By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The headlines last week were terrible for those of us who call this region home, a kaleidoscope of every possible way to say that Detroit had run out of room and run out of time. Bankrupt. Broke. Busted. And now it’s all over but the hand-wringing and the legal wrangling for the Motor City.
For those of us who live in the area, it was no surprise in the least. This city and this region have been teetering on the brink for years now. We saw the seeds of malicious entitlement sowed into the system of corporate bureaucracy put in place by Mayor Coleman Young going on 40 years ago, and the city has been a pathetic cesspool of contentious chaos ever since. The contemptible concept of “what’s in it for me” – as if big city government was nothing more than a public trough for corruption and extortion - has held sway over Detroit and this region for so long now that we all became numb to it, which is almost as sad as the news itself.
But in fairness, the people who aren’t from around here and who take great pleasure in reporting all the gruesome details of what Detroit has been reduced to have no idea what it has been like. They have no idea what it means to live life with this relentless cacophony of entitlement and blatant stupidity that never, ever stops. They have no idea what it’s like to have such astounding and mind-numbingly shocking ignorance on display by what passes for our so-called city government “leaders” that it’s repulsive to even contemplate.
Last week’s headlines - as bad as they were - are nothing compared to the years of constant embarrassments dutifully reported and laid out in graphic fashion day after day by the local media, to the point that what passes for local “news” has become unwatchable, unreadable and unlistenable.
But make no mistake, as embarrassing and humiliating and despicable as this ordeal has been to have the collective “we” in Detroit be the lead story on every front page, Internet news site and television broadcast across the country and around the world, with the ugly realities that have overrun this city laid bare for all to see in excruciating detail, it’s still an indictment against all of us that we’ve allowed it to become part of the cadence of life here, when we all knew damn well that it would come down on us hard some day in the future.
That day unfortunately is here and today we’re all sharing in the blame.
Nothing this bad should be allowed to become normal by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, various regional do-gooders try to put on a brave face and point to all the good things about Detroit and the surrounding region, but who’s kidding whom?
It’s too late for all of that.
Yes, we get it; Detroit is now the poster child for everything wrong with America and everything bad that’s certain to come our way in the future. When Detroit, Inc. - the American industrial enterprise quaintly known as the “Big Three” in a previous life - finally succumbed to the economic tsunami at the end of 2008 and the first wave of the “Detroit is Dead” stories hit, I warned that the domestic automobile industry was the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of corporate America and even America itself.
Few listened and others scoffed.
But here we are now faced with the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and the roster of the next wave of American cities already on the brink of financial calamity is being assembled as you read this.
I had to laugh when I read statements by people in this business who should know better – you know who you are - trying to separate the automobile industry from the region and vice versa – insisting that “we’ll be fine” and the industry won’t be affected by the bankruptcy, but to think that you can separate the two is simply ludicrous. Detroit the city and Detroit the Motor City are inseparable and that can be either good or bad depending on how you look at it.
We found that out clearly when two of the three domestic-based automakers went bankrupt and the entire region was indicted right along with “Detroit” and its founding industry. We watched in horror as our so-called “esteemed” members of congress indicted Detroit and the domestic automobile industry as the source of all of this country’s problems both real and imagined, and from that moment on Detroit became this country’s recurring symbol of incompetence and failure.
That the city of Detroit has shot itself in the head repeatedly is eerily similar to the way the domestic automobile industry crumbled from problems largely self-inflicted, but make no mistake, this municipal bankruptcy adds a whole new layer of taint to everything that says “Detroit.” (Memo to Olivier “I’m a Genius Just Ask Me” Francois: I think you can dispense with your “Imported from Detroit” campaign for Chrysler now. It was fun while it lasted – for like about a minute – but it sounds and feels distinctly ludicrous now.)
In October of 2011 I wrote a column titled “The Deal on Detroit” and in it I covered a lot of territory. And unremarkably enough, not much has changed since then.
I recalled then that I founded this website on the premise that the Detroit car companies were a seething cauldron of incompetence and that their dubious practices and proclivities – despite the myriad True Believers who were doing their best – would surely lead them to a bad end unless they took steps to fix their stilted “not invented here” thinking and their set-in-their-ways MO. And true to form, things didn’t end well.
Not that any of this is new, but sometimes it helps to remind people of where we’ve been.
That the domestic automobile industry is on an upward trajectory now does mean a lot to everyone in this town and it should mean a lot to the rest of the country, even though it most certainly doesn’t. For too many in this country Detroit is a write-off, a lingering afterthought from an era that once was, nothing more than sideshow fodder for the network newscasts and an easy mark for the Instantaneous Internet Imperialists who dispense their justice swiftly and voraciously.
But the fact of the matter remains that a healthy domestic auto industry is key to the overall health of this nation’s industrial fabric, and it’s too bad that people won’t take the time to understand and acknowledge that fact. Because as I’ve said many times before, we cannot exist in this world as a crazed Starbucks Nation of consumer zombies alone, this country must produce hard goods and services if it is to survive as a player in the growing global economic fight.
So that’s the Deal on Detroit, Part II on this 22nd day of July 2013.
As I concluded in Part I of this column, is this a tough town? Unquestionably. Are things on an upward trajectory? If you’re purely looking at the automobile industry that lives here, absolutely. But when looking at the health of the city and its environs, and the deep-rooted problems that plague this city and its educational system, the ones that are preventing this city from doing anything but a dismal two-steps forward, five-back self-defeating dance of "progress," then we indeed have a long, long, long way to go.
Yes, as a town and as a region we do have a long way to go. But this is who we are and this auto thing is what really matters to us. We don’t need sympathy and the terrible stories of late are grim but they will never define us, or what it’s really like to be here and be from around here.
We’re a state of mind that’s filled with countless contradictions and our great history is offset by some lurid realities.
We’ve contributed much to the American fabric yet we have a historical propensity to make things brutally tough on our day-to-day well-being.
We’ve brought this country a sound like no other and a gritty, gutty context that’s second to none, yet we’ve created countless problems for ourselves, most all of them self-inflicted.
We created the “Arsenal of Democracy” when our country needed it most, yet we allowed a movement based on fairness to become a disease based on entitlement and rancor.
We’ve contributed much to this nation's progress and standing, yet we can’t seem to get out of our own way at times, which is infuriating and debilitating.
But thankfully, the story never really ends for Detroit. At least not yet anyway. We’re still standing, warts and glaring faults and all. And you can forget the recent glory stories about our looming renaissance because we don’t really need ‘em to validate us.
We know who we are. And we know that the perception isn’t often favorable. And we get that. But still there’s an exuberance and spirit here that no trendy Super Bowl ad can ever capture.
It’s a Detroit thing, or if you must, a Dee-troit thing. And we’re proud of what that means.
As Paul Simon so eloquently put it once in Papa Hobo:
It's carbon and monoxide
The ole Detroit perfume
And it hangs on the highways
In the morning
And it lays you down by noon…
Got a hell of a hockey team
Got a left-handed way
Of making a man sign up on that
Automotive dream, oh yeah...
Mr. Simon probably had no idea as to the truth of what he was writing at least as far this town is concerned, but he did manage to stumble upon the state of mind that defines us.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.