Authors Posts by bjohnson

bjohnson

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Let’s hope Mayor Dave Bing enjoyed the sights during his five-day Italian mission to find strategies to rein in Detroit’s problems. It’s unlikely that he found any useful solutions. Italy is a world apart in distance, experience and culture.

Since assuming office, the Detroit mayor has made several celebrated but symbolic excursions to regional, state, national and international destinations. There is, of course, nothing wrong with networking; building coalitions and partnerships. Cash-starved Detroit, after all, is on the verge of insolvency and is in desperate need of help.

holiday_travel_204718I have no doubt that some of his travels spring from good intentions and may result in better regional cooperation and overall goodwill. However, some expeditions are junkets that will produce no long term benefit to the betterment of the city.

There is more than enough random crime, housing and tax issues, a runaway budget, a police headquarters to build, labor issues to resolve, police and fire equipment to purchase to keep Mayor Bing behind his desk for the rest of this term. Being on the road doesn’t allow him to adequately confront these seemingly intractable problems. And since taking office, there is little indication that the Bing administration has actually hit the ground running, or has done much else but travel.

The solutions to Detroit’s problems won’t be found in Washington, Italy, Lansing or elsewhere. Federal and state governments are broke. To think that a trip to Turin, Italy will unveil a way to reinvigorate the disappearing Detroit tax base is a desperate and impractical road to recovery.

Because there are so few visible examples of progress in the city Mayor Bing should be a more selective about his travel schedule. Ending the inertia is best accomplished by a stay-at-home mayor with a hands-on, hard nose approach to tangible problem-solving in his dying city.

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Detroit community and church leaders hardly raised an eyebrow following published reports citing national health statistics revealing that 72 percent of black babies are born to un-married women. Here, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is upwards of 80 percent. By comparison, the unwed birthrate for white women is around 32 percent, but no less a demographic omen for a social catastrophe.

In the 1950s, the “married with children” model was considered the American norm. For decades, wedlock was the glue that held black communities together. Even into the early 1960s, the percentage of married black families exceeded that of white families.

What seemed normal then, however, is an aberration today. Even the casual observer of contemporary Detroit would be hard pressed to find much evidence that an “intact” black family ever existed.

thBeginning in the 1960s, the popular culture pretty much sanctioned a woman’s right to bear children outside marriage. About the same time, family structures unraveled when the husband had to be out of the house in order for women with children to receive welfare benefits. Men also became expendable when it came to rearing children with the advent of the “feminist movement.”

While these approaches to parenting may be socially acceptable to a growing number of women, it can’t be good for all children or all families, especially if they are black.

Women who opt for the experience and joys of motherhood without the benefit of marriage, for example, have a poverty rate more than six times that of married-couples, and are many times more likely to stay poor longer.

Youngsters raised in these homes are many times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, drop out of school, abuse drugs, get in trouble with the law and end up in jail and/or a premature death.

Handicapped from birth, aggressive, rebellious and abusive boys inherit by default an unmet hunger for a father. Lacking identity, they are notoriously prone to being hyper-masculine, destructive and indoctrinated with seriously flawed codes of manhood.

The odds are great that they too will become a dad and assume a remote relationship with the children they sire before fully understanding the consequences. With no sense of sexual responsibility or psychological preparation for parenthood, both boys and girls unwittingly engage in a ritualistic cycle that breeds despair.

Not all children raised in this environment are subjected to such grave outcomes. Not all single moms fail in their parental responsibility. However, the difficulties many father-deprived youngsters face often last a lifetime, which means they may be less successful as adults when it comes to love, intimacy and a stable marriage.

Marriage is not a perfect social institution. However, traditional married couples offer children greater security and stability with the promise of better outcomes than the less desirable alternative. Research shows that after tying the knot, men are less likely to engage in crime, they work harder and are more family-oriented. The positive qualities that a husband displays in his rapport with the wife set the stage for an enriching family life for sons and daughters.

There appears to be no consensus to revive the stigma against unmarried births. Trying to modify the behavior of the growing number of black moms and dads, who for various reasons, choose not to commit to the marriage premium, is a time-consuming process. That makes it all the more difficult to find much civility in any city that is mostly made up single mothers and absent fathers. Detroit is no exception.

There are a fortunate few who still value marriage and stable communities. They should be concerned, however, that the moral leadership has all but turned a blind eye to young black men and women destroying their futures, and the future of the city, beyond redemption.

