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Will: Saving Detroit from its own folly

  • (WALT HANDELSMAN / Newsday)

DETROIT

Gazing from the 14th floor toward the city center and the fragile sprouts of urban development along the river, Detroit’s Caesar says laconically: “One hundred and thirty-one to go.” Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, means that housing in this vibrant enclave is 97 percent leased. The enclave is, however, only eight square miles of this city’s 139 square miles.

Here in Greece on the Great Lakes, Orr, a Washington bankruptcy lawyer, is Detroit’s real government. He recently spoke in the governor’s office in Cadillac Place, an enormous 90-year-old building with brass door frames and a lobby as cavernous as a cathedral. The building, an architectural echo of vanished grandeur, was General Motors’ headquarters until the company moved into the magnificently misnamed Renaissance Center, a gleaming anomaly that towers over Detroit’s decrepitude. It opened in 1977, when Henry Ford II proclaimed: “Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up.” Orr became “emergency manager” in March after the City Council, having accepted a 21-item consent decree stipulating reforms, ignored it. How many items did the council fulfill? “Not one,” Orr says.

He is black, so some race-mongers of the sort who helped reduce Detroit to prostration, now, with tedious predictability, call him an Uncle Tom. Orr calls himself a “yellow dog Democrat,” a Southern expression (although he has undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan, he is a native Floridian) for someone who would vote for a yellow dog if it were a Democratic candidate.

He is empowered to alter budgets and labor contracts and to sell city assets. The City Council retains the power to complain.

In his five-month immersion in Detroit’s dysfunction, Orr has been startled by “the fact that people had gotten used to the city like this — people were tolerating the abnormal.” But Detroit’s decline began in the 1960s, well before the auto industry’s downward spiral (the United Auto Workers’ membership peaked in 1979). A half-century of the abnormal made it the norm.

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