Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Comparison of Detroit and Memphis, Again

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2013 at 2:32 PM

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing
  • Detroit Mayor Dave Bing
The frustrated mayor who hoped to save the city decided this week to call it quits later this year in the face of overwhelming problems.

He listed them in an interview with a writer for The Daily Beast: Blight, corruption and crime. Historic financial issues. Declining population and low density. A City Council resistant to his plans for change. A Republican governor appointing someone to take over failing systems. The city's midtown and downtown pocked with abandoned structures, some in the shadows of hotels and stadiums of pro sports teams. Low voter turnout in local elections. Media trashing the city.

The city is Detroit, and the mayor is Dave Bing. Detroit is the national standard for failing cities, as we have been told by Time magazine, a couple of recent documentaries including "Detropia" which was shown in Memphis last year, some books by Detroiters such as Charlie LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy," and about a million newspaper articles, blogs, and reader comments.

Other than that, my view of Detroit is based on nothing more than occasional visits to a small slice of the city. The parallels to Memphis are irresistible, or at least they are to me, a Michigan native, fan of Detroit novelists Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and regular reader of the Detroit newspapers for more than 50 years, back before Bing was the star of the Detroit Pistons.

Finally, I thought four years ago when he was elected mayor, Detroit gets the right person for the job. But when I read the stories about him calling it quits this week, I couldn't help thinking "Is this what's in store for Memphis?"

Taking the indictment one count at a time, I would say Memphis is better off. For now.

Corruption: Detroit's former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is in prison after being convicted in March. Memphis had Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper, which netted more convictions of public officials. But Kilpatrick's influence was greater. A close call, but Detroit gets the edge as "worst."

Backgrounds of Bing and Wharton: Both men are 69 years old. Bing was a successful Detroit businessman after his NBA career. He was elected in 2009 and served one term. Wharton, an attorney, has held public offices since 2002, including county and city mayor since 2002. The lesson: a "business approach to government" does not necessarily translate to success with unions, other politicians, and loss of population and tax base. Nor do political experience, charm, and personal decency.

Crime: In one recent survey of "most dangerous U.S. cities" Detroit ranked first and Memphis tenth. In another survey, Detroit was fifth and Memphis sixth. On Wednesday, Bing and the emergency manager announced the appointment of a new police chief. As in Memphis, his job will be reducing violent crime on a budget.

Declining population and vast footprint. Detroit's population has fallen from nearly two million in the 1950s to about 700,000 in a city of 142 square miles. The population of Memphis, boosted by annexation of 35,000 residents, declined 0.5 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 647,000 in more than 300 square miles.

Low voter turnout: 17 percent in Detroit, and about the same in the 2011 Memphis mayoral and City Council election. Low turnout has been a given in Memphis for decades and the inflated number of "eligible voters" due to the reluctance of the Election Commission to purge the rolls, makes it look worse.

Blight near stadiums: As we're seeing with the Grizzlies, pro sports can boost community morale and have a big economic impact, but championships (Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons in last ten years) and new side-by-side stadiums (Tigers and Lions) couldn't avert Detroit's population loss, financial crisis, or blighted condition. Downtown Memphis has empty office buildings and blighted sections, but the redevelopment of the Chisca Hotel, South Main Street, and public housing projects will make for a better-looking and more vibrant downtown.

Bad publicity: A Los Angeles sportswriter took some shots at Memphis, as did Forbes and other publications that purport to rank cities. But Memphis gets some good national attention too, for its music, food, and mystique. Our toughest critics are in the suburbs and in Nashville. Wharton, except for complaining that local television news programs over-emphasize violent crime, is not a media critic in the manner of his predecessor, Willie Herenton. Bing was apparently unloading on national more than local media depictions of Detroit.

State oversight: Detroit has an emergency manager. Worst case scenario is biggest-ever city bankruptcy. Memphis has the state-run Achievement School District which has taken over some public schools, and a federal judge and special master overseeing the merger of the school districts. Worst case scenario is failure of the biggest school system merger in U.S. history, but exactly what that would mean in dollars and cents remains to be seen.

City Council opposition: Mayors get things done by cultivating council allies. It is hard to identify anyone currently carrying water for Wharton. On one side is Jim Strickland, pledging to vote against tax increases. On the other is Joe Brown, saying tax the rich because they can afford it and don't care. There will be bad feelings, but also a balanced budget and probably a tax increase next month. That's more than Detroit can say.

On May 30th, Memphis magazine is bringing New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in for a luncheon called "A Summons to Memphis." If he'll come, Bing would be a good choice for a follow-up. He's a truth-teller, with no worries about being reelected, and he has a story to tell.

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