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Photo Feb 18, 12 00 33 AMMayor Dave Bing’s assemblage of dozens of Detroit-area celebrity supporters to film a commercial promoting the city is tantamount to “putting lipstick on a pig.” Detroit won’t become attractive until government addresses the issues that created a many-headed monster that stubbornly eats away at the city’s reputation.

The intent of the “I’m a Believer” campaign is to mobilize and engage television, print, radio and newspaper resources to help change attitudes and restore Detroit to its former greatness. However, a lack of realism undercuts the overriding purpose of this “feel good” crusade. Managing Detroit’s image will be an exercise in media manipulation if all it does is hype the scant amenities in isolation of what’s happening in the rest of the city.

City leaders would have us believe that Detroit is no worse than any other major city. That’s disingenuous and deceiving. While there may be a few bright spots, there isn’t a lot to brag about in the Motor City. In fact, the perception is close to reality. And image, while important, is not as crucial as a government that is committed, competent and credible.

City government, for example is perceived as incapable of providing adequate services and schools. Creeping blight, fear, paranoia, uncertainty and deserved concern about crime and violence are not fabrications.

The most conspicuous of Detroit’s staggering disabilities are its disincentives for investment. Deficits, suffocating taxes, red tape and anti-growth regulations weigh heavily on the city’s image. The sum of these deficiencies contributes mightily to the city’s less than glowing perception among outsiders and residents alike. In a nutshell, Detroit provides too few of the things that favorably define “quality of life.”

The reasons behind the city’s perceived national reputation aren’t as important as an all out effort to change the reality. Rather than elaborate schemes and blaming the media for projecting Detroit’s poor condition, politicians need to be engaged in tough, precise reforms that remedy what ails the city.

No amount of media magic, creative television scripting or positive press can disguise the seriousness of the myriad problems facing the city. Jazzy promotion plans are just window dressing if it’s business as usual at City Hall. You change the city’s image by fixing the city’s problems.

It is strategically important that Detroit has a clearly defined brand and image to present to the world. Image nirvana, however, is hardly just around the corner. The way Detroiters view themselves is based on what they see, and what is actually taking place around them. Right now, that’s a long way from being a pretty picture.

13098018-african-american-bride-and-groom-on-their-wedding-day6048910-a-handsome-business-man-with-car-license-plate-success-fictional-license-plateA record number of Detroit-area blacks have achieved the American dream of reaching middle class status as defined by income, education, lifestyle, attitude and a sense of accomplishment. Although well-educated, well-housed and well-heeled, they have a relatively low profile — for two reasons: They have been upstaged by the negative behavior of the black underclass. And they have hastily and quietly abandoned the city to greener pastures across 8 Mile Rd. and the western suburbs.

The civil rights movement spawned their debut. As opportunities opened up in the 1960s, many blacks seized the moment and moved upward and outward.

Their out-migration from Detroit to the suburbs was primed in part by the desire of better-off families to escape the social distress of the poverty-stricken “hood.” That included often-justifiable fears that children from disadvantaged families might be a bad influence – or threat – to their children. As a protective measure, they elected to limit their children’s exposure to the less savory aspects of core city life by voting with their feet.

As a rule, though, blacks still tend to huddle together; prefer the company of one another, whether in the city or suburbs. Upwardly mobile blacks are increasingly the exception. More than others, this group discovered a downside to black unity, like, for example, the proliferation of black criminals.

Their newly acquired status gave them the choice of either merging into white communities that offer a wealth of opportunities and amenities, or remaining in city neighborhoods in decline. Some split the difference and opted for predominantly black suburban enclaves where they face another set of issues.

20617958-rich-business-woman-holding-dollar-bills--isolated-over-white
When suburb-bound blacks reach a critical mass, as in say, Oak Park or Southfield, whites tend to pack up and leave. Some of that flight is the result of long-held stereotypes and prejudices. Suburban black communities also carry higher social service costs than predominately white ones due to their predisposition to attract lower-income residents and renters. Home values also tend to dip. Undisciplined poor students from Detroit contribute to a decline in school quality.

Within a period as short as a decade, the suburban black enclave is again threatened by enough reprehensible behavior to cause families to move to a predominantly white community to get ahead of, if not escape, what is almost certain to be another influx of disorder. Here, they secretly hope to avoid, and in some cases discourage, “too much” neighborhood integration.

The new standard of success may be the ability of financially successful blacks to effectively “blend in” with their white neighbors while making a decisive break with their heritage. Living in two worlds and mastering both can prove challenging.

After all, those who have “moved on up” frequently leave close friends and relatives in their wake. As high achievers flee, a chasm opens between those who have “made it” and those who struggle to eke out a meager existence.

Their departure is the subject of much debate. City leaders are prone to play the “guilt” card in an effort to get them to return and “give back.” But is there still such a thing as a “black community?” If it exists, is it identified on the basis of color or class? Does it even make sense to quibble over such trivial assessments?

Apparently the black middle class has rejected any suggestion that it should carry on its shoulders the responsibility for concentrated black poverty. Rather than remorse, I see indifference. This leads me to believe their abandonment of the inner city is a permanent estrangement.

We have reached a point where the largest black middle class and the largest black underclass are speeding in opposite directions. This may also be a time when successful blacks accept that they now have more in common with their white suburban counterparts than with the inner-city poor wasting away in predictable misery.

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It is noble for city cheerleaders to remain positive when talking about redefining Detroit, as they are inclined to do. Even more noble is to first realistically assess the scope of the decline.

images-5One of the best indicators of the desirability and livability of a city, or lack thereof, is the extent to which people are trashing it. In this regard, Detroit may be without equal.

Perhaps more than any other major city, Detroit neighborhoods are generally seen as uninviting, inhospitable and perilously plagued by “underclass” behavior that is characterized by bad attitudes and bad manners.

Residents are subjected to offensive piles of uncollected trash, tires and debris that blight the landscape. Downtown streets are littered with vacant, pre-depression architectural relics in the latter stages of decomposition. The city’s arteries are lined with derelict, ugly, abandoned buildings – aging and ghostly vestiges of a once-thriving business class.

Code violations kill the aesthetic of the community. Because the city fails to properly monitor and maintain thousands of abandoned buildings it owns, these structures pose a threat to the city’s recovery by lowering property values. Many are contaminated eyesores that attract vandals, open dumping and other illegal activities.

So why is this happening?

There is a theory among some social psychologists that community neglect is ritualistically wedded in a kind of perverted sequence. Commonly known as the “Broken Windows” theory, it suggests that people are more apt to exhibit destructive behavior in neighborhoods that appear to be unwatched and uncared for.

The theory goes something like this: If a broken window in a building is not quickly repaired, the rest of the windows will be broken in short order. Just one unrepaired window sends the message that no one gives a hoot, so more broken windows won’t concern or hurt anyone.

Perceptions affect reality. Unattended damaged property does become fair game for people out for fun or plunder. Even the appearance of social disorganization is a predictor that a marginal neighborhood is on the verge of becoming a breeding ground for property defacement, vandalism and abandonment.

It occurs when adults stop admonishing unruly, raucous children, who engage in more graffiti and other  damage. Neighbors lose patience; families move out and litter accumulates. Existing buildings are turned into empty ruins.

It is now big business, for example, for thieves to strip unoccupied, sometimes occupied homes and buildings, taking the bricks, furnaces and the kitchen sink. Shady junkyard dealers abet thieves that plunder and cannibalize equipment and transmission lines for copper and other metals that fetch a high price.

Urban decay is not new. But what is happening today is different in at least two important respects from what occurred 60 to 70 years ago. Back then, Detroiters didn’t have the money or transportation to flee neighborhood problems. Nonetheless, blight and crime had a kind of built-in self-correcting mechanism: the resolve of residents to reassert control over their environment. Although lacking the means to escape the various forms of disorder, people possessed a determination to take back the streets.

Today, flight from the city has become rather easy for all but the poorest of the poor. The remaining “underclass” has little appreciation for community cohesion, so it unwittingly fuels and expedites a permanent out-migration from the city.

It may not be possible to suppress this devastating epidemic and fix — literally and metaphorically –the city’s broken windows. The city simply can’t afford to tear down vacant buildings in numbers that keep pace with the rate of abandonment.

So we bear witness to an irreversible transformation that will strip away all memories of a city where people once proudly wanted to live. Unfortunately, that is one of the consequences of allowing stable neighborhoods to disintegrate into oblivion.

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The media is rife with chatter about the collapse and the future of urban education in America. Pundits only need to look at Detroit to get a clear and realistic picture of the problem. The public schools experience in the Motor City reveals a wretched history of failure. Parental choice offers the surest path to bridging the learning morass and mercifully ending government school control.

School officials have tried centralization, decentralization and recentralization of the district over many years without improving student outcomes. Attempts to restore credibility to the delivery system have been a waste of time and money. Even private investment fell short of making a long-term difference.

school choice IIChanging the governance structure, transferring school responsibility to the mayor, and modifying the relationship between the school board and the financial manager, offer no guarantees of enhanced educational performance. In fact, the ongoing conflict between the discredited school board and the ineffective emergency financial manager has successfully skewed the debate away from what is best for the students and toward the parochial objectives of the controlling entity.

The most persistently applied academic improvement strategy has been to commit more dollars to conditions that are no longer fixable. However, the precipitous rise in the cost of education, plus a declining revenue base and student enrollment, has long ago erased any link between the amount of money flowing into the system and the potential quality of education. The district is broke and it is not prudent for parents and policymakers to pump more dollars into a worthless education model.

What the system lacks is a liberating rescue plan. What parents have received over the last four decades is a rudimentary massaging around the peripheral edges of reform, and a lot of excuses. Continuation of these crass inefficiencies is no longer defensible. If the goal is to save children now, the rules of engagement must change.

More schools of choice, charter schools and private schools would shift resources, investments and returns from the failed government school establishment to students and parents. Because they empower parents rather than school boards or bureaucrats, educational “choice scholarships” or vouchers, would inject a major dose of competition into the process. Parents would have the extraordinary power to remove children from schools that fall short of education quality. Failing schools would also lose the state dollars that go with students to competing schools.

I can already hear the angry chorus from the education establishment echoing the argument against parental choice as “destroying” public schools by siphoning off state dollars. Teacher unions and bureaucrats will complain that public schools would be relegated to third-class status with the “creaming” of the brightest students from the system; that some parents aren’t capable of effectively choosing the best schools for their children.

Many Detroit’s schools, though, have already been reduced to Third World status. The district is comatose, on artificial life support. Parents are on a deathwatch. And emergency financial managers, teachers and bureaucrats don’t deserve first-class pay when they are only able to deliver a second-rate product.

I have always been intrigued by claims by the city’s hierarchy that the proliferation of charter and private schools mean ‘the end of public education as we know it.” I don’t see the downside. I have observed that each time a new charter or private school opens, it is immediately filled with defectors trying to escape public school dysfunction.

The system of public education has been the traditional pathway to success. If it isn’t working — and in Detroit it is not – urban students have the door of opportunity slammed in their face. If real opportunity and access to better schools is the objective, legislators and policymakers can’t justify denying parents and students the right to attend the school of their choice. If that means letting the state-run system of urban public education die a deserved and natural death, so be it.

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Expectations were high that newly elected Detroit Mayor Dave Bing was the right person to set the city on a new course. But after months of inactivity, his first major revitalization initiative involved hosting five community forums on the Detroit Works Project aimed at soliciting public input on long range use of city land.

thAt best, this is a shortsighted diversion from the more pressing issue of runaway crime. He should set aside what will be a protracted, logistical nightmare and focus on what Detroiters need to survive today.

The mayor believes that out of necessity the city must shrink in order to make service delivery manageable and affordable. Real solutions, however, can’t be built on unrealistic strategies. What the mayor doesn’t seem to understand is that neighborhoods are under siege from a treacherous cycle of crime, bloodshed and political lethargy. Unless public safety becomes the number one priority in conviction and budgeting, the entire city is destined to become an uninhabitable urban wasteland.

It is somewhat disappointing that Mayor Bing’s vision of Detroit’s rebirth has yet to progress beyond the promise. A new spirit of community pride remains an offsite concept. The quality of basic public services has worsened. People still can’t walk freely or safely in the streets. The city is not a good host for investors because they don’t see it as a place of opportunity – without subsidies. Residents are prescribed placebos in lieu of meaningful transformation ideas.

Missing is a strategic plan to suppress the orgy of violence that literally sucks the life from the city. Teen violence is exploding in neighborhoods with a vengeance. The highest profile, highest paying jobs involve drug trafficking that turn city streets into killing zones. Every hour of every day criminals declare open season on the law abiding, the young and the innocent. Victims have no confidence that 911 will answer their frantic calls for help.

Friends and families of the victims plead and pray for a merciful end to the rampage. But with no sense of urgency from politicians to end the atrocities, most avenues to escape the curse of being born in a Detroit ghetto and dying there, are closed off.

So blatant is the bloodletting that it’s hard to imagine how anyone who cares about children or communities can ignore it. Yet Detroit leaders do – to the extreme.

The first responsibility of government is to provide a safe and secure environment. A stronger police presence, properly deployed, is the only way to effectively contain catastrophic murder and mayhem. But governmental leaders claim the city can’t afford the resources needed to end the sadistic carnage. Police, fire and EMS personnel are not provided the tools or manpower to fight back the surge. Public safety was cut in the current budget.

In my mind, a mayor who says he can’t protect his citizens probably couldn’t craft a credible land use arrangement either. In that respect, the mayor’s plan is not just fanciful, it is fatally flawed.

By not hiring and putting more cops on the street, Mayor Bing and the council are aiding and abetting a culture of violence that has spiraled out of control. As such, the city’s infrastructure — physical and human — will ultimately succumb to municipal neglect.

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Detroit Mayor Dave Bing heralded the anticipated move of 3,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) employees from Southfield to the General Motors Renaissance Center and other downtown locations, as “a great day in the city of Detroit.”

“The relocation saves Blue Cross $30 million in long-term real estate costs,” proclaimed BCBS CEO and President Daniel Loepp.

Deputy Mayor Saul Green subsequently made a pitch to the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) – created to stimulate growth — urging the agency to approve an “incentive to entice BCBS to relocate certain of its employees to the Downtown District by making an annual payment (to Blue Cross) of up to $3 million per year for 10 years….”

The request means BCBS is not moving to the city because Detroit is a great place to do business. Taxpayers are picking up the $30 million, $10,000 per employee tab. The city mortgages its future with extraordinarily generous incentives because it can’t otherwise compete with the suburbs for jobs.

BCBS can’t be faulted for taking advantage of the “sweetheart” deal. The company probably wouldn’t be interested in expanding its Detroit operations without major inducements. And this company is one among many to feed at this trough.

For 30 years or more, Detroit has tried to lure businesses by offering millions of dollars through an array of enticements to a few handpicked companies. Early this year, Mayor Bing convinced GM to keep its headquarters at the RenCen with a multi-year $35 million incentive package. The premise is that once a strong economic base is established, other development and people would follow.

However, Detroit’s job-subsidizing venture has been a classic case of diminishing returns. Stimulus packages have generated few, if any, real financial benefits.

Private expansion and large-scale economic growth minus incentives never materialized. Increased tax revenue, or an explosion of meaningful jobs for city dwellers, is still fantasy. To the contrary, business and population flight from the city has turned into a stampede. Detroit simply has no talent for picking economic winners and losers.

Absent too is any credible record that city officials aggressively monitor compliance records of recipient companies to track whether the promised jobs are actually created and maintained. At best, the incentives produce an occasional short-term bump for the reigning political figure, but no long-term public benefit.

Government-directed job-creation tools create disparities — a payoff to mega-corporations at the expense of companies without connections. Since competing firms are placed at a disadvantage, it sends the wrong message to those that lack political clout. Small businesses and entrepreneurs – who need relief the most — see the city as inhospitable and tend to relocate to more friendly environs.

Spending pubic money to entice private dollars might be justified in some cases if Detroiters didn’t have to cope with a nearly $300 million budget deficit, cuts in police and fire services, sky high income and property taxes and homeowners and auto insurance rates. The city administration claims it can’t afford to contribute more of its dwindling  resources to essential services. So residents can’t be expected to find comfort in BCBS receiving incentives at their expense. It’s like a reverse Robin Hood — taking from the poor to give to the rich.

City officials need to revisit the logic of levying some of the highest taxes in the nation, delivering some of the worst services in America and granting extraordinary special breaks to a select group of businesses. The very existence of these tools suggests Detroit is doing something wrong.

Studies have persuasively documented that economic growth springs from reducing general tax rates, not from granting exceptional advantages that allow a chosen few to escape the full weight of Detroit’s extreme tax burden.

So hold off on the applause for a BCBS coronation. The greatest cause for celebration will be when the mayor announces that a well-to-do corporation is coming to Detroit without taxpayers picking up the major share of the investment tab.

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Daily news reports and crime statistics painfully affirm Detroit as a dangerous place. Vicious street crimes by and against teens are on the rise. Drive-by shooting victims flood hospital emergency rooms. Brutal assaults occur in and out of schools.

Shock waves reverberated throughout the city after teenagers invaded a home and raped a 90-year old woman. City streets are especially toxic for young males between the ages of 15 and 24. Funeral homes bustle with the traffic of mourners of the murdered.

The violence and the deaths might be easier to accept if the source of the horrific events originated from outside the city. But Detroit is plagued by homegrown, homemade terrorists who are born and bred in the neighborhoods where they live. In other words, Detroiters are recklessly sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

None of these perpetrators come into the world with malicious intent and perverse values; they learn them in dysfunctional homes and a street culture that pollutes the psyche. Too many have no conscience and no concept of the meaning of respect, discipline, responsibility and morals.

Theirs is a culture of both swagger and insecurity. Deprived of adequate learning stimulants that are vital for developing minds, they quickly find that a mismatch exists between their skills and the requirements for the few available jobs. The young seethe in rage about their poverty and unemployment. Some overcome tremendous odds and make it out. Most are candidates for prison instead of Princeton.

Crime exists where it is tolerated. Fearing intimidation, retaliation or worse, residents shy away from becoming informants. Their terror is justified. Trapped and cowering in barricaded homes, they succumb to “no snitch” edicts which allow thugs to prey on the vulnerable with impunity.

Witnesses to crime, as well as victims, tend to not come forward when the offenses involve someone they know. The most reprehensible conduct is viewed as taboo to law enforcement intervention. When eyewitnesses choose to look the other way, cops find it difficult to counter with offers of protection. And with an insufficient number of cops deployed in high crime areas, Detroiters feel defenseless and abandoned.

At the end of the day, the crime surge is not the result of cracks in the criminal justice system, as much as to a breakdown of social norms that are disconnected from traditional community codes of conduct. This moral deficiency is beyond the direct control and reach of police and prosecutors.

Policymakers must come to terms with why Detroit is being torn apart by delinquency, crime and chaos. They must first understand how criminals are shaped. There is a common thread: Most wayward youth go to bed every night in a home where their father does not live. This almost automatically puts them on a conveyor belt to becoming a career criminal.

By ignoring the “absent father” syndrome, Detroiters take the path of least resistance and pay last respects to the multitude of victims in its wake. As such, the last caretakers of a dying city will be best remembered for burying their children and permanently entombing a more viable future for the city.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson boldly marched into Detroit to showcase a new workers’ initiative for “jobs, justice and peace.” He rounded up the usual collection of collaborators; labor leaders, seasoned and wannabe politicians and activists. Arm-in-arm they paraded down Jefferson Ave. to Grand Circus Park where he delivered a classic uplifting speech. Jackson departed, leaving the city pretty much like he found it – rudderless and adrift.

I don’t mean to suggest Rev. Jackson, the self-anointed champion of the working class, is the problem. Detroit is a city in crisis — a tragedy of terrible and costly consequences in lost hope, lost lives and a lost sense of community. But if marching could remedy what ails the dysfunctional city, the healing would have begun when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit almost 50 years ago. This march was less about Rebuilding America than it was about regenerating Jackson’s dominion and personal profile.

The march did, however, reveal how much Detroiters are starved for icons that are capable of formulating an aggressive plan for the city’s revival, if not survival. Thousands felt compelled to answer Jackson’s call. Arguably, the large turnout was a testament to the deepening crisis of intellectual impoverishment among those who profess to be Detroit’s leaders.

Nowhere to be found are respected community elders to provide roadmaps for residents to make a smoother entry into the heart of society. Missing are committed agents of change who see it as their duty and responsibility to speak out against self-generated destructive forces that hold back the poor.

As much as anything, Detroiters suffer from a poverty of the spirit. This behavioral deficiency reveals itself as a breakdown in the conduct and values that lead to self-sufficiency and the formation of healthy families and communities. An erosion of the work ethic, lack of educational aspiration and achievement, and the inability or unwillingness to control one’s children are all byproducts of the social deficits.

Establishing peace should start on the streets of Detroit, some of the deadliest in America. Violence has been a growing concern for years. Yet too few voices in the city acknowledge or rise to the challenges facing the current generation of youth — premature death, ending their mass imprisonment, preventing the uneducated and unemployed from becoming the city’s fastest growing segment.

Nothing contributes more to their joblessness than poor schools. But where were the voices of rage and indignation as the public school system with its daunting deficiencies imploded and deprived children of basic reading and math skills and opportunity?

Are the traditional voices of reason that encourage moral accountability, good manners and neat appearance immune or simply indifferent? With no positive reinforcement too many young people assume that these traits are neither expected nor demanded of them.

There are still caring people who do more than march, sing and pray. Some work doggedly and tirelessly behind the scenes every day to address adverse situations. They are surely the real and greatest heroes. Their small victories, though, are the only reminders of a bygone era in which a once proud, competent and respected leadership reigned. That leadership class is now impotent.

The city’s pressing needs require respected men and women to rise again and organically begin the serious interdiction and eradication of the dysfunctions that are now of historic proportions.

Those who answer the stewardship challenge will reinforce the enduring link between behavior, success and failure. They will collectively possess a uniform and clear message. They will stand as beacons and provide meaningful direction to the children and lay claim to their lives and futures. They will understand that modifying the behavior of people in distress is no task for the faint of heart.

They will not stage a self-serving rally in the heart of downtown. They will not be mesmerized by the likes of Jesse Jackson’s empty rhetoric. They will not march to his drumbeat into oblivion.

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Detroit will not be a major player in the November statewide election sweepstakes. If the turnout in the August 3 primary is any indication, neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates will find a wealth of votes among the body politic. Massive indifference will relegate the selection of the governor and other top leadership positions to someone else’s almost exclusive domain.

In an abysmal display of civic participation, only 15.2 percent of 567,102 registered Detroit primary voters turned out on Election Day. Their absence reveals some rather unflattering characteristics about non-voters.

For one, the issue of turnout may actually be insignificant without distinguishable differences in candidate choices. Detroit, after all, is a virtual one-party Democratic-controlled city. Some voters may have turned away from the same tired ideological platforms and political pronouncements and tuned out.

One of the most consistent findings among researchers is the compelling relationship between social status and turnout. The combination of increasing poverty and voter abstention has been evident over time.

In 1950, the Census Bureau pegged Detroit as one of the wealthiest big cities in America. At the time, the 1st and the 13th Congressional Districts – both located within the city boundaries — were the most powerful in the state. Candidates on the federal, state and local levels enthusiastically courted voters in these prime districts.

Population declines of committed voters, and later redistricting, eventually wiped out both election powerhouses. The 1st District became the 14th and the 13th was reapportioned and incorporated to include areas outside the city limits. Both have a more diversified electorate, which also correlates with Detroit’s vanishing political muscle.

Today, Detroit is the nation’s 2nd poorest major city, just edging out Cleveland. With per capita earnings just over $14,000 – Detroit ranks below the federal poverty guidelines of $14,500 for a family of two. With rising poverty rates came lower voter participation levels.

Educational attainment — or lack thereof — is another factor. Detroit’s public school system has one of the highest school dropout rates and lowest graduation rates found anywhere. The high school GPA is barely distinguishable from failure. Students score in the lowest percentile in national math and reading tests.

The problem of education is multi-generational. Back in the mid-1990s the National Institute for Literacy classified upwards of 47 percent of Detroit adults as functional illiterates. That means about half the population can’t read or comprehend medicine prescription directions, let alone complex boilerplate language on millages, tax issues, voter referendums and constitutional amendments. The state of Detroit’s education worsened in the interim.

To merely suggest that the main reason Detroit is home to a preponderance of nonvoters is because they lack interest, doesn’t go to the core. Some candidates have historically lacked broad appeal and substance. More interesting is whether Detroit election outcomes are helped or skewed as participation in democracy wanes.

The social statistics that contribute to disenfranchisement can’t be ignored. Although sensitive, they call out for answers.

Are Detroiters sufficiently informed on the issues of the day? Are they capable of understanding and intelligently voting for referendums, millage proposals and bond authorizations? Can they make smart candidate selections? Is Michigan better off because Detroiters don’t vote? Is Detroit?

In the general election, expect Democratic candidates to make their usual empty promises of jobs and hope. Republicans will stay true to form and campaign where the votes are. Detroiters will stay home and suffer in silence.

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Detroit’s future has never been more uncertain. The unemployment and poverty rates are the highest among major cities. Much of the business class is gone. It will take an extraordinary coordinated effort to break from the status quo and reinvent the city.

From a historical perspective, Detroit became one of the primary destinations for a massive movement of immigrants after World War I, including blacks from the South.  An abundance of auto-related factory jobs and decent pay was the ticket to gain entry into the workforce, attain a desirable middle-class lifestyle and raise a family. Detroit was the gateway for hope and opportunity — a symbol of the American promise and dream.

Much of the progress has receded in the Detroit we see today. The perception and the reality is a city with a declining standard of living, burgeoning debt, deteriorating neighborhoods, gratuitous crime and an empty job market. If economic ruin is an unacceptable option, Detroit will have to harvest a collective and realistic vision of its strengths, weaknesses and needs.

A fertile field for business development and growth requires something rarely seen in the city – an intelligent strategic game plan. One of the basic ingredients for business success is a safe environment and a responsive government.  All the economic inducements in the world won’t be enough to attract investment, enterprise and new job energy if the streets are unclean and unsafe.

A thriving Detroit is also contingent on political stability. Currently, a debt-ridden city government is on the brink of insolvency. Opportunities to make a fresh determination of what services the city should and should not be providing have been squandered. Add mismanagement and corruption to high taxes and a shrinking tax base, and the extent of the city’s despair puts hope on hold.

Only a unifying purpose and direction will usher in a return to the vanishing tradition of public-private cooperation. That means government, corporate and community leaders must submerge their diverse and sometimes competing interests. Corporate/business leaders shouldn’t have to sulk on the sidelines and complain about not having a voice in the political and economic decision-making process. Investment capital will take root and stay home if residents view business as an ally rather than an adversary

Key to any dynamic turnaround will be astute political leadership that figures out that for the city to become attractive, and the tax base to regenerate, Detroit has to compete with business destinations near and far. The extent to which the city helps existing companies grow will be another major component. Streamlining of economic support systems – licensing and regulation red tape – is an imperative.

Cities that subscribe to a pro-business philosophy have corporate leaders that feel free to bring together developers and investors and get them to endorse a visionary civic blueprint. They also help provide the talent and skills to get developments on track. Citizen groups, educators, financial institutions and foundations rally around a broad economic vision of the public good. Government generally delivers high quality essential services and rolls out the welcome mat.

Detroit will never return to the good old days when it made its mark as the automotive mecca. That doesn’t mean the moral legacy of Detroit should be one of indifference. The last several decades of disinvestment from the city are a painful reminder that those who champion the failed status quo hasten the city’s free fall into a municipal wasteland.

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vacant houseDetroit has lost more than half of its population since the 1960s. Wave after wave of families looking for larger homes, better schools, safer streets and more amenities have beat a path to the suburbs. A shrinking number of suburban residents visit or work in Detroit and, therefore, feel less connected to it. Worse, the prospect for a reversal of the exodus and the apathy is not promising.

The out-migration was certain to produce long-term consequences, not the least of which were massive job losses and the departure of the middle class. Those left behind are largely poor and black, uneducated and practically unemployable. Detroit is unquestionably less genteel.

Political leaders have vainly struggled to arrest the decline in population. However, every strategy for stopping the stampede across 8 Mile Rd. has proved at best symbolic, and in the end, futile. Even the best ideas for ending the flight have been met with resistance from within.

Advocates of the poor fanatically oppose any initiatives and investments intended to attract and retain the middle class. They argue that the spending of precious city resources should be used to boost economic opportunities or social services for the chronically disadvantaged, which make up more than one-third of the total population.

Although well-intentioned, the zealous protectors of the status quo don’t seem to understand that the demographic hemorrhaging of the educated and wealthy fuels a downward spiral that ultimately take a disproportionate toll on those who need jobs and economic growth the most. Demanded are low-income rather than market rate housing. Wage rates are artificially manipulated to pay low-income residents above their skill level, which ultimately adds to the growing rate of unemployment.

broken houseWithin this misguided strategy is a failure to recognize that with the vanishing middle class –black and white – went the demand for housing. Housing values fell precipitously. Abandonment and blight increased. Community institutions and social networks disappeared. Role models fled an increasingly hostile environment that no longer appealed to middle class values or to businesses that hired people from the local talent pool. The city’s political power and clout with regional, state and federal governments evaporated.

A diminishing group of trapped, law-abiding, productive households now tries to make due with a declining tax base. This makes it considerably more difficult and costly to educate Detroit children effectively, to combat crime and ensure safety. The result is self-perpetuating despair and further isolation of the poor from the mainstream.

Only an economically diverse population will revive Detroit financially and socially. But there is no real evidence of any meaningful “back-to-the-city” movement. Young married couples and empty nesters are no more likely than families with children to place a high value on what little Detroit has to offer. While the city has great sports events and some of the best cultural and entertainment choices found anywhere, patrons tend to be occasional visitors rather than residents. It is wishful thinking to believe suburban middle-class households of any ethnic group will return to Detroit in large numbers.

The forces that contribute to the city’s population losses may be too strong and pervasive to be reversed. Anyone with a choice of where they live and pay taxes will not tolerate chronically poor basic city services such as street maintenance, trash collection, snow removal, unattended parks and shuttered recreation facilities. As long as Detroit has a reputation as a dangerous place to live, no one will want to stay.

Regional government would be one possible solution. However, regionalism has no constituency in the city or suburbs and will never come to pass. The hostility and entrenchment among groups outside the city’s political decision-making process only grows with Detroit’s worsening condition. And despite claims to the contrary, history has shown that the success of the region is not dependent on Detroit’s survival.

Suburban residents and politicians might be open to regional cooperation if they believed the crisis in Detroit threatened their way of life. So far, the proliferation of undereducated, unskilled residents and violent crime in the city has yet to create a predicament severe enough to motivate suburbanites to venture out of their comfort zone.

That means the fortunes of Detroit will get substantially worse before they get marginally better.