Donors Muscling Democracy in Detroit

Ideas and Issues Philanthropy Rebuild New Orleans

QPIMG_5892New Orleans No matter how jaded we might be about the ways and means that the deep pockets of philanthropies muscle up and try to force their will on desperate grant seekers, the article in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Dolan, “Revival Bid Pits Donor Against Detroit,” was a shocking tale of arrogance, elitism, and autocracy by Rip Rapson and the $3.1 billion Kresge Foundation.

Reading the article it was hard to see any controversy.  Rapson and Kresge had backup on their heels in a face of wills on whether or not they knew what was best for Detroit and could impose their “vision” accordingly or whether or not the newly elected reform mayor and former NBA basketball player, Dave Bing, and the citizens should drive the process.  Clearly they were flat ass dead wrong and the article couldn’t have been clearer.

The foundation had put money into Detroit Works, a standard issue, consultant driven planning apparatus for looking at Detroit’s future similar to what virtually every city in the US has tried to unite business, labor, and other “stakeholders” to come together behind a plan.  Bing had put the operation together before he was elected as a transition vehicle for his emerging government.  Nothing much of a surprise here either.  It’s all standard issue in big time, big city politics.  The difference here is that Bing was elected and, appropriately, moved to integrate planning and other functions in city departments and, as mayor, make sure everyone got their fair say.

Rapson seems to have petulantly pulled Kresge’s money out of Detroit Works trying to insist that an outside planner from Harvard recruited earlier to run roughshod over the local players still got to push the program.  He also doesn’t like the way a rail plan is developing and the fact that the City of Detroit wants to drive the engine, not Kresge with him wearing an engineer’s cap, so he’s also suspended the foundation’s money there, arguing that without Kresge the project is DOA.  Whoa, doggie!  Kresge’s big bucks do give them a big stick and a loud voice because unfortunately that is the way things work in America, but didn’t he at least read a couple of the pages in the foundation executives’ handbook that says they should at least pretend they care about what others thing?  What country is Rapson from that he thinks this is the way the world works?

Minnesota it turns out, where he had his moment in moving a plan as deputy mayor, working inside city government (please note, Mr. Rapson, that you should remember having been one of them then!) and managing a development plan in Minneapolis that some salute.  He also had run for Mayor of Minneapolis and lost.  So, he’s not from Detroit and doesn’t live or work in Detroit, and all of that is OK, and hardly the problem, but why take it out on Detroit?  This is clearly a man who has decided that democracy is a bad idea though.  The voters didn’t understand his value in Minneapolis and now once again he knows better than the voters of Detroit.  It is impossible not to conclude that the problem seems to be Rapson and not the voters or the democratic process.

I have a special feeling for Detroit.  I count it as a city in the process of rebuilding and recovery just like New Orleans, except that our disaster had a name, Katrina, and theirs had a concept, “deindustrialization,” which is less catchy.  Detroit is right next to New Orleans in population loss over the last decade having dropped 25% of its people since 2000.  All of this reminds me of the same hard fisted way in which Joe Canizaro and other developer, business, and philanthropic interests after Katrina tried to impose their will, take over the planning process, and remake the city in their interests.  They had the same problem with race, democracy, and people, but the fight goes on.

Detroit is at least fortunate that Rapson and Kresge’s arrogance is so over the top that even a business paper like the Journal can’t seem to disguise the fact that this kind of naked big money power grab is just plain stupid.  Money seems to believe that it is only accountable to interest rates and bank service charges.

We are celebrating Independence Day now and that includes victory over the royalists and autocrats still living on our proud soil in America today.  Light a loud firecracker to celebrate that too!