Tomorrow, the residents of Detroit vote in the primary to winnow-down the list of mayoral candidates to two. The timing for the release of the movie “Detroit” is impeccable, not only to the purpose of marketing, but also for its historic relevance on the cusp of a pivotal mayoral election. The uprising chronicled in “Detroit” is generally blamed for the massive flight of businesses and white residents afterwards, leading to a downward spiral that nearly 50 years later has only now begun to be reversed. Entire generations the City has suffered from crime, gangs, whole neighborhoods being abandoned, failing utilities, failing essential services and failing schools and other human scourges. For example, at one time there was only 1 grocery chain store in Detroit. Perhaps the most damaging legacy is the one of racial politics. The continuing insistence of many politicians to put politics in racial terms only has held the City back economically as well as culturally. Racism has been a major cause of Detroit’s problems for over a century, beginning perhaps with the race riots that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, to the present treatment of Detroit by the Governor and Michigan State Legislature.
Unfortunately, once again, it is up to the residents of Detroit to consider putting aside racial politics, because it is clear that the white people in the remaining 90% of Michigan are not going to change. One need only drive 15 minutes from Detroit to see lawns with Confederate flags and Trump banners. They will always fear a place where African-Americans are in charge. That’s why the next election will be a real harbinger of things to come. When Mike Duggan was elected mayor – the first white mayor since the 1970s – it was tempting to hope that racial politics was over in the City. Duggan won in part because his competition wasn’t much better than it is now, with nearly half the candidates running convicted felons. Usually our mayors aren’t convicted until after they are elected. But Duggan also ran on an issue that cuts across racial politics. He ran on an economic platform, and no one could argue that he hasn’t been spectacularly successful with regard to the revitalization of the Downtown Districts.
The only serious competition for Duggan is a man with a golden pedigree – the Coleman Young name. Junior has some good ideas, and his focus on neighborhoods and services is what is needed. His challenge will be to avoid the politics of racial resentments and articulate policies to continue the economic expansion. The challenge for Duggan will be to expand the economic success of Downtown areas and translate it into revitalization of neighborhoods. That should be the essential issue in the upcoming mayoral election. However, old habits die hard and already we are beginning to hear the whisperings of resentment. You hear it in complaints that higher real estate prices are forcing out Black businesses in downtown, or that long time residents are being displaced, neighborhoods and schools have been neglected – all of which are true.
For decades, back entrepreneurs rarely saw a white customer and focused on narrowing interests. The rapid influx of young, (mostly) white people means adapting to a rapidly changing downtown economy. Some older businesses are adapting and succeeding. Many older businesses have been too slow to embrace the changes and are failing. We owe it to those businesses to help them to change, but not at the expense of the still-fragile Detroit economy. Rising real estate demand also means that long deserted buildings are being renovated and almost immediately occupied, as well as expanding tax revenues. There is no question that the focus on economic revitalization in the downtown districts has been a success. What has been lacking has been a plan to expand the success to the neighborhoods and to the people of Detroit, not just the investors.
Hopefully, the candidate for mayor will focus on the economic revitalization of Detroit and expand it to neighborhoods and services and resist the destructive gravity of racial politics. The best man for mayor will have a plan to expand the present economic growth of Detroit into neighborhoods at the same rate.