With biblical succinctness, and foreshadowing a resurrection, Mike Duggan said, “Let there be light!” and 65,000 LED streetlights replaced the 40 percent of the city’s streetlights that were broken when he took office in 2014. They are among the many reasons that on Nov. 7 he, the first white mayor here in 40 years, will win a landslide re-election in a city that is 83 percent black. Identity politics is frivolous; Detroit, after a bruising rendezvous with reality, is serious about recovering from its near-death experience.
In Duggan, Detroit has found its Fiorello La Guardia – a short, stocky, cheerful, plainspoken incarnation of his city. In 1983, when Duggan returned, fresh from the University of Michigan Law School, “there was nobody my age on the streets.” The Houston Chronicle was being sold at a busy intersection to unemployed autoworkers scanning the classifieds for Texas jobs. In 1950, Detroit was comparable to, and perhaps richer (by per capita income) than, Chicago. Soon, however, it was bleeding population, heading for bankruptcy as Greece on the Great Lakes, a dystopia plagued by de-industrialization, soaring crime, packs of feral dogs and a political class featuring incompetents leavened by felons.
Duggan, a Democrat in a city with nonpartisan elections, won in 2013 as a write-in candidate, telling voters, “You invite me to your home, I show up.” Hundreds of house parties later, he was custodian of a prostrate city that had shed 260,000 residents in 13 years. Its 143 square miles could hold San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan with room to spare. By 2000, cattle could have been grazed in vast post-urban swaths. In 1950, the city had been home to 1.8 million; by 2013, it held two-thirds fewer. In the stampede away, many people abandoned their houses to the Midwestern elements. Most mayors brag about building; Duggan does, too, but also about demolishing – 12,000 abandoned structures since 2014. His “board-up brigades” – this is distinctively Detroit – will seal off 11,000 and demolish 9,000 within two years. Says Duggan: “Tear down the burned-out houses, people will buy the others.”
Police and EMS response times have been drastically reduced; 275 parks are fully maintained, up from 25 four years ago, when the grass was sometimes taller than the 8-year-olds. Such granular attention to the small stuff is having a huge payoff: Residential utility hookups are increasing. For the first time in his 59 years, the city is expected to grow. “We can’t build office space fast enough” for firms moving here because “millennials don’t want to move to the suburbs and drive a minivan.” However, a successful city requires a large middle class, which cannot exist without good schools to anchor young families. Detroit’s future hinges on this.
We can’t build office space fast enough (for firms moving here because) millennials don’t want to move to the suburbs and drive a minivan.
Mayor Mike Duggan
And on candor about Detroit’s past. In this 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots (43 killed, 342 injured), Duggan in a recent speech recalled the 1943 riot (34 killed, 700 injured) ignited by housing grievances among the 200,000 Southern blacks in congested wartime Detroit, the “arsenal of democracy.” Duggan said:
The seeds of Detroit’s violent decline were sown by federal policy. Created in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration invented and enforced “redlining,” explicitly steering new mortgages away from blacks in order to maintain the racial homogeneity of neighborhoods. A 1946 FHA manual said: “Incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” And: “Properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” And: “Appraisers are instructed to predict the probability of the location being invaded by … incompatible racial and social groups.” Invaded.
During the war, when a developer sought FHA guarantees for proposed housing on the last of the farmland still within the sprawling city, the FHA initially refused because the development would be contiguous with a black neighborhood. The real estate magnate proposed a solution: I will build a wall. It would be between his development and the incompatibles. He did; you can see it today. Mollified, the FHA guaranteed mortgages on the white side.
Almost half of all postwar suburban homes built in America had FHA mortgage guarantees. From 1934 through 1962, whites received 98 percent. The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down racially restrictive real estate covenants came from Detroit, but too late to prevent deleterious racial residential patterns. In the 1960s came “urban renewal,” aka “Negro removal” as administered by several of the last white mayors before Duggan, who, in an unlikely place, might be America’s most accomplishing politician.
George Will is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @georgewill