Don't Sell Detroit’s Soul

Over the past few days I've done a run of radio interviews about Detroit's post-bankruptcy future. Among the messages I've felt compelled to express is the following: While the city faces steep financial challenges, don’t sell off the soul of the community to balance the books.

Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, says that resolving the bankruptcy requires all "assets" to be on the table. Sadly, that includes promised pensions and health care for the city's retirees. It also includes the renowned art collection at the Detroit Institute of Art, valued at billions of dollars. Already, Christie's auction house has gone to the Institute to conduct appraisals.

In the meantime, the city’s beloved Detroit Red Wings ice hockey team has announced plans to build a new $650 million arena and entertainment district downtown, paid for through a public-private partnership. Although no city dollars would be used, there are those who question the virtue of using any public dollars (the deal would use money from state funds). The governor has promised that the project will not only add jobs but help revitalize the city’s beleaguered downtown.

There’s no question that Detroit is in a heap of trouble: The city has $18.5 billion in long-term debt. The average response time for the police is 58 minutes. In 2008, the city had 317 parks; now there are 107, with 50 of those set to close. Some 78,000 structures in the city lie vacant. And the list goes on.

All assets indeed need to be on the table. But how Detroit and other communities approach such decisions is what counts. The more I hear about Detroit’s situation – and the more interviewers who ask me questions – the more I fear Detroit’s fate will be based solely on financial considerations.

Such an approach would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. My argument is simple: the soul of a city matters. Otherwise, it’s possible to end up with a financially healthy city without a community.

Communities are made up of people. There is a civic culture that is at work. Identity is paramount. To sell off the DIA’s art collection could mean losing a vital part of the community – and a reason people want to stay in Detroit, move to Detroit or visit Detroit. The Red Wings are a major part of the community’s identity.

And then there are the people, the city’s most important asset and one that can too easily be forgotten in the discussions about Detroit’s financial woes.

I happened to be in Detroit the day General Motors declared bankruptcy four years ago. Then, like today, pundits and experts focused their discussions solely on economics. But when we conducted interviews with Detroiters – the people who made their lives there – the conversations revolved around their love of the community. They wanted to talk about rebuilding a city where people felt more connected to one another and had more ways to exercise compassion and caring. Detroit must be more than just a jobs site or an industrial zone.

A community is made up of much more than just dollars and cents. Don't get me wrong: Detroit must make hard financial decisions. There's no way to hide from them or put them off any longer. But don't sell the soul of the community in the process.