Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why Detroiters Might Be Skeptics

Belle Isle, Detroit
photo: Belle Isle Conservancy

This post originated as a comment on the Facebook page of WDET reporter and talk-show host, Craig Fahle. The state of Michigan, under Governor Rick Snyder, tendered an offer to lease Belle Isle for 99 years and take over operation of it. The offer, if implemented as proposed, included an entrance fee for access to the island, which comprises the largest (982-acres), most scenic, and wide open park in the city. Belle Isle rests in the middle of the Detroit River, just east of downtown, and is accessed via the MacArthur Bridge. The city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, and the plan for the island was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City. For over 130 years, Belle Isle has provided city residents free refuge from the congestion and turbulence of urban life.

See my note below to Craig which applies, I think, equally to city residents' opposition to the expected appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Snyder. The governor contends that a "financial emergency" exists in Detroit that requires dismissal of the Mayor and City Council. Some residents, including the accountant and former mayoral candidate, Tom Barlow, refute the notion that such an emergency exists. Read his press release, or listen to him on the Craig Fahle Show to get a sense of how some sensible people might doubt the need for an emergency manager.

My comments on Craig's Facebook page:

Hey Craig, I just heard the discussion you hosted about Belle Isle. I know you are really well informed about Detroit, and things in general, so I know you've carefully considered the pros and cons of allowing the state to run Belle Isle. I get the impression you are in favor of it, perhaps as a result of the absence of any better proposals. I agree the island needs some major refurbishing. I love the botanical garden, but always feel really sad when I go in there and see rust eating through major structural supports. I remember my uncle, a farmer, always walking around with a can of paint in one hand and a brush in the other, and when I was a kid I thought he just liked the smell of paint, but now I understand what he was up to: preventive maintenance. Not much of that seems to happen on Belle Isle, or at a lot of other dilapidated historic sites in Detroit (Fort Wayne springs to mind).

You repeatedly mentioned that people seem to base their opposition to a state takeover of Belle Isle purely on an emotional level. I guess I'm not really sure what you mean by the term "emotional" in that context, but I'm guessing you mean sort of reflexive, and not based in fact. Well, I kind of think opposition often stems from a defensive reflex to resist intrusion by people who are not city residents offering "solutions" to city problems, but the reflex is definitely based in fact.

As you know, black people constitute a majority of the population in Detroit, and as you also probably know, the municipal, state, and federal governments have not been particularly kind to them over the years. Sure, since the Civil Rights Era, black citizens have been treated less egregiously bad by government, but they also haven't been afforded wage or education equality despite doing comparable work and paying comparable taxes. Jobs have moved away from where they live, while they lack the economic mobility to chase jobs into the suburbs (where residents are typically less than welcoming); city schools attended by poor people rarely share the same resources as suburban schools.

from: "Paradise Valley and Black Bottom"
By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News
But you know all this. I don't think you would dispute those assertions. The big thing I wanted to mention that's just got to stick in the minds of black Detroiters -- and I'm not trying to speak for anyone here -- is the destruction of the Hastings Street, Paradise Valley, and Black Bottom neighborhoods to create housing projects and put a freeway through. Honestly, that one thing in this city, if it were done to affluent, white people -- and it never, ever would be -- cries of "Genocide!" would echo through the land. But in came the government architects and engineers, who said, "Trust us."


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