OPINION: Detroit's resilience must be seen to be believed

Detroit Free Press (MI), 2014-08-03

Aug. 03 --Order the carbonara at Vince's .

And go see the black Jesus at St. Cecilia's.

Sometime this month, U.S. bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes and the creditors in Detroit's historic municipal bankruptcy are expected to tour the city to get a sense of the place whose finances they're picking over, before the late August settlement hearing that could mark the beginning of the end of the bankruptcy process.

Why should creditors tour Detroit ? To see the reality of conditions in this city that's been leveraged to the hilt -- to make plain that the money to repay its staggering debt just isn't there -- but also to show that the city's meager funds are badly needed for reinvestment, that money spent here isn't wasted. Because all hope isn't lost.

Vince's is one of the places I'd go -- on Springwells near I-75 , in a southwest neighborhood whose population is a tapestry of black, white, Hispanic and Middle Eastern, and whose fortunes reflect the full range of Detroit emotion.

So is St. Cecilia's Catholic Church , on Livernois near Grand River , where a fresco of an African-American Jesus on the outstretched dome behind the altar marks a poignant chapter in Detroit's racial history and envelops the trajectory of change and perseverance in a city that is down, but never out.

In the dining room at Vince's , you'll get ladles-full of nostalgia -- from the heavy oil paintings and thick carpeting to the homemade pasta on the plates.

In the streets outside, you'll find the decay, the darkened streetlights and the stretches of emptiness that have fallen on blocks that once teemed with life and families. But you'll see enough counter-narrative -- blight being removed, houses being renovated -- to know this place isn't dead, or even dying.

In the long, narrow sanctuary at St. Cecilia's, you can feel the strength of the remaining community amid the emptying pews. And in the surrounding area -- the neighborhood where I was born in Detroit , more than 40 years ago -- you can feel the awful, daily strain of decay and abandonment, but also see the promise of stalwart resilience.

In both places, it's the people who will teach you the most. Their defining, irrepressible vitality is what keeps this city going. It's what cries out for help and investment, a chance to make Detroit great again. And they'll show you that the city's financial mess, the cause of the bankruptcy, isn't their fault, but the product of decades of decline. Mismanagement of city government played a role, to be sure. But so did federal housing policies that pushed exurban development, draining the city's white population while keeping African-American residents largely constrained in neighborhoods increasingly bereft of opportunity. Now, a dearth of essential city services wallops their lives with incompetence and incapability. The federal court overseeing the bankruptcy will be yet another victimizer if it allows banks to come out ahead of Detroiters.

Get out there

I hope the bus tour happens. Creditors need to see the Detroit that exists beyond the office towers, hotels and courtrooms of downtown. But count me skeptical that even a daylong tour would give Rhodes and the creditors a real sense of the city whose finances they're picking over.

It's too big. Too disparate. Too layered with history and economics and racial tension to take in, fully, through a bus window over a few hours.

But any Detroiter can tell you about places that are quintessential to their experiences, their outlook. These are places they connect to, that define their city.

It's these personal spaces -- rather than the predictable itinerary of obvious blight and redevelopment meccas -- that will give the bankruptcy tour its most incisive moments. That's the only way to see the damage done by Detroit's financial mess, to understand that it's not the fault of the people who live and work here, and to imagine the future that is within grasp. These are the only places that can convince you not to strip the city's few remaining assets bare, and sell them off to pay debts.

You'd need weeks to get to enough of them. In a day? We'll be lucky if they hit one.

I go to Vince's for the food and because it reminds me of some of what this city was. Close your eyes and think back: The tables are full of families. The neighborhood is full of businesses and children.

The Perfili family, Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1950s and started the restaurant in 1960, have been there since.

Detroit was once rich in places like this -- neighborhood restaurants, owned by locals, thriving off the density that used to populate our 139 square miles.

They were Italian or Greek or German, later African-American, Hispanic or Middle Eastern, and they both defined and were defined by the neighborhoods they served.

Today, it's sometimes a struggle to keep Vince's open. Customers have left for the suburbs, and many fear the crime that racks the neighborhood. The restaurant itself gets hit too often -- thieves have swiped metal out of air-conditioning units several times -- a problemover-extended law enforcement can't get its arms around.

The restaurant endures, because its owners still believe. But to make their future certain, they need reinvestment in the surrounding neighborhood.

"We need more police presence. We need to get the lights on," said Lidia Improta , who runs the restaurant that her parents opened more than 50 years ago. Her 84-year-old mother, Maria Perfili , who owns Vince's , is still there many nights. Improta said: "You just have to walk around and look and see. ... How would you feel coming in this area?"


At St. Cecilia's, the black Jesus in the sanctuary is overwhelming, impossible to miss.

The legendary Father Raymond Ellis , priest at St. Cecilia's during the 1967 riot, ordered it painted in 1968.For the Lebanese-American Ellis, it was a way to reflect the church's changing demographics, and to honor the idea that everyone should be able to see themselves in Christ.

Devon Cunningham , a local painter, spent that summer clambering around stories of scaffolding to get it done. He pained the Christ figure first, then added other images in clouds that surround Jesus' feet: Mahatma Gandhi , Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ., Malcolm X. When prominent members of the church die, he adds them, too. Father Ellis is there, along with other church pastors.

The image was borne of the desire to make black congregants welcome, but it was controversial. Itdrew national attention, and helped fuel the church's depopulation. And it provides an important lesson about Detroit then, and Detroit now: that race was a powerful accelerant in the drive toward disinvestment.

By the time I was born in 1970, on Tuxedo Street , just around the corner from St. Cecelia's, the neighborhood was beginning to empty, slowly but definitively. Businesses disappeared. Families left.

St. Cecilia's survives, though the school it once ran is closed. But the congregation is still a rock for the neighborhood, committed to making things more stable.

Cunningham, the painter, is still there, adding new images to the black Jesus fresco. He has seen the neighborhood transform, from the thriving place where he raised his kids to a hollow and desperate shell.

He told me a few weeks ago that he'll keep going, until he dies, when someone might add him to the painting.

That resilience is Detroit , and I've found it in Detroiters all over this city, my whole life.

We can build on that to make this place great again.

If Rhodes and the creditors could see that, I think they'd believe it.

Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor for the Free Press and the host of " American Black Journal ," which airs at 12:30 p.m. Sundays on Detroit Public Television. Follow Henderson on Twitter @ShendersonFreep, or contact him at 313-222-6659 or shenderson600@freepress.com .


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