I nearly fell off the treadmill the other day. A comment by a Michigan Republican about Iraq appeared on the television screen and almost knocked me off my feet, “Well, in fact, in many places it’s as safe and cared for as Detroit….” In full, the quote continues, “or Harvey, Ill., or some other places that have trouble with armed violence that takes place on occasion.”* He later classes Detroit in with Chicago. I don’t know about Harvey, not having been there for years if ever, but with the Motor City and City of Big Shoulders* I am familiar. I was just in Detroit again this weekend, to see the Diego Rivera mural and eat at Traffic Jam & Snug. I grew up ninety miles from the Chicago Loop. Chicago has downtrodden areas, but it is no Detroit. There are very few abandoned, burnt-out buildings in the center, and it has no budget crisis.
I love Detroit because it’s a large-scale model of my hometown – a formerly affluent industrial city, overshadowed by Chicago and in decline for decades. And because thanks to racism and excessive self-interest, you only have to drive a few feet past the city limits to find a contrasting affluence, built by a century of leeching off the efforts of the poor and working class.
At first I thought, has Representative Walberg ever been to Detroit? Although it has much that I love about it, it’s not a place I would choose to positively represent order and regeneration. I’m not a Detroiter, native or transplanted, I live in a Michigan oasis, a happy little city which can safely claim the benefits of fallen industry, but without the stain of being home to many white-flight refugees (at least in the public eye, in terms of demography I’m not so sure). Detroit is desperate, but not a war-zone – still I can see some analogy to Baghdad, with its bombed out buildings, empty lots, and squatters everywhere. Public schools in crisis, and a mayor, plagued by scandal, at odds with the larger more powerful government about its “care” for his city. Mayor Kilpatrick’s spokesman responded,
“It’s absurd to compare Detroit and Iraq in any way. Unfortunately, for years people have beat up on the city of Detroit. Detroit is the word for negative. We are working very hard to transform that image of our city.
What’s funny about the spokesman’s response is that, Rep. Walberg pretended to mean something positive by his statement. Yet, including “has trouble with armed violence…on occasion” in a description of any place can never be complimentary. It certainly can’t be good for property values. His phrase, “cared for,” seems to reveal a lot about his attitude towards “troubling” places like Iraq and Detroit, places that foil the image of the war and his beloved state of Michigan. The truth is, Michigan has not “cared for” Detroit. Wealthy and middle-class Michigan residents instead have been running from the city for fifty years or more, taking their tax money with them while shaking their heads at the failings of those who cannot find a way to do better or leave.
If Detroit is his model, clearly Iraq cannot expect much in the way of advocacy from Rep. Walberg. If Walberg thinks Detroit is on par with Chicago as an urban space, he lives in a delusional world. And neither Michigan nor Iraq should look to him for leadership and understanding.
Still, Detroit has its own charm. I was thinking about responding to Walberg’s comment by offering a photo essay illustrating what “care” has done for the city, but then I found this You Tube video, which captures it far better than I can. Notice how few people there are, even in the shots of “nicer” places.
* one of my favorite poems, by Carl Sandburg (very unoriginal of me, I know)