January 18, 2010

A Staggering Tale of Fabulous Success

Published: December 8, 2009

Under the Influence Magazine

It is rumored that in the spring of 1951 a mystical genie appeared in a vision before Albert Como, the last great Republican mayor of Detroit. She was wearing feather boas, leather pants and a slightly transparent loose lace top that the mayor could not help but oogle at as this particular wardrobe style would not become fashionable until the Motor City’s own Suzi Quatro ruled the airwaves almost a quarter century later.

The mayor had just returned to his home after a boozy roast dinner with the Greater Hamtramck Polish League and had settled in for little a nightcap of rye on ice by the fire. The rest of his household was fast asleep. The inebriated and tired mayor, wanting to refresh his drink, reached again for the rye but instead accidentally picked up an old dusty ceramic bottle. Now, nobody is sure where the mysterious bottle came from, but there are records that he had earlier received it as a gift from a visiting Palestinian delegation. Whatever its source, he grappled to get the top off and inadvertently released the genie.

Arriving in a flash of smoke and glitter, she immediately asked him for his greatest wish. Awestruck but still in the heady throes of the evening’s Pole Town political theater, the mayor immediately proclaimed, “I want victory for the people!” She asked if he meant all the people everywhere at which he came to his senses, snarled, scoffed and said, “Hell, no. Only the bastards who voted for me!”

With that, she was gone.

Cobo had, in fact, hoped for three wishes, he thought that was how genies generally operated. His second wish was going to be for thirty million dollars and his last wish would have been a night of rough, sweaty and slightly deviant carnal bliss with the feather laden genie herself, but as it turned out that one single wish was all he got.

Whether this slightly fabulous story is true or not, it is certainly true that what followed was the greatest success story of all time. All the people who voted for Mayor Cobo were indeed victorious. The A.F.L. union workers and the middle class whites who had supported him continued to get generous raises from the automobile companies, even the rival C.I.O. union prospered, and so great was their victory that, one by one, they were able to pack up their belongings and head right out of Detroit’s city limits, driving off to resettle in the blossoming suburban neighborhoods of Royal Oak, Ferndale and Sterling Heights.

The vast global corporations that had funneled money into his coffers were victorious as well, and soon they too left their downtown high rises behind, constructing vast business parks for themselves on the outskirts of town in cities like Warren, Southfield, and Troy, and consequently gutting Detroit’s tax base.

In the end the only people who were left behind were the ones Mayor Cobo had shown little interest in, the poor, the minorities, and the unskilled laborers.

There are those who will tell you Detroit’s demise began over a decade later, with the violent race riots of 1967, but that was just an accelerant to an urban unraveling that had, in fact, already begun. In fact, with the G.I. Bill and the UAW labor victories, the great American Dream was born, spawning a prosperous middle class that viewed urban living as less aspirational than the more placid suburban lifestyle being packaged and sold to them by real estate developers, department stores, and television commercials. If you could get out by golly you got out and thanks to — depending which story you believe —the successful struggle of organized labor or the appearance of a voluptuous genie by Albert Como’s fireside, there were now over a million people who could afford to leave Detroit, precipitating the sort of massive civic breakdown not unlike the hive collapse syndrome currently plaguing bee populations everywhere.

We are left with what remains, a city rife with contradiction. It is neither a completely blank slate nor is it truly a functional urban center. It is not a complete ruin nor is there anything resembling a prosperous sustainable economy. The city is rich with opportunity, ripe for the taking, while at the same time short-sighted opportunists continue to create obstacles to progress. The city stands as a beacon of failure while at the same time there are inspirational new stories of success. For instance, while some bemoan the fact that not one chain supermarket operates within the city limits, excellent small independent businesses like the Honeybee Supermarket prosper. Instead of an Outback Steakhouse we have Slows barbecue, which is regularly packed to the rafters. Instead of a Pottery Barn, there’s the Bureau of Urban Living where a holiday shopper can always find unique, idiosyncratic gifts. Finally, in a world of million dollar tear-downs, we have real estate market so devalued, you can easily buy a refurbishable house for less than a hundred dollars.

Adding to the sense of possibility is the fact that these opportunities can be found in a place that is as close to a natural eden as one could reasonably hope to find. In a world threatened by increased coastal flooding and rising sea levels, Detroit is situated a two hundred miles inland. In a world where fresh water is increasingly scarce, we comfortably rest between two of the world’s most enormous freshwater lakes. In a world where heat and drought are on the rise, we enjoy a reasonably temperate climate and healthy precipitation.

It is all here for us.

So in one way or the other, this is the city of the future. Our collective wisdom will either lead to a renewal of civic responsibility or we will squander one of the greatest opportunities for rebirth that the world has ever seen. There has never been a city as successful as Detroit and the absolute proof is that a vast number of people were able to leave because, for good or ill, they could all follow their dreams. Now it is time for a new dream. Now it is time for a new kind of success. Like Mayor Cobo alone in his study, the choice is ours.



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