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George Will On Detroit Mayor Duggan

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gregb

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Sep 3, 2011
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Certified General Appraiser
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DETROIT -- 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 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. 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."
 
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