[Excerpts from the article]
The foreclosure crisis of this century, fueled by racially discriminatory predatory lending, forced hundreds of thousands of residents out of the city. The governor’s office placed the public school system and then the entire local government under emergency management, suspending the democratic process in the “arsenal of democracy.” And now, after seven decades of these slow-moving storms, including acts that are almost impossible to see as anything but retribution against the city’s predominantly African American population, Detroit is often viewed from afar as a cautionary tale, a post-industrial dystopia of vacant buildings and dormant factories.
The truth, however, is more complicated. On the brink of a new, post-bankruptcy beginning, Detroit is really two cities. One is comprised of wealthy enclaves like Palmer Woods linked to a compact, rapidly redeveloping downtown. The other is made up of the rest of the 139-square-mile urban expanse, populated by longtime residents who have fought for decades to survive in an environment that has become increasingly uninhabitable.
In the first Detroit, private security is common and the living is relatively safe. In the second, running water has systematically been cut off from at least 27,000 households this year alone, the latest in a series of government-enacted policies that have made daily life an increasingly desperate battle. Rather than growing closer in the coming post-bankruptcy era, many residents fear that these two Detroits — already so separate and unequal — will have increasingly divergent futures.
After 16 months of wrangling, city and state officials expressed cautious optimism about the bankruptcy deal, which eliminates more than $7 billion in long-term city debt and includes cuts to the pensions of city workers, a violation of the state constitution. Creditors and insurance companies agreed to accept less than full repayment of the debts owed by the city, in some cases as little as 14 cents on the dollar. The plan also frees up $1.7 billion for Detroit to reinvest in essential city services like the fire department and the rebuilding of its system of streetlights.
The new debt readjustment plan is not, officials cautioned, the solution to all the city’s problems but at least they consider it a good start. For Wayne State law professor Peter Hammer, however, lurking in the bankruptcy plan is a potential future that’s far more sinister than anyone is advertising. As Hammer explained, Detroit has become a blueprint for the creation of a “self-acknowledged, self-defined second-class city,” one where the state guarantees only the most basic services to most of its inhabitants: “some police,” “some fire protection,” and “a bulldozer department” to raze abandoned houses, while the remaining essential services will be available only on a private basis for those who can pay.
That Detroit is a more than 80% African American metropolis makes the idea of its rise from bankruptcy with second-class status all the more problematic. As Hammer explains, the plan for Detroit bears an eerie back-to-the-future resemblance to the famed Kerner Commission report of 1968, issued by a presidentially appointed panel in the wake of the urban rebellions that were then sweeping the country. Its findings were that the nation was moving toward two societies: black and white, separate and unequal.
“That was viewed as a call to action, as unacceptable in 1968,” comments Hammer. Nearly a half-century later, he adds, it’s portrayed as progress. The vision of a future Detroit as a sprawling second-class black city with a small, wealthy downtown and a few elite neighborhoods surrounded by thriving white suburbs will, he projects, bring the 1968 finding to life. “The truth is, what [bankruptcy] Judge Rhodes will do when he approves the bankruptcy plan of adjustment is ratify that conclusion as prophecy.”
That Sunday evening, Marian Kramer’s weekend of work was almost over.
The town hall meeting for the visiting U.N. officials had ended after dozens of testimonies on what it meant to live without running water. Although there hadn’t been enough time for everyone to speak, people were now filing out of the atrium of a local community college, heading home to prepare for another week.
Some, however, were staying for the buffet of chicken, rice and beans, salad, steamed vegetables, and sheet cake. “Commander” Brown and his wife, also a security officer with Threat Management, were keeping a close eye on the two U.N. officials, accompanying them in line and even to the bathroom.
Finally, after the dinner was over and the guests had been thanked for investigating the water shutoffs, Stevie Wonder’s “My Eyes Don’t Cry” filled the large room. Dozens of people began heading for a corner that quickly became a makeshift dance floor. Soon, just about everyone fell into step: Maureen Taylor and the U.N. officials, out-of-towners and locals, a public school teacher, a school board member, and a man who had recently parked his wheelchair in the middle of a street to block the water trucks from heading out to turn off some more taps.
Despite the hours of testimonies over that weekend by residents living without water, by mothers fearful of losing their children and careful to conserve every drop of moisture — “I don’t cook rice, beans, anything that would cause evaporation,” explained one woman — a sense of joy and relief, mixed with the heady sweetness of chicken, pulsed through the crowd. One resident broke into a smile as she pivoted in her chair and surveyed the cluster of people calling out the steps and moving together, as if there were no kitchens without running water, no private surveillance cameras, no bankruptcy, no emergency manager, no emergencies at all — as if, for a moment, there were not two Detroits, separate and unequal, but just one city, hell-bent on survival.
“This is why they can’t kill us,” she said.
And these words summed up, perhaps more than anything else, the history of this side of Detroit — and whatever promise may lie in its future.