By Shea Howell
May 16, 2017
I have always loved streetcars. As a child, my bedroom window overlooked the last stop of the line that brought miners and mill workers to the top of the hill every morning. I was fascinated by the turn around of the car, achieved by men and muscle in those days. I imaged growing up to be a streetcar driver. So I wish I could find more joy in the new M-1 rail line that opened last Friday to incredible fanfare. Even the automobiles on the tracks, broken signals, delays and malfunctions of the first day could not diminish the enthusiasm of its backers.
Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, who sank money and energy into the project and bought the naming rights, dubbing it the Q Line, said to the Detroit News, “QLine has already spurred billions of dollars of investment with billions more to come. “It is more than a transportation machine, it is a jobs-creating machine.”
Columnist Daniel Howes surpassed Gilbert’s enthusiasm, calling the line a “symbol of Detroit’s reinvention.” Howes argues that the 3.3 mile track reflects the “long game” of “powerful business and philanthropic interests” dedicated to the “revitalization of a downtown that a lot of Detroiters—in the city and in the suburbs—long ago gave up for dead.”
It is precisely this kind of enthusiasm that makes it difficult to celebrate the new streetcar. Howes, Gilbert, Penske, Rapson, Duggan, and Snyder cannot put their actions in perspective. Instead they use every opportunity to repeat the worn out narrative that some new downtown project will benefit the majority of the people of the city. They do this despite the fact that the majority of the people of the city know full well we are increasingly unwanted in their whiter, wealthier downtown serviced by these new cars.
The constant casting of criticism as “righteous cynicism” by people like Howes is especially reflective of the lack of vision of the power elites in their drive for self congratulations. Howes says of those who raise concerns, “How ’bout giving the venture a chance, and letting the real people living and working along downtown’s central spine have their say. It’s them, not the voices lobbing cheap shots from the comfort of their keyboards, who will decide whether the big bet will pay off.”
Real people, beyond Gilbert and his cronies, know this tiny line does nothing to touch the real challenges facing our city. Mason Herson-Hord, who was on hand at the opening festivities with the Motor City Freedom Riders to call attention to the limits of the Q as a transportation vehicle pointed out, “Most employed Detroiters have a job north of 8 Mile and for the thousands of Detroiters who need to use the bus system to get to work, that can be a pretty serious hardship because there aren’t many consistent lines that are moving across 8 Mile.”
The need for a real regional transport system is obvious. Q backers claim it is the first step. But this rings hollow as they were missing in action last fall when yet another ballot initiative to achieve this failed. One commentator argued, “The failure to wage an overwhelming campaign in support of the ballot proposal should be regarded as one of the biggest political misfires in Detroit history.” Much of the defeat rested with those who welcome Howes’s racist narratives and who will do anything to keep Detroiters from moving freely around suburban areas.
The QLine does symbolize the “long game” of the corporate elite. That “game” is nothing less than the remaking of the city as a playground for the white and wealthy. It is another effort to substitute public relations for serious debate. It evades the real questions of how to create a just city reflecting our best future.