By John Ruberry

Last week I had some time off from work and I did what few people do. Before sunrise I left home and drove to Detroit for a pleasure visit.

It was my second trip to the Motor City. My first Da Tech Guy account, from 2015, is here.

What follows is a progress report with a grade.

First of all, is Detroit back? Well, if you are like most visitors and you don’t venture beyond downtown, Midtown, Greektown, New Center, or its three casinos, you’ll say, “Yep, Detroit is a thriving city, it’s back.”

But most of the the neighborhoods, Corktown, Palmer Woods, and Sherwood Forest are exceptions, are either rundown and decrepit, or near-apocalyptic wastelands, such as Brightmoor. And as for Palmer Woods, just three blocks from its southeast corner, near where I parked my car to snap a picture of a feral dog–90 minutes later a store manager was murdered during an armed robbery.

But even in its rough patches–actually most of Detroit is one expansive rough patch–there are noticeable improvements.

The abandoned GM Fisher Body 21 plant

Two years ago I was able to walk into vacated schools and factories with only a nagging guilt about trespassing preventing me from entering. That didn’t work, I walked in anyway. Harry B. Hutchins Elementary School, where I spent an hour taking photographs in 2015, is fenced off now. The Packard plant, the world’s largest abandoned factory, has a small but aggressive security presence. I wandered around there undisturbed for hours during my previous visit. Fisher Body 21, an old General Motors factory, is a glaring eyesore at the intersection of the Edsel Ford and Chrysler freeways. While I was able to stroll into that one, the windows in the stairwells must be bricked-off. The stairways are now as unlit as a cave beneath the dark side of the moon. Only a fool, or someone wearing a miner’s hat with a supply of back-up batteries, would climb them now.

So for urban explorers such as myself, Detroit is no longer a free-range video, photography, and souvenir collection zone.

Two years ago no one with authority appeared to give a damn. I credit the attitude change to Detroit’s reform mayor, Democrat Mike Duggan–who lives in Palmer Woods by the way. Duggan was elected four months after the Motor City’s bankruptcy in 2013. Earlier this month Duggan, who is white, overwhelmingly defeated Coleman Young II, the son of Detroit’s first black mayor. The elder Young’s 20-year tenure can best be deemed as controversial. The former communist utilized race-based politics and dog whistle words–city (black) versus suburbs (white)–which kept him in office but drove businesses and of course jobs out of Detroit. He was the steward of the city’s descent. While the white population is growing for the first time since 1950, Detroit remains a super-majority African-American city. Yet Detroit voters rejected the younger Young’s own dog whistle call to “Take Back the Motherland.” Good for them.

While there still are vacant buildings downtown, two of the most obvious ones that I noticed during my first visit, the 38-story Book Tower and the former Wayne County Building, are being rehabbed. Both were seen in the premature Detroit-is-back Chrysler Super Bowl ad with Eminem from 2011. A mile up Woodward Avenue to the northwest is the gleaning new Little Caesars Arena, the new stadium for the Red Wings and the Pistons. Detroit’s NBA team has returned to the Motor City after a nearly three-decade absence. Across the street from the arena are the luxurious Woodward Square Apartments. With Ford Field, the home of the Lions, and Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, as well as some theaters and other new or rehabilitated apartments, the result is the new District Detroit, an entertainment and residential area that rivals any in the United States.

Alley in Delray

So there is a lot of good going on in Detroit.

As for the bad, let’s discuss those forsaken areas, and it goes beyond the crumbling and abandoned housing stock and the crime. Most pedestrians in “the other Detroit” walk on the streets, because the sidewalks are for the most part crumbing. Some are overgrown with weeds. Nearly all alleys are impassable. Even large trees can be found growing in some. Keep in mind that in 1950 not only was Detroit America’s fifth largest city but it enjoyed the highest standard of living of any city in the world. Municipal alley garbage pick-up ended decades ago and many garages of otherwise well kept-up homes are collapsing. Why maintain a garage when you can’t access it from your alley? And besides, there are plenty of vacant lots, with a bit of elbow grease, that can be converted into grassy parking lots. Rubbish can be found everywhere. Illegal dumping–much of it done by suburbanites–is a serious problem in Detroit. Side streets have many potholes and even more cracks. On the other hand, Duggan has made good on his promise to install more street lights.

Urban prairie in Brightmoor

And that post-apocalyptic neighborhood of Brightmoor? A few sections that were once packed with residents have devolved into the kind of emptiness that you expect to see from a country road, a phenomenon known as an urban prairie.

Critics from the left will lash out at me as I take measure of Detroit’s unpleasant underside and yell, “What about racism?” Yes, for decades Detroit’s blacks suffered from institutional racism. So did black Atlantans. The year after Detroit elected Coleman Young, Atlanta, whose blacks endured Jim Crow laws, followed suit and elected its first black mayor. Atlanta became the city that was “too busy to hate.” In 1996 Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics, which is something pre-Young Detroit unsuccessfully bid on an unprecedented nine times.

Back to the good: Most Detroiters are generally friendly people, strangers say “hello” to each other. That’s a commendable behavior I’ve never seen in any big city.

