Tabula rasa Detroit
Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans in 2005; it eradicated the physical and political infrastructure of the city. This is why when Mitch Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu, was elected as mayor
of New Orleans in 2010, he was able to remake the city.
Detroit doesn’t need a hurricane, but the city does need to be treated as somewhat of a tabula rasa. The decaying physical infrastructure needs not only to be rebuilt, but remade. And the political infrastructure, dominated by Democrats for decades, must prepare to be taken over by state Republicans and make way for new players.
The New Orleans school system was washed away in 2005. Instead of rebuilding the old school system (which was failing before the storm), Mayor Landrieu endorsed the spread of charter schools. Over 60 percent of children in New Orleans now attend charter schools and the results have been heralded by many.
Because of his education reforms, Landrieu was listed as one of the “Most innovative mayors in the U.S.” by Newsweek in 2012.
However, not everyone shares Landrieu’s enthusiasm for charter schools.
Education scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Education, Dianne Ravitch, has been very critical of charter schools. Ravitch has pointed to a study by an economist at Stanford University to temper the enthusiasm over charter schools. The study, conducted in 2009, revealed after a survey of student test results that only 17 percent of charter schools were superior to a matched traditional public school.
However, John Angrist, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study in 2009, which he said shows charter schools in urban areas perform better than charter schools in nonurban areas.
Charter schools may not be the answer for educational conundrums nationwide, or even statewide, but as a matter of urban policy, Detroit should be able to experiment.
To further remake the physical infrastructure of the city, “I would create a 21st century Urban Homestead Act,” architect Daniel Libeskind said in an article in Time Magazine. “Why not give away land in the center of the city in exchange for building on the land?”
A recent report by The New York Times described the business boom that has occurred in the city despite its many ailments. That boom could be expanded if the city followed Libeskind’s idea and allowed for more private development. The physical infrastructure could be remade by the private sector rather than Detroit’s dysfunctional City Council.
As for the political infrastructure, it will remain in decay unless corruption is rooted out. Soon after he was elected, Landrieu invited the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the city’s police department, which has been long troubled by corruption and violence.
The mayor of Detroit, or the recently appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr (if he has the authority), should ask for a similar investigation by the DOJ for the city council and other public entities, as well as an audit of city finances and accounting practices by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Finally, the city needs better leadership. None of the members of Detroit City Council have a professional education in economics, public policy, urban development or any of the other educational backgrounds warranted for the renewal of a city. When democratic control is returned to the citizens of Detroit, they will have the responsibility to elect better and more qualified civic leaders.