One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

The Other War

Later tonight, President Obama will address the nation and make the case for sending another 30,000 American troops to the Afghan war front. That's certainly a worthy effort, and America must restore its credibility in the world. But let's not forget The Other War – the one unfolding on the streets of major American cities like Detroit.

If there's any president who can lead this country into an honest conversation about what's needed to resolve the poverty and hopelessness that drives much of the crime ravaging cities like this one, it is Obama. He is, after all, the first president with a true understanding of what it means to live and work in America's poorest urban communities, having developed much of his political skills in places like Altgeld Gardens, a public housing development on Chicago's Far South Side. Obama created the first White House Office of Urban Affairs, a move actually intended to broaden the definition of “urban affairs” into the more palatable “metropolitan affairs.” Certainly, many of the Obama Administration's first-year policies lay the groundwork for what could potentially revive, and reimagine, cities like Detroit.

Nevertheless, in this city, where nearly one-third of the remaining 900,000 or so residents is unemployed, there is a palpable sense of frustration, and impatience. At a cocktail party one recent night, the conversation turned to how the rest of the world, and particularly Obama, views Detroit. “Obama, he doesn't care about Detroit,” one African-American lawyer scoffed. Few people here seem to believe that anyone outside Detroit – certainly in its largely (but, decreasingly) white suburbs -- actually cares that the nation's 11th-largest city is on the brink of financial collapse. Or that only one-quarter of Detroit public high school freshmen are likely to receive a diploma within four years. Detroit's police force has been cut by 25% in recent years, and the remaining 3,000 officers are overwhelmed covering a vast, often sparsely populated territory that in some sections resembles a war zone. That's why residents of Detroit's last relatively middle-class neighborhoods no longer expect police to respond to calls about matters that in most of the country would be fairly routine. So they've come to view private neighborhood security patrols as normal. Meanwhile, the toll from The Other War is mounting, and most of the casualties are black and male.

“We pay attention to foreign terrorism – as we should,” Kym Worthy, the top prosecutor in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, told me Monday night. “But we need to focus on the terrorism that consumes Americans' lives everyday: robberies, rapes, homicides.” In Detroit, Worthy observed, “people are literally afraid to go out their houses to open the door and get mail. That's unconscionable in America.” Worthy no longer bothers sending prosecutors to deal with misdemeanors, because she can't. When she took the job in 2004, Worthy's office had 190 prosecutors. Now, she's down to 145 – far below the 300 or so prosecutors that counties of Wayne's size (roughly 2 million people) typically employ.

What should we expect Obama to do? He should deliver a major address from Detroit or New Orleans and articulate his vision for American urban policy – and, then, fortify that rhetoric with substantive, sustainable initiatives. Saturating America's most crime-ravaged neighborhoods with law enforcement officers probably isn't the answer. Nor is simply throwing money into an already bloated bureaucracy. The president's address should make clear that the urban crisis is spreading quickly across 8 Mile Road, the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs, and so all Americans have much at stake in rescuing cities like this one. Dealing with American failure isn't sexy. But if Detroit or New Orleans fail, it will be a stain for Obama, and our country.

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  • 1

    True, True, True.... The problem is well described...

    But the solution cannot be about "More Money".... lets realize that from 'New Deal' to The War on Poverty' to 'Urban Renewal' to VISTA to ...well, you know... TRILLIONS have been spent since the 1930's - with little success... Many bullets shot - and possible at the wrong targets...

    How about let's just focus on creating the environment that nurtures and encourages economic expansion... you've heard it before, but let me repeat: Tax, Labor, Liability and other such issues from the Political spectrum can and will do ever so much more than repeating the same 'High Input/Minimal Output' initiatives as been done in the past... I know, I know - the problem is that Someone will, in addition to providing impetus and catalyst to solutions - will also, and at the same time, 'make money and realize a ...(gasp) profit...

    Until we learn and practice that its OK for someone elses boat to rise a little higher - just so long as everyone's boat rises... we are 'doomed' to repition while watching the downward spiral go deeper and faster...

  • 2

    The sweeping negative judgment of suburbanites is incorrect. Some of the City of Detroit's crown jewels are under the care of largely suburbanite management teams, e.g. the zoo and the Institute of Arts, because the City couldn't properly administer them. Many businesses, including the sports teams, located in the city are of suburban ownership and could have been relocated but weren't - the Ford family even moved the Lions back into the city after a brief stint in suburbia. Many of the cultural institutions in the city, building blocks for the future, have massive suburban support.

    The real problem is the City of Detroit government. Too many years of sloth, corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and general incompetence have resulted in efforts to maintain what's good about the City while trying to minimize direct city government involvement. There was progress during the Archer years (Archer fought a very uphill battle, including being subject to a recall drive mounted by Coleman Young supporters) but Kilpatrick set things back horrendously.

    For things to get right around here faith and confidence in the City of Detroit government (and services) as a whole must be restored and that's going to take time and a lot of effort.

    The only suburbanites you'll hear slogging the likes of Kym Worthy are the ones she's taken down. We need a lot more like her. :-)

  • 3

    [...] The Detroit Blog One year. One city. Endless opportunities. The Detroit Blog Feed   Daily E-mail Updates   « PreviousThe Other War [...]

  • 4

    Someone needs to wake up and work to change the demographics of Detroit, Market the town to newcomers, immigrants,even old-timers who left to escape neglected crime and blight in most city neighborhoods.(example:harper-vandyke, see,st.cyrils for history of this area) etc...Otherwise the city will eventually die as it becomes more abandoned and even poorer than it is now.

  • 5

    error in my previous comment, first log on to, then click st cyrils

  • 6

    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary. Time's immersion project seems to be paying off. You really captured the frustration many of us are feeling. But these problems are not unique to Detroit, they are just more widespread. As a region, state, and nation, we can no longer pretend that this chronic suffering and cycle of poverty doesn't exist. I hope the national audience takes notice.

    Also, it's so important to let those living in the city of Detroit know that some suburbs do care--deeply. I live in Grosse Pointe, and everyone I know fully accepts the reality that our future, and that of the region, depends upon the strength of Detroit. We chose to live in Detroit's shadow because of our passion and hope for the city. But it's clear from your reporting that, understandably, mistrust of those in the suburbs still exists. The suburbs are not monolithic though. Many of us recognize that we will never move forward if we don't work together.

  • 7

    As a combat veteran of Vietnam, I can tell you for certain that we won't win the so-called 'war on terrorism' by invading and occupying countries, especially by conducting a unilateral (in opposition to widespread global opinion), preemptive invasion of a country (Iraq) that originally posed no threat to the U.S. We need to be far more precise in targeting the perpetrators of terrorist acts.

    Meanwhile, Mr. Gray is correct that a more damaging form of terrorism is ongoing, largely unchecked, within our own country. Racism and poverty are killing people by the thousands every day. As noted by Prosecutor Worthy, we pay attention to the more blatant forms of 'domestic terrorism', i.e. violent crimes. However, there is a far more lethal and insidious manifestation of poverty and racism - racial and economic health inequality. Each day, thousands of African Americans and other people of color, as well as low-income people from all racial groups, die young. Not from violent crime, but from lack of access to quality health care and other basic resources.

    As noted by Dr. Othelia Pryor, of the Michigan Minority Health Coalition, premature deaths due to African American health disparities are equivalent to a 747 jet, filled with passengers, falling out of the sky each day of the year. Similar disparities occur among other 'minority' groups and low-income individuals. Another perspective was provided by Dr. King, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

    We have the resources in this nation to promote 'justice for all.' Many people are already engaged in that process. For example, Joy-Southfield Health & Education Center in Detroit is promoting racial and economic health equality by providing free, high-quality health care to the uninsured and under-served. Many other groups in Detroit are engaged in similar programs.

    Detroit has played a critical role in past social justice campaigns, notably the labor and civil rights movements of the 20th Century. With all of the challenges in this City, the 21st Century is a good time for Detroit to be the incubator for a renewed 'war on poverty' - the most lethal form of domestic terrorism.

  • 8

    In my opinion poverty is the most important problem lingering in Detroit. About one third's of Detroit's population lives below the poverty line, that is one of the lowest in the nation! There many ways to go about this dilemma, but i believe the best solution is fixing the crumbling public school system in Detroit.
    The public school system graduates fewer than 25% a year. To me, that is completely unacceptable. We need to find a better financial plan for the schools, and spend more money devoted to better teachers who teach the material in an interesting fashion. Creating new and more extra curriculur activities for the kids to be involved in rather than being loose on the dangerous streets after school. Buying new materials such as books, desks, lockers, will all help students show greater respect as well as interest in school. Also, security guards and police officers need to be out on the watch to protect students from any kind of violence and/or drugs.
    Poverty is unacceptable no matter where it is! With Detroit being one of poverty's biggest victimes in America, we need to fulfill our own duties and actions to help these families escape poverty.

  • 9

    [...] since we all love Michigan, I want all my fellow Detroit Lions football fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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