Is Detroit dumb and lazy?

"Tribute to an unknown pattern maker," Irving Berg

"Tribute to an unknown pattern maker," Irving Berg

Detroit’s emergency manager called Detroit “dumb, happy, lazy and rich.”

What is that guy smoking?

How else can you explain such careless invective from Kevyn Orr, one of the country’s top corporate bankruptcy lawyers, the “expert” who holds the future of city’s 700,000 residents in his hands?

It took Orr a couple of weeks to apologize, ascribing his remarks to a “slip of the tongue.” What emerges when our tongues slip? Exactly what we really think.

I was born and raised in Detroit. So were my parents. I wonder what my father would have thought had he lived to hear Orr’s rhetoric. He and his brothers were teachers and small businessmen who started with nothing and worked hard to build a future for their families in Detroit.

My parents were part of the hardy, thriving creative class that has found inspiration in the tough, blue-collar city. Their lives were rooted in the belief that community trumped the bottom line. For them, the arts and creative process were not a luxury to be enjoyed only by the elite but a necessity that enriches everyone.

My own feelings about Detroit are rooted in my family’s deep connection to the place. My father was an artist and art teacher who rummaged through the industrial trash to find discarded tool and die molds, which he turned into sculptures. He told me that he created them as tributes to the beauty of those molds and to the memory of the men who created them, so that their craftsmanship could live on, seen from a fresh perspective.

For 35 years, my dad headed the art department at Cass Tech, a downtown magnet high school housed in a grand 1922 Collegiate Gothic building. It’s gone now, first abandoned, then neglected and finally torn down. But the soul of the place beats strong across the country in the lives and work of students who discovered their passions and vocations there. One of his students, Marie Tapert, an artist who now lives outside Detroit, recently wrote a letter to the New York Times. She was the daughter of a factory worker, and had never been to a museum until my father sent her to the Detroit of Institute of Arts to study sculpture. “I was changed,” Tapert wrote. “A transformative moment like this cannot be unique to me. As a kid from the East Side of Detroit, I was able to wander the galleries of my art museum. What a gift."

My mother, a modern dancer and choreographer, started a company for women with families and kids who wanted to keep studying and performing. Later she became obsessed with the French origins of Detroit and the War of 1812, teaching about the history of Detroit through dance to schools and community groups.

She is a tireless Detroit booster with no patience for the endless parade of horrible publicity surrounding the city. Even the bankruptcy can’t dampen her enthusiasm for the city that’s so much a part of her blood.

Like many of Detroit’s residents, my family ended up there for work. My father’s father was a Polish carpenter turned away from the U.S. twice before he got in on his third try through Canada. He landed in Detroit during the boom years of the 19-teens, saving enough money to bring his wife and four kids over in 1920. My father was the first born in this country.  He grew up on Humphrey Street, in the working class neighborhood around Dexter Boulevard, which later became a black neighborhood and burned to the ground in the 1967 riots.

I never knew my father’s dad, who died before I was born. He was not a big talker. My father said he had never had a real conversation with him. He taught my father a love of working with tools and an appreciation of craft.

By contrast, my mother’s father was a looming presence in my family. The son of a Ukrainian innkeeper, he fled Ukraine when he was twelve to avoid arrest for distributing pamphlets for the anarchists in pre-revoluitonairy Russia.

According to family lore, he worked with the legendary cigar makers union in New York wrapping stogies and took turns reading the newspaper out loud. He came to Detroit to work as a milkman, helping to organize the first milkman’s union in Detroit before he started a frozen foods business.

My mother and father lived with her parents when they first married. My father told me about the time my grandfather came home late from work, summoned my father to the bathroom and told him to bring the vodka. His left pant leg was soaked through with blood. He took off his pants, revealing a bleeding gash in the leg. He’d been struck by a 5-gallon container filled with frozen eggs which had fallen from a shelf above his head. “We have to get you to the hospital,” My father said. My grandfather responded: “We’re not going to the hospital. Pass me the vodka.” He poured a stream of vodka to clean the wound, and took a couple of deep tugs from the bottle. My father, a World War II veteran, knew how to improvise first aid, and he cleaned and dressed the wound the best he could; the scar remained.

My grandfather didn’t tell stories about the good old days. When he heard that Ellis Island, where he had entered the country, was being turned into a museum, he said: “They should burn it down. The way they treated people there was a disgrace.”

What would my father and grandfathers have to say to Kevyn Orr, who wants to dismantle what’s left of the city they helped build? How would they respond to his stingy vision, blind to the lives of the city’s people through the boardroom window?

In the last few years thousands of people have moved to the city - artists, musicians, urban pioneers - unlike my own immigrant family decades ago, but similarly charged with vision and energy to join with those who remain to build a city we may not be able to imagine yet. They dream of reshaping Detroit into a much different place, filled with lush urban gardens, recycled art projects and sustainable business laboratories.

Are these people dumb, or lazy....or rich?

Orr needs to get off the corporate crack.

He needs to really understand that the Detroit is much more than its past, with its bitter racial divide, the tough fight for midlde-class wages, national policies that led to the collapse of the automobile industry in Detroit, abandoned buildings and crime. If what he wants to do is to save the city, he should stop selling it, and its residents, short.

He should get out more. Orr could take an outing on Saturday morning to the city’s sprawling Eastern Market for fresh produce, including fruits and vegetables grown in Detroit’s model inner-city community garden program. Over Labor Day weekend, he’s welcome to join me and thousands of others along the banks of the Detroit River, which plays host to a four-day-long free jazz festival, featuring sets by Detroit’s many acclaimed homegrown artists, including James Carter, Geri Allen, Sheila Jordan,  Cameron Brown and Joan Belgrave, as  as well as other musical luminaries such as Ravi Shankar, Joe Lovano, David Murray, Gary Burton and Danilo Perez, to mention only a few.

Before he starts selling off its treasures, he should visit the world-class collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts. If he listens carefully, he’ll hear my Dad’s spirit, holding forth in the DIA’s magnificent Diego Rivera Court, filled with the mythical murals that portray, not just the city’s history, but how that history fits into the fabric of our civilization. If Orr wants to know what my mother thinks, he can find her across the street, in the historic Park Shelton Apartments, where she’s lived for more than three decades. She’ll give him an earful.