on the street, next time. You might find a deeper, richer story than what you found from your drive-by.
Numbers never tell the whole story. I would expect someone with your degrees to know that, at least.

Henry | November 4, 2009, 2:40am | #

Great article, Shikha. I grew up in the Detroit area and I implore you NOT to "get out and talk to people on the streets (of Detroit)" as the previous commenter suggested. If you do so, you will probably get shot. :p

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