Is Detroit’s comeback a myth?

A few weeks ago I had dinner with John King, the owner and emperor of John K. King Used & Rare Books, the huge blue former glove factory that sits at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard and the Lodge.

Business Insider magazine once said this was the second-best bookstore in the world. I think that ranking must be a little low, since, after all, what other bookstore would sell me, say, not only a biography of Stalin but the insignia from a Soviet railroad engine?

King, who has a satellite bookstore in Ferndale, is also the most intrepid Detroiter I know. Of Lithuanian ancestry (despite his name), he is blond, blue-eyed, and looks like a cross between Benjamin Franklin and George Armstrong Custer. Fits right in, in other words.

He was born back in 1950, in hardscrabble Southwest Detroit before it was either Hispanic or cool, the only child of poor parents.

Books were what he loved. He never quite finished Wayne State, but he started a bookstore in the ruins of the old Michigan Theatre building, and later graduated to the glove factory around 1983.

Later, he bought the old Otis Elevator Building behind it and stuffed it with rare books and treasures. He loves the city, which you can tell by the way he says "I hate fucking Detroit, man."

He has reason to be pissed off at the city, or at least the bureaucracy. He built a charming apartment for himself and his longtime consort, the beautiful Janelle, atop the building, despite being hassled by city officials every step of the way.

When he tried to order cable for his apartment, the city told him it would cost thousands, since he was a business. "Screw you," he said, and put up a satellite dish. When he found an old unused fire department water line, he conscientiously reported it to the city, which then tried to send him a water bill for thousands of dollars.

"I should have moved to the suburbs years ago," he's told me, oh, no more than 732 times. But I know he never will, and so does he. Along the way, he has given employment to a boatload of down-and-out Detroiters, training them in the fine arts of the book business.

"I made him fire the hooker, though," Deborah Lee, the store manager, told me. The company has a strict policy against carrying on extracurricular business on the premises.

Going to dinner with John is always an adventure, because you know you will wind up getting great food in a neighborhood in which you don't really expect the car, or at least its wheels, to still be there when you come out. But it always is.

The other night, after eating exquisite Vietnamese in what had been an abandoned coney (Flowers of Vietnam) I asked King whether he had noticed much improvement in Detroit since the bankruptcy. "No, not really," he said. "They've glitzed things up a bit, you know, but life isn't any better for the people who live here."

I thought that was just his usual contrary nature. But two days later, I was stunned to see proof he knew what he was talking about.

Two academics, Laura Reese, director of the Global Studies Program at Michigan State University, and Gary Sands, a professor emeritus of urban studies at Detroit's own Wayne State, wrote an eye-opening piece for a new website called The Conversation, whose motto is "academic rigor; journalistic flair."

Intellectual stuff real humans can read, in other words. They looked at the statistics; crunched the numbers, and discovered this:

"Real progress has occurred in recent years in the Downtown/ Midtown core, which runs along Woodward Avenue for almost four miles and covers an area of just over seven square miles."

Things are booming there, indeed: New restaurants constantly popping up; the latest Ilitch sports palace nearing completion. For the first time in memory, there are waiting lists for apartments.

Everywhere else, however, is a different story.

The golden corridor accounts for only 5 percent of the city's land area. The authors estimate that no more than 26,000 of the city's 670,000 or so remaining people live there.

For the first time in memory there are waiting lists for apartments in Downtown and Midtown. Everywhere else, however, is a different story.

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Not only have things not gotten better in the rest of the city, it, and its residents, are actually "worse off than it was in 2000 or even in 2010, in the depth of the national recession. Less than half a mile from the GM Renaissance Center, the most visible marker of Detroit's downtown, empty lots, weeds, and dilapidated buildings prevail."

Well, we sorta knew that, or some of it. But the hope, especially as conveyed by the Duggan administration, is that the revitalization of Midtown will spread to other parts of the city. The mayor, in fