Where's The Love For Detroit?

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Even before the city's recent bankruptcy filing, Detroit was often viewed with scorn and even contempt. And you'll find as much, if not more, of that attitude toward Detroit in the state of Michigan itself. But how did Detroit get such an intensely bad reputation? And how might it affect the city's ability to rebuild itself in bankruptcy?

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It may be a good time for automakers, but it's the worst of times for Detroit. It recently became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. And to make matters worse, Washington has shown zero interest in helping the Motor City reverse its fortunes. The White House has been quiet on the matter, and Senate Republicans have tried to block any possible bailout.

Why the cold shoulder for Detroit? As Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports, this lack of love is not new - and it's complicated.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: Since Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the chattering classes have been all over the story. Here's Chris Stirewalt, explaining the city's demise on Fox News and why President Obama has said virtually nothing about it.

CHRIS STIREWALT: The president doesn't necessarily want to be associated with what is now the most infamous failure of that symbiotic relationship between Democrats and government worker unions.

CWIEK: OK, so that's one side's spin. Over at MSNBC, Ed Schultz had Detroit pegged as a conservative utopia.

ED SCHULTZ: Detroit, Michigan used to be really a symbol of industrial strength and manufacturing in this country, but thanks to a lot of Republican policies, the city is now filing for bankruptcy.

CWIEK: Neither one raises the specter of race, though that's always understood as a factor when you talk Detroit, a city that's about 85 percent black. While these narratives are different, they do agree that Detroit is basically a ruined city, though you can take your pick as to who ruined it. And nobody's offering the kind of help that, say, New York got when it stood on the brink of financial collapse in the 1970s.

So there's lots of handwringing and finger-pointing about Detroit, but not a whole lot of love. So, why? But to tackle that we first need to figure out what Detroit is. It turns out its shifting metropolitan geography has a lot to do with the city's current predicament. Downtown Detroit used to be a thriving retail center, but that's long gone.

For decades, money shifted outside the city limits and retailers followed. Now if you want to find upscale shopping in metro Detroit, you'll probably head somewhere like the Somerset Collection, which is about 10 miles north of the city in suburban Troy. John Burna(ph) is eating Chinese food here at the food court. He's one of hundreds of thousands of people in the area who lived in Detroit at one point but now lives in the suburbs. He doesn't have particularly fond memories.

JOHN BURNA: It's embarrassingly sometimes to tell you're from Detroit. I hate to say that, but, you know, that's how I feel.

CWIEK: Despite that, Burna says he retains some love for the city, but he says Detroit has earned its bad image.

BURNA: The city of Detroit itself, you know, I think it deserves whatever criticism it gets. I think just so many years of mismanagement and corruption.

CWIEK: It's hard to argue that point. Detroit has had three mayors wind up in jail since the 1940s, most recently former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now in federal prison for running city hall like a so-called criminal enterprise. A group of national retail managers were sitting across the food court. They were trying to wrap their heads around the idea of a city just not being able to pay its bills.

RICKY CANNON: I was just talking to my colleagues here about how does that happen.

CWIEK: That's Rickie Cannon(ph). Since his group is here on business, he says they won't have time to visit the city itself. Looking around the Somerset Collection, Cannon says there's no need to.

CANNON: There is money here. I don't know if all the money left the city and came out to the different counties or what. But the city needs to try to generate some of those dollars back into the city.

CWIEK: So why isn't that happening? While the reasons have lots to do with economic forces, they have as much to do with psychology and emotion, how people feel about Detroit now.

BILL MCGRAW: It's just like the causes for Detroit's current situation. The feelings about Detroit, I think, are complicated.

CWIEK: That's Bill McGraw, co-founder of the online news site Deadline Detroit. He says some people do just hate Detroit. That's especially true if they grew up here and remember Detroit's better days.

MCGRAW: People in metro Detroit, who grew up in Detroit, who are, say, 55 and older, who feel Detroit betrayed them in some way, forgetting that their departures helped lead to Detroit's current situation.

CWIEK: Regardless of who's at fault, there's one particularly uncomfortable question in all of this, the significant role that race places here. Sheila Cockrel is a retired member of the Detroit City Council. She says that race and racism have formed and deformed social relationships in Detroit and its economy. Even when the city was thriving, there was always a sense that people should hurry up and get out.

SHEILA COCKREL: It was sort of like the 11th Commandment, thou shall leave Detroit if you are a working class or middle class white person as fast as you can, and then having left Detroit, one will turn one's back.

CWIEK: And so the city lost much of its tax base, which set up a lingering dynamic of black city versus white suburb. And now both sides angrily blame the other for the city's crisis. Both McGraw and Cockrel agree, though, that greater regionalism in southeast Michigan is a good place to start looking for solutions. But with distrust and animosity still running high in the region, that's about as likely in the near term as Detroit getting a bailout. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.

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