Dan Simpson / Postcard from Detroit

The Motor City is in better shape than you might think

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I realize that, given the reputation of Detroit, taking my wife there to celebrate her birthday could easily be misinterpreted, but it was her idea, I hadn’t been there for decades and I had grown tired of hearing how awful it was from people who didn’t really know.

So, more or less, we saw some serious problems — burned out and abandoned buildings and big empty spaces, including in downtown — but at the same time we saw many sparks of hope, a good spirit on the part of most Detroiters we met and a city still with major assets.

Let me say also that I have seen some truly ruined major cities, including Beirut, Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Kinshasa, all victims of war, and Detroit is nothing at all like they were. It is a functioning city, but with potholes, missing or deserted buildings and people thinking it might be too risky to walk through the downtown after dark.

Detroit still has a great art museum with a wonderful collection, one they are unlikely to sell off to pay former city employees’ pensions. It opened an exhibition featuring the work of fashion photographer Bruce Weber the day we were there and offered an evening concert, open to the public.

Detroit has a super history museum, which includes permanent exhibits on the Underground Railroad and reproductions of Detroit streets during different eras.

Detroit has major league baseball, football, basketball and hockey teams, more than Pittsburgh has.

The Motown Museum isn’t just for older people — many young people were there as well, two of whom we ran into the next morning at the outdoor downtown Eastern Market. The market was an interesting commentary on “race in Detroit,” considered to be the origin of some of the city’s ruin. Customers were mostly white, people who had driven into the city to buy wagon-loads of flowers, fresh vegetables, fruit and meat, traveling there from beyond the infamous Eight Mile Road that is supposed to separate whites and African-Americans in Detroit.

Detroit’s oldest church, Ste. Anne de Detroit, and a man we met there, helped put the city’s recent troubles into perspective.

The first church on the site was established by the French in 1701. The current building dates from 1887. In its heyday, Ste. Anne’s had a rectory, a school and, at various times, Masses in various languages. Now it stands, like many American city churches, in an area that has seen better days, with some of its buildings boarded up, and has an ongoing fight to keep tiles on the roof and priests at its Masses. There was a charter school, which closed, with financial problems. The man, who almost locked us in by accident, claimed that some rich churches in Detroit had six or seven priests. If that is true, we can see changes for Pope Francis to achieve in Detroit.

At the other end of the scale, we drove out of the city, across the alleged black-white border, to the Grosse Pointe area, home of Detroit’s rich. There were lots of green trees, spacious lawns, huge houses, fashionable dogs, joggers and views of Lake St. Clair, with sailboats out on a Sunday morning. My wife accuses me of deep-grained class hatred, but I couldn’t help but think that these suburbs are where live the wonderful people who have brought us the deaths and maimings from GM’s defective cars which they didn’t recall and fix for a decade until they got caught.

We did see new condos and lofts advertising downtown, as one sees in Pittsburgh, which promises better days. We also saw Detroit beginning to make use of its riverfront property, as Pittsburgh also is beginning to do.

The city of Detroit is trying to get out from under bankruptcy declared on the basis of some $18.5 billion in debt. The most contentious issue is the pension commitments to retired and active workers, represented by 48 unions, that amount to more than the per capita income of the average Detroit taxpayer. City workers can retire at 55, on full pension, receive an extra month’s pay in December and annual cost-of-living increases.

A new “hybrid” pension plan has been devised, under which, starting July 1, taxpayers will not automatically be obliged to cover all pension obligations while pensioners will be obliged to accept some reductions in benefits. As part of the “grand bargain,” which awaits a vote of 32,000 active and retired pensioners, the state of Michigan will put up $195 million; Detroit philanthropic organizations, $366 million; and the Detroit Institute of Arts, $100 million, without selling works of art. If the pensioners refuse the proposal, the offer from the state, the philanthropic organizations and the Institute of Arts will come off the table, and benefits will be cut further accordingly.

Given the degree to which the future of the city depends upon what Detroiters are calling the “feasibility” of the grand bargain, they are in general hopeful of the vote.

We were pleased overall with our visit and will go back. Two interesting questions remain in our minds that can be resolved only by longer stays in Detroit.

The first is the degree of French influence in the area. The French were there from 1701 to 1760 and built a fort that resembles in shape Pittsburgh’s own Fort Duquesne. There are many street names in Detroit reflecting its French past.

The second is to make a judgment on the degree to which the evolution of Detroit depended — and is still influenced by — the fact that Canada is just across a bridge. Some shops in Eastern Market even accept bridge tokens as currency.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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