Sidewalk in Petosky-Otsego

Back to the bad: Detroiters are the rudest and most reckless drivers I’ve encountered outside of New York City. And remember, Detroit’s streets are in terrible shape, so such road effrontery is especially hazardous.

Detroit is not “back.” but it is coming back. But some unfinished business remains that could send the onetime Arsenal of Democracy back in the wrong direction. While the deadly 1967 riot and the contraction of the Big Three auto makers, as well as fiscal malfeasance, corruption, and numbing levels of crime are largely responsible for Detroit’s demise, the municipal income tax, a commuter tax, and loads of burdensome regulations also played a role. Those taxes, largely idiosyncratic to Detroit among big cities, still remain, along with those regs. And Detroit’s property tax system, according to the Detroit News, is “fundamentally flawed” and was “particularly devastating in the cycle of decline and renewal Detroit has undergone.”

“New Detroit” has emerged from the starting block but the Motor City is wearing ankle weights.

My grade for the city is “incomplete.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Eagle River, Wisconsin

By John Ruberry

“‘Many are the strange chances of the world,’ said Mithrandir, ‘and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter.'”
Mithrandir (Gandalf), in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Simarillion.

This week greets the first anniversary of Donald J. Trump’s historic election to the presidency.

Historic? Yes. Trump is first first non-politician–or former general–ever elected to the nation’s highest office. The Manhattan billionaire was one of 17 candidates for the Republican nomination and it’s very safe to say that among the GOP establishment, Trump was the least popular member of this group.

But among the unpolished masses–the folks that Hillary Clinton dubbed “Deplorables” a year later–Trump was their champion. House Speaker Paul Ryan said after Trump’s upset win over Clinton, said that the president-elect, “Heard a voice that no one else heard.”

Clinton, on the other hand, was clearly the choice of the Democratic Party insiders, and that point was driven home last week by Donna Brazile, the interim DNC chair when Trump scored his upset win.

Trump was branded a racist when he said that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “criminals” over the border and he vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border. Was he wrong to say that? Yes. But Trump revealed a glaring hypocrisy among the Republican Party. The GOP’s idea of “getting tough” on illegal immigration was to talk tough about illegal immigration. And suddenly, the emerging Trump base learned, here was a candidate who will do something about illegal aliens–who yes, not only take away American jobs, such as in food service, but also drive down wages.

Barack Obama waxed eloquently–he’s good at that–about the plight of the laid-off workers at a Maytag refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois–the manufacturer shifted that work to a factory in Mexico, both in his memorable keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and in Audacity of Hope. Trump vowed–and vows–to stop the exodus of blue collar jobs to south of the border. After eight years of President Obama in charge, whose response to these job losses was to offer retraining to workers for scarce jobs in “green industries,” Trump’s message resonated. While Clinton doubled-down on green failure.

Last week Rush Limbaugh praised Trump’s making an issue during the campaign of China cheating on trade deals and its currency manipulation “China is ripping us off on trade,” Trump screamed. At the time El Rusho saw it as too esoteric of a topic for presidential campaign. But the “weak” understood while the “wise” faltered.

And the Deplorables of Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan–many of whom voted twice for Barack Obama–went with Trump last year.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Last Monday I had a errand to run for work–which brought me to Milwaukee’s suburbs. And for the first time in five years I drove on Interstate 94 north of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line–on what is known as the Milwaukee to Kenosha I-94 Corridor.

A lot has changed since 2012. As I left a toll road south of the border and entered a true freeway–okay, to be fair, the toll road has been there for decades–I noticed a lot.

Businesses–with huge facilities–that weren’t there five years ago leap out at you. Most obvious is the massive Uline warehouse in Pleasant Prairie. The headquarters office of the industrial supplier moved a few miles north from Waukegan, Illinois into Pleasant Prairie in Kenosha County in 2010. Its “Chicago warehouse” followed four years later.

In the 1980s Wisconsin’s tourism slogan was “Escape to Wisconsin.” Illinois businesses are now heeding the call.

Yes, the Chicago area has a couple of Amazon fulfilment centers, but farther north on my drive I saw a massive one in Kenosha–it opened in 2015. The Milwaukee Business Journal calls it “the largest in the recent Kenosha County industrial boom.” There is a “Hiring Now” sign out front.

Sears Holdings, an Illinois loser

South of Kenosha County is Lake County in ILL-inois. There is no Lake County industrial boom. There is no Illinois industrial boom.

Why is that? Sure, tax incentives from Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker have helped greatly. Illinois, when inept Democrat Pat Quinn was governor, offered tax breaks to Sears Holdings, which operates the Sears and Kmart brands, and Mitsubishi Motors, to encourage them to stay. This was a few months after a huge income tax hike was enacted. What about attracting new business? By all accounts Sears and Kmart are on life-support and Mitsubishi closed its Bloomington plant in 2015.

Corporate taxes might be slightly higher in Wisconsin–no place is perfect. But Illinois has the nation’s highest median property tax rate. And Illinois’ expensive workers compensation laws frighten business owners.

In 2015 Wisconsin became a right-to-work state. All the states that border Illinois except for Missouri are right-to-work states and Show Me State voters will be asked next year if they want to join the trend. Nearby Michigan has been right-to-work since 2012. Job creators don’t like unions and based on recent workplace votes, neither do workers.

Illinois has its 800-pound odious gorilla in its basement, a woefully underfunded public-worker pension system. Wisconsin’s state pensions are by most accounts fully funded. Businesses don’t like uncertainty and Illinois’ pension bomb, despite a massive personal and corporate tax hike put in place this summer, has not been defused. Not even close. Ka-boom is coming.

Blogger in Pleasant Prairie

This summer Wisconsin and the Milwaukee to Kenosha I-94 Corridor snagged its biggest prize, the Foxconn factory. The Taiwanese manufacturer will hire anywhere from 3,000 to 13,000 employees for its facility in Mount Pleasant in Racine County. Yes, Illinois had also bid on the Foxconn plant.

Indiana is also enjoying great success poaching Illinois firms for the similar reasons.

And when the jobs leave the people leave. And Illinois is one of only three states with negative population growth.

John Ruberry regularly blogs from Illinois at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

“And it was inevitable that some of these people pushed back…”
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.

Overtaxed residents of Cook County, where Chicago is, are finally waking up. After decades of being slapped by tax after tax–folks are fighting back.

Last week the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to repeal a hated penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax, one that until the repeal takes effect on December 1, places a 39 percent tax on a $4.88 12-pack of soda pop.

“The pop tax is dead, but the issue is bigger than the pop tax,” Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago) told the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass last week. “The issue here is that the people of Chicago and Cook County are not used to having their voices heard and making a difference, with public outrage forcing an elected body to reverse course. This is something.”

Cook County Board President Toni “Taxwinkle” Preckwinkle (D-Chicago) last year had to issue a rare tie-breaking vote last year to enact the soda tax, which took effect two months ago. Last week commissioners voted 15-2 to kill it.

Over the years Cook County imposed with little pushback a 0.75 percent sales tax, along with tobacco, gasoline, and liquor taxes, as well as an additional one-percent sales tax. Okay, there was a rebellion with that last one. Taxwinkle defeated her unpopular predecessor in a Democratic primary on the promise to repeal it–and she followed through. Then five years later she led the effort to successfully bring it back.

Chicagoans pay the nation’s highest sales tax rate.

Meanwhile Chicago residents have been pulverized by repeated property tax hikes to mainly pay for underfunded municipal worker pensions. Illinoisans just got socked with a 32 percent income tax increase, much of that money will go to pension obligations. And Taxwinkle has said that some of that soda tax money is needed for county worker pensions.

Taxwinkle dismissed criticism of the pop tax, which she ludicrously claimed was a public health measure, as the message of Big Soda. Yes, the American Beverage Association’s Can the Tax Coalition did pay for television, radio, and internet ads calling for a repeal. But Taxwkinkle enlisted the aid of “Nanny” Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, to pay for pro-soda tax ads. And after the Illinois Retail Merchants Association delayed imposition of the soda tax, Taxwinkle quickly sued the group for $17 million in lost revenue, exposing her “it’s for our kids’ health” argument as a lie.

Toni “Taxwinkle” Preckwinkle

No figures are available, but anecdotal evidence is abundant that Cook County residents in droves have been driving to collar counties and Indiana to purchase pop since collection of the soda tax began. And does anyone think they were only buying soda on these grocery runs? And gee whiz, do you think they noticed that gasoline, and well, a whole lot of other things are cheaper outside Crook County?

Fill ‘er up. Oh, grab a case of beer too! Oh, and buy that stuff as long as we are here. And this stuff too!

Democratic office holders–and not just county ones–heard the sharp message from ordinary citizens: get rid of this tax!

The repeal of the sugary drink tax repeal is a big victory for long suffering Cook County residents such as myself. Cook is heavily Democratic. Hillary Clinton won nearly three-quarters of the vote in last year’s presidential election. Cook County hasn’t had a Republican president of the Cook County Board in nearly five decades, which is when the county’s population peaked.

Yet people in one of America’s bluest counties screamed “Enough” and they pushed back.

But this victory is only partial. The soon-to-be-canned soda tax is only a symptom. Voters need to understand why Taxwinkle needs to spend so much. Pensions for unionized retirees are only part of it. Taxwinkle has been building a massive “free” public-health care network that caters to the jobless and Cook’s burgeoning illegal immigrant community since taking office seven years ago.

Chicago is a sanctuary city and Cook is a sanctuary county. And last month our state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, signed a bill making Illinois a sanctuary state.

These may be the type of governments that Illinois voters want. If it is, then so be it. But prepare to pay dearly for it too.

John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Cook County resident, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Not all my interviews were from vendors at the Catholic Marketing Network, Alex Jacobs of Three Planets a web service I use lives in Chicago and he stopped by.

It’s a great pleasure to finally meet someone you known for years in person. If you’re interested in his services (and you should be) you can find him here.


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