Gov. Rick Snyder, the man who would reinvent Detroit

Published Aug 11, 2013 at 05:00AM

DETROIT —

This city is the broken tooth in Michigan’s smile. Nevertheless, the preternaturally optimistic governor, from whom never is heard a discouraging word, cheerfully describes his recent foray with a crew cleaning up a park in a particularly, well, challenging neighborhood:

The weeds, says Gov. Rick Snyder, were so tall you could not see the sidewalks or even the playground equipment. Concealed in the underbrush were some old tires. And a boat. And, he notes with an accountant’s punctiliousness about presenting a complete record, they also found “a body.” Never mind. Now another block of an almost cadaverous city has been reclaimed.

Snyder, who has called himself “one tough nerd,” began life after the University of Michigan as an accountant and is tough enough to have strengthened the relevant law and then wielded it to put Detroit under the governance of an emergency manager, an appointed autocrat. Detroit is the sixth Michigan city, together with three school districts, to have earned its loss of autonomy.

Snyder is neither surprised nor dismayed by the Obama administration’s prompt refusal to consider bailing out the city: “I had made it clear I wasn’t going to ask them” for a bailout. He has largely forsworn attracting businesses to the city by offering tax credits, which he calls “the heroin drip of government.” He speaks not of “fixing” but of “reinventing” Detroit, by which he means a new “culture of how to behave and act.”

He correctly stresses the cultural prerequisites for prosperity. And for popular sovereignty. Detroit under the emergency manager is enduring a democracy deficit because self-government requires collective self-control — the restraint of appetites by realism about their costs. Detroit, however, has suffered not just economic setbacks but a cultural collapse that precludes a rapid recovery.

Despite some people’s facile talk about “rebooting” Detroit, as though it is a balky gadget, this is a place where dangerous packs of feral dogs roam. No city can succeed without a large middle class, and in spite of cheery talk about a downtown sprinkling of “hipsters and artisans,” a significant minority of Detroit’s residents are functionally illiterate and only 12 percent have college degrees. In Seattle, 56 percent do.

Against a litany of woes, Snyder happily illustrates the city’s revival by brandishing his shiny new wristwatch. It is a Shinola, manufactured here from Swiss parts by a startup that also makes bicycles and other things. About the vacant land opened up as the population has contracted, Snyder says: “Hops.” This is used to make beer, and microbreweries make, or at least accompany, urban gentrification. And those hundreds of millions of public funds for a new hockey arena? He gamely explains it as a “quality of life” magnet for the gentrifiers.

With that, Snyder, who is up for re-election in 2014, shifts into Michigan chauvinism, as a governor should: With its lakes and “micro-climates,” Michigan has, he says, the nation’s second-most diverse climate, so just about anything can be grown, even Detroit.

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