Belle Isle and the Religion of Local Control

what kind of city is Detroit?

a city in (identity) crisis

a city in (identity) crisis

This question, though not always in so many words, is a constant humming irritant in the background noise of this town. The obnoxious soul searching we subject ourselves to denies reality. The truth is that Detroit a big city. Big cities by definition contain a lot of stuff. It is difficult to quantify said stuff and more so to generalize. To wonder what kind of city “we” are is to beg the question: what kind of city do we want to be? For many of us, we wish the streetlights would start and that the killings would stop.

Both leadership and residents struggle with the idea of Detroit as a big city. Too many times is the body politic referred to as “the community.” A city of over 700,000 is not a cultural monolith. Think back to a biology or anthropology class you may have taken: there exists greater diversity within populations than between them.

Reality Denialism

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

Despite the big city reality of Detroit, business is often conducted in an insular, small-townish manner. Fear of “outsiders” who will “take over” often displaces reasonable discourse. A prime example of this is the saga of Cobo Center, and its journey from a crumbling city-owned disaster to oversight by a regional authority. The results of this transition are positive. Detroit did not lose the North American International Auto Show, and Cobo itself is undergoing a massive upgrade.

Both the city and the suburbs have transgressed against cohesive regional policy. The converse of the fear of outsiders exists in suburban minds towards “those crooks in the city.” Reading between the lines, it is not difficult to translate “outsiders” and “crooks” into racial terms. It is not possible to discuss Detroit’s relationship with its suburbs without broaching the topic of racial discord; it is lazy thinking to not acknowledge other barriers to effective policy. Aside from identity politics, each issue faced by the metro region involves its own unique complications. No negotiation has ever taken place in a vacuum.

Belle Isle as a State Park?

the island in question

the island in question

Fear of losing control of assets is legitimate; once a regional authority has been established, Detroit cannot renege. The question of Belle Isle is a bit different from Cobo or the recent Regional Transit Authority (RTA) legislation. Policy regarding Cobo Center and RTA legislation is a strictly regional issue: the debate centers on whether the city should control the asset entirely or take part in a regional decision-making body. No tri-county authority is being proposed for Belle Isle. Rather, the island would be leased to the State of Michigan placed under the control of the DNR. Neither the city nor the region would have much to say regarding the island’s operations. This is a nontrivial point of contention.

City Council has repeatedly blocked Mayor Bing’s plans to hand Belle Isle over to the state, to the chagrin of many. Jack Lessenberry of the MetroTimes argues in favor of the deal, and writes “there is the usual moaning about not letting “them” take “our” park,” and states that the one “legitimate gripe” opponents have is that as a state park, Belle Isle  would charge a 10$ annual parking fee.

Lessenberry’s position is a common one, and it misrepresents the issues. By constructing the strawman of a city vs. suburbs dichotomy, and then merrily knocking it down, the nature of the policy debate is ignored. The State of Michigan has offered no hard numbers and no specific plans for the island. City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown has been adamant on this point, but the idea that Detroit City Council is simply being obtuse is the popular idea.

Who controls what in Metro Detroit is often a stumbling block to the best laid plans, but often it is not the only issue in play. Detroit City Council can certainly be obtuse, but they are not always. Regarding Belle Isle, there is a debate to be had. Rather than dismiss the concerns of the city as typical power grasping desperation, or fear of losing control, it should be recognized that an argument has been made. An answer to that argument from proponents of a deal with the state has yet to be given.

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