If you were wondering whether any liberal media veteran could have made the networks sound less clueless about the reasons for Detroit filing for bankruptcy, one answer was longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent Keith Richburg. In an article on the Post website (but not in the newspaper), Richburg wrote painfully about the demise of his beloved hometown, and how racial polarization and crime and political corruption have destroyed it.
His personal story, including his relatives who remained in the urban blight, offered the most gripping testimony:
My older cousins and aunties in their 70s, 80s and 90s are still in the same houses as before. But theirs are some of the few houses still standing on streets that are now mostly abandoned; they live behind metal burglar bars on their windows and the curtains and shades pulled tight. If I go in the winter, I know their streets will never be cleared of snow and ice, so the driving is treacherous. And I never go out at night. My old house on McGraw Street burned down and was reduced to rubble years ago.
Richburg, whose last Post byline from Beijing came in January, described race riots in the 1940s and the 1960s:
Of course the city did explode, in riots in 1967, and that was when Detroit’s downfall — its current path to insolvency — was set in agonizing slow motion. The white families in my neighborhood, my friends, all fled to the safety of the suburbs. My street, and my neighborhood, went from mixed to all black in an instant. Many of the black newcomers who came couldn’t get mortgages, so most ended up as renters, not homeowners.
Properties fell into disrepair. Drugs, prostitution and burglaries soared. My parents had burglar bars installed on all the downstairs windows; the thieves climbed a front-yard tree and came in the upstairs. They had upstairs bars installed. The burglars ripped those bars out and hit us again. And again. And again, until my parents finally moved far away, to the very edge of Detroit on the border of Dearborn.
I never wanted to say it aloud, but my old neighborhood had become the quintessential American ghetto. Like others, I wanted to cling to the illusion that this was just some passing phase, that my old neighborhood, the heart of the city, might someday be restored. Like everyone else, I whistled past the abandoned lots.
The former Post reporter was slow to use the "D" word, but he described most of Detroit's pols as bankrupt:
Bing aside, much of the political class is also bankrupt. Detroit politics has been wracked by a series of corruption scandals, going back to the Coleman Young years. The last elected mayor before Bing, Kwame Kilpatrick — better known as the “Player Mayor” for his extravagant lifestyle of bling and parties — sits in prison for felony corruption. But Detroiters are prideful and protective of their own; even when Kilpatrick and his associates were shown to be corrupt, many Detroiters came out to support him, blaming the prosecutors for unfairly targeting a black elected official.
In fact, therein lies the real truth about Detroit, one that I’m loath to admit. For all my fond memories of Detroit from the 1960s and ’70s, it was always one of America’s most racially polarized cities. Older Detroiters are correct that the city was surrounded by a ring of often-hostile white suburbs, in a largely conservative state that had little time for a poor, destitute, Democratic and black city....
The white population’s abandonment of the city left Detroit with a shrinking tax base and deteriorating, segregated public schools — a system locked in place by a Supreme Court order that halted busing across school district lines. But blacks still in Detroit had one thing left — political power. And they would guard it jealously against any encroachment, real or imagined.
Thus, the city’s black political class sees conspiracy theories everywhere. The investigation of the last mayor by the Detroit Free Press, and his indictment by a prosecutor, are seen as a white conspiracy to undermine black “home rule” of Detroit. The governor’s appointment of an emergency financial manager, once it became clear that Detroit cannot manage its own fiscal affairs, is again seen as a hostile, racist takeover by the state over the city’s elected black leadership.
Racial politics, and that racial prism, long ago ruined Detroit, and now they hamper any chance the city has at a modest recovery. As a longtime friend, one who has stayed in Detroit and worked to help the city, once put it to me succinctly: “Some people would rather be the king of nothing than a part of something.”
So this bankruptcy is sad. But it was, in a sense, inevitable — the final chapter in Detroit’s long slide from glory. Maybe this will be the kind of shock therapy the city needs, the hammer blow that gets the remaining residents to stop living in the past, recognize that the old Detroit is never coming back, and start making the painful sacrifices necessary to build a new, smaller city with what’s left.
I hope so. But somehow I doubt it. If we Detroiters have one fault, it’s that we are addicted to nostalgia and living in our highly selective view of the past.