Detroit: down but not out

Detroit News journalist says of Chapter 7, “It’s simply a regrouping”


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Contrary to recent reports, after filing for bankruptcy protection last month, Detroit is still alive and well. According to some national pundits, the blame for Detroit’s financial woes starts and ends with the city’s five-decades-plus Black leadership, while

others suggest that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, is not committed to helping the state’s largest and historically Democrat-controlled city.

The Detroit News last week reported that Snyder as early as April 2012 vowed to help collect “millions of dollars in unpaid income taxes from 54 percent of Detroit residents who work in the suburbs.” If their employers don’t automatically withhold taxes from their paychecks, individuals are required to “estimate and remit the taxes each year on their own,” noted the news report.

An estimated $142 million in uncollected income tax revenue in 2009 is owed to Detroit by city residents who work in suburban Detroit, reported the newspaper. It is estimated that Detroit is nearly $19 billion in debt. University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs Public Administration Associate Professor Zhirong (Jerry) Zhao last week told the MSR that what’s happening to the Motor City “is a warning sign for other cities.”

“Some will blame the unions,” noted Zhao in an August 12 phone interview, “and of course the economy. But in my opinion, the important reason for this bankruptcy is bad financial management” by city officials, he surmised.

“It’s a combination of things,” stressed Arise Detroit Executive Director Luther Keith. “Anybody that says it [isn’t] doesn’t know what they are talking about.

“Let’s look at, first and foremost, over the last 10, 20, 30 years Detroit has suffered from population and business losses unlike no other city in America,” explains Keith, a Detroit native and former award-winning editor and columnist with the Detroit

Luther Keith Photo courtesy of Arise Detroit
Luther Keith
Photo courtesy of Arise Detroit


“Some call it ‘White flight’ in leaving the city, and now to some extent ‘Black flight,’” he continues. “This is basic economics: We had almost two million people in the early ’50s and over a million about 15 years ago to about 700,000 [today]. You lose population and [what follows is] a loss in business investment. That’s the first thing.”

There has been “some bad political management in a number of administrations from mayors and city councils as they tried to defer some things” over the years in Detroit, admits Keith. Also there was a massive foreclosure problem “that hit Detroit very hard. It’s not just one thing… You can lay a lot of blame here and a lot of blame there, but all this stuff is not just about Detroit making bad decisions,” he points out. “It’s a combination of things — it’s not just Black folk mismanaging the money.”

The Motor City is alive, continues Keith: “We have nearly 200 community service projects, literally thousands of people in organizations all over the city, doing things [like] cleaning up neighborhoods, building houses, planting gardens. You see city people who are working… That’s a story that gets lost.” Arise Detroit is a coalition of community groups “that address many community issues” in the city, according to their website.

Since the July 18 bankruptcy filing, Keith says that many domestic and international media outlets, including the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), have contacted him about the plight of his hometown. Some have hinted that Detroiters “have crawled under a rock” since the bankruptcy filing, says Keith.

“People have lives to lead,” says Keith. “Quite frankly, the bankruptcy thing does not affect the day-to-day [lives] of Detroiters at all. We are getting up and going to work. We’re taking care of our kids.

“The bankruptcy is not a death knell,” he continues. “It’s simply a regrouping and building a foundation under Chapter 7 for a fresh start. People were working to change the city before bankruptcy, during bankruptcy and after bankruptcy,” says Keith proudly.

However, an August 3 Wall Street Journal article quoted Maryland resident Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager Snyder appointed in March, as saying, “For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich. Detroit has been the center of more change in the 20th century than I dare say virtually any other city, but that wealth allowed us to have a covenant [that held] if you had an eighth-grade education, you’ll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don’t have to worry about what’s going to come.”

Orr’s comments angered many city residents, including at least two dozen retired City workers who protested outside City Hall three days after the Journal article was published. He last week apologized during a local television interview, saying that he was surprised by the negative reaction and that he was “not as sensitive as perhaps I should have been.”

“He should have never said it,” believes Keith. “No matter how he meant it, it was an insult to all the people of Detroit. It’s not a fair statement, and if he wants cooperation, that is not the way to do it.

“The opinion in Detroit is split on the emergency manager,” he said of Orr. “I think the majority of people [don’t like him], but for right now, that’s the world we are living in and we have to make the most of it.”

Keith also disputes reports that Orr is selling off city assets, such as the art museum, to settle debts. “No decisions have been made, and no dollar figure has been put on assets. That’s all speculation at this point.”

This fall the city will elect a new mayor, and all nine city council seats also are up for election, “but their power will be negated by the emergency manager because that is the law,” states Keith. Nevertheless, “We still need people who are grounded in the community and will represent the community.

“We have a lot of challenges, and there’s no sugarcoating that,” concludes Keith. “But the idea that Detroit is completely dead and without hope is a bunch of [nonsense]. Anybody who says that hasn’t done any real research on what is going on in the city.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to


To see more stories by Charles Hallman stories click HERE