Doing The Right Thing...The Right Way
Mayor Dave Bing's well-meaning effort to raze abandoned houses in Detroit has stumbled out of the starting blocks.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environment said the city began demolition last week without testing for asbestos, a carcinogen commonly found in many older Detroit structures. The city also failed to notify the state of its demolition plans as required by federal law, which is another serious violation, said DNRE spokesman Robert McCann.
I can accept that administrations make certain mistakes, but a couple of things about this screw up still annoy me. First off, how does city government just ignore or "forget" what should be an obvious health risk to the people who live around these abandoned homes? Isn't checking for hazardous materials in derelict old homes a precaution that should fall under "standard operating procedure?"
Second, under no circumstances should we ever hear the current administration say that it did something a certain way simply because that's the way the slipshod Kilpatrick administration handled things previously.
They blamed the foul-up on their decision to follow what they say was the practice of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration of demolishing buildings without testing for asbestos or giving the state advance notice.
"We know from this point forward that the way we operated status quo in the past is unacceptable," Carla Henderson, director of Buildings and Safety Engineering Department, said Monday.
Cut that out. Now.
Still, the effort does reflect the seriousness of the city about moving on the mayor's plan to demolish 10,000 homes over the next four years, and I can respect that. But it also highlights the potential danger in a way of thinking that Detroiters too often fall into, an attitude that says that our desperate straits mean we should embrace whatever policies and practices are dropped at our feet, no matter how disorganized, premature, insensitive, costly or wrong-headed. Yes, we absolutely need our leadership to act swiftly and certainly on matters like crime and blight and education. We need for them to do the right thing -- but we also need them to do it the right way.
I worry about this in our troubled school system, where our children are caught between fools who'd cling to the status quo and tough-talking administrative saviors who've so far only added to the district's budgetary burden. I worry about this as we discuss land management in the city, where we often are dead certain about what needs to be torn down but devoid of concrete and realistic plans about what should go up in its place. I worry about this as we flail about in search of new industries upon which we can refashion our image, knowing that we've got to move full speed ahead toward the future but also anxious about who gets left behind in a city where only 11 percent of residents have college degrees.
Ultimately, of course, we do have to embrace change, do have to accept that getting better sometimes feels as awful as getting sick. Like burnt-out buildings tottering on a vacant lot, failed traditions and stale ideas need to come down forcefully. But we've got to be careful about how we go about making the change that we desire. Not unlike Mayor Bing's effort to raze those homes, we've got to be certain that, in our admirable push to help this city, we don't wind up doing any more harm instead.