Even Better

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)


4 responses to “Even Better

  1. This is just one of the many reasons that I do not watch television whilst treadmilling: it is potentially hazardous to my health! How can anyone possibly make such a comparison?

    I do wonder about the sense in which the state of Michigan might ‘care for’, or not, Detroit. I have never understood ‘white flight’ or population movement more generally. As I dimly understand things, the entire state of M is suffering from the demise of the American auto industry. If D was indeed built around manufacturing jobs – as, for example, was Flint – it isn’t clear that much can be done. Suppose, for example, that all the major biotech firms in the country moved to D. Would the city be resurrected? Well, yes: the city would be flooded with highly educated, well-paid people. And it would be entirely beside the point since I’m sure that almost NONE of the poor minorities now in D would be hired by such firms. Oh, I suppose that there would be more restaurants and more low-level service-sector jobs. But who cares? Those don’t provide a gateway to the middle class (whatever that is). The point is that what is needed (I think) are jobs that match the skill sets (whatever those might be) of the existing population. So perhaps one way to proceed would be a massive vocational education program, one that would attract (if such be possible) new manufacturing jobs to the region.

  2. Representative Walberg’s statement seems pretty double-edged. He may have meant it to sound like a compliment, but anything as “well cared for” as Detroit is really not at all cared for.

  3. Okay, all i can say to that comment of Walberg’s is ‘Shit, man. Shit.’ I am befuddled and amazed.

    Tempted to send it to good old mom, though, she hates that i live here!

    And emily — no, not that ‘well cared for’, but it ain’t for lack of trying! Some situations are simply easier to fix than others…

  4. You’re right, Kate, while Michigan hasn’t cared much about Detroit, Detroiters certainly have, and so have many Michigan individuals.

    Are you actually IN Detroit? I’m jealous then, actually, I would be happy to live there.

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