Since the dawn of Detroit’s bankruptcy, many have been taking note of what is happening in the Motor City. The bankruptcy sparked interest in Detroit from all over as well as its potential as a great comeback story for a major city. But what caught my attention the most was China, which announced in the wake of Detroit’s government’s financial collapse that it was reviewing how local governments are funded by Beijing.
That Detroit, a city that has been beaten down so much in the past, would have an impact on the world’s second largest economy when it declared bankruptcy was surprising. Yet it underscores the importance of the city that is often under-appreciated from within about its role in the world as not only a manufacturing capital but also its place as an important and an iconic American city.
The Los Angeles Times reported how Chinese state media said Detroit’s bankruptcy was a major concern for Beijing which prompted a nationwide audit, following emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s filing of chapter 9 in federal court.
Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times welcomed the lessons from Detroit.
“The central government must have understood the local debt issues,” Xingdou said. “The issues include inaccurate financial data, bank bad debts, too many local government debts, excess production capacity, local government officials blindly investing in order to pursue political achievements.”
But China’s focus on Detroit’s economy is one of many indications from across the globe about how social and economic activities in the city are being closely watched. At the same time that news of the bankruptcy sent shivers down the political spinal cord of the Chinese government to revisit its own checkbook and spending attitude, it was not a surprise for those who saw Detroit at its highest and lowest points in history. It was just a matter of when the city would officially arrive at this point.
But one thing that’s interesting in the many narratives of how Detroit got into billions of dollars in debt, was the recent Detroit Free Press vindication of the most talked-about, most misunderstood, most controversial and most adored mayor of Detroit — Coleman Alexandra Young. His financial stewardship and shrewdness was above all of the previous mayors that have served this city to this day, the Detroit daily reported.
It’s important to report and connect the substance of the past to our present political dispensation to explain why Detroit’s economy has gotten so much attention. To explain why countries like China today see fit to monitor what Detroit is doing to get out of the billions of debt it owes.
Whenever Detroit’s present socioeconomic and political calamity is debated, there is a tendency to always use the Young era as the backdrop. The political chattering class hardly looks beyond Young or before him, what the other political players did.
Because Young was a victim of his own convictions and his beliefs in bringing to reality the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, becoming a leader who defiantly challenged the Joseph McCarthy era, when civil rights was cruelly frowned upon with “interposition and nullification,” everything positive Young did, including being the wisest financial mayor of Detroit, was thrown into the dustbin of history.
But finally the truth is being told and we can no longer be bamboozled into believing half-truths. We owe it to ourselves not to be bamboozled by history but to learn from it because the reason why Detroit is where it is today is because of the failure of our political leaders to learn from history.
China has decided the economic transformation taking place in Detroit is a historic lesson for the largest nation in the world. It is an opportunity and a wakeup call for Beijing to reorganize how it did business with its local units of government.
The challenge for us in Detroit is whether we can use this moment of the attention economy as an instructive lesson, in the midst of the “doom and gloom” that some are trumpeting.
The heightened level of private sector interest and commitment to the city shows that Detroit’s future is being read from two lenses: The optimistic lens and the pessimistic lens. But the task certainly is how a new Detroit guarantees a place for everyone who has invested in the city regardless of their economic background or social status.
Beyond the power of the pocketbook, and its influence, must lie a future for those who have given their life to this city, believing in it and trusting one day it will come back. That includes our senior citizens, most of whom have nowhere to go after giving decades to their beloved city, now being haunted by a debilitating crime in our neighborhoods.
In the midst of all these changes in Detroit something has to remain: our determination to rise up and break the bonds of stagnation, do everything we can to embrace opportunity and move forward.
That is why I agree with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he renders the difficulties, moral and materialistic challenges of changing with the times. At some point we in Detroit, our leaders- must confront our innermost conflicts that mirror our external conflicts in our search for making the city a better place.
But there is a generation of young people who are creating a revolution in the age of the attention economy in Detroit. Their worth cannot be underestimated, their value cannot be ignored and their energy cannot be stopped, where the unprecedented innovation of Mark Zuckerburg and others stand as a great example.
I met some members of that generation last week when I spoke at the University of Michigan Law School Detroit Month Program hosted and organized by a student group called “JDs in the D,” an organization that is connecting the work of graduates of the law school with organizations in Detroit that are revitalizing the city.
I was encouraged by the infectious interest in the city and the illuminating questions the students were posing, all to better understand and be more engaged in the affairs of Detroit.
Joshua Ronnebaum, one of the student organizers of “JDs in the D,” said, “Our goal is for Detroit Month to serve as a platform to promote strategic partnerships between Michigan Law and the City of Detroit, and to foster tangible opportunities for students and faculty to engage with Detroit businesses, community organizations and city initiatives.”
But “Death of a Salesman” reminds us that despite the whirlwind of changes facing Detroit we can see what is on the horizon, and be a part of the change. And we say Carpe Diem. Seize the Day.