Put the blame on me
Part 1 of a 2-part series
By Herb Boyd
Jefferson County, where I was born in 1938, filed for bankruptcy two years ago. Last week, Detroit, the city where I was raised, filed for bankruptcy, though that situation remains up in the air after a judge stepped in and said such action was unconstitutional.
I left the Motor City, which is now running on fumes, in 1985 for the greener and certainly much more promising precincts of Harlem. And while bankruptcy is not on the agenda here, the community is still caught in the throes of several troubling economic and social factors, including the scarcity of affordable housing and the onslaught of gentrification.
But these are minor impediments when compared to what my mother, brother, daughters and grandchildren are encountering in Detroit. It’s really ironic that “Motown — The Musical” is raking in the dough on Broadway while Motown the city is about to belly up. Some relief may occur in Motown when the traveling company of the musical arrives in the near future.
Until then, things will probably get worse before they get better in a city that was once the hub of the automobile industry, the arsenal of democracy during World War II, and where high school graduates, as I was in late 50s, could at least have the option of employment at the Big 3 — Chrysler, Ford or GM.
That middle-class dream is a veritable nightmare nowadays with only one plant — the Jefferson Avenue plant with its 4,000 workers turning out Chrysler’s Jeep Cherokee — in the city’s boundaries in contrast to the ghost of a plant in Highland Park where Henry Ford had his first assembly line.
If there’s a sprig of hope in Motown, it may be on the cultural front, and many must have cheered the recent resurrection of such forgotten musicians as a band called Death received fresh acclaim via a documentary and Sixto Rodriguez’s life at the center of “Searching for Sugar Man” copped an Oscar last year.
Several Detroit playwrights and filmmakers from Detroit have made a dent in the often tough media market in New York City, most notably Bill Harris, who teaches at Wayne State University; Dominique Morriseau, whose “Detroit 67” drew crowds of admirers at a famous Harlem theater; and Pam Sporn’s preview of “Detroit 48202,” which, based on the trailer, should be the next breakthrough documentary.
How these cultural gems would play in Detroit is debatable, but if they turn out to have any value then they may face the same risk as the city’s treasured Detroit Institute of Arts. A coterie of creditors are licking their chops and rubbing their hands with an eye toward closing their debt with the salable assets in the DIA.
It’s inconceivable that some of the museum’s most popular and precious paintings — a van Gogh self-portrait or priceless possessions by Bruegel and Rembrandt — could be sold to settle part of the city’s debt that is estimated between $18 to $20 billion. And would this also necessitate the chipping away of Diego Rivera’s wall-size mural that stands as a powerful symbol and inspiration to the city’s working class?
Even if such a deal is struck — and like the bankruptcy, it remains to be seen if the city-owned museum can be a bargaining chip — it would, at best, bring only a small portion, maybe $2 billion, of the sizable debt strangling the metropolis, which since 1950 has lost more than half of its nearly two million population, leaving behind a veritable “Chocolate City.”
Black and white flight, which began almost as soon as African Americans started elbowing their way out of the city’s “Black Bottom” and so-called “Paradise Valley” in the early 50s, gained momentum following the riot of 1967 and the later emergence of Mayor Coleman Young and his harsh admonitions, all of which exacerbated the five and 10-year plans of “Urban Renewal,” which many experienced as “Negro Removal” already put in motion by Mayor Albert Cobo and later Mayor Jerry Cavanaugh.
The subsequent corrupt administration of Kwame Kilpatrick and the mess inherited by Mayor Dave Bing did nothing to stave off what several social scientists saw as inevitable.
But what’s to be done? And who do we blame for this collection of dismal numbers — 16.5 percent unemployment, 78,000 abandoned buildings and the decline of 90 percent of manufacturing jobs since the 50s?
Is bankruptcy the answer to a city where the infrastructure resembles the Michigan Central building, a long-standing relic where I embarked from a train in 1943? Will it bring any kind of hope and uplift to the outer edges of a community of nearly 140 square miles with an ever-shrinking tax base and where only 40 percent of the streets are lit at night? And what can we make of the prospects of a town where real estate speculators are gobbling up property faster than the folks abandoning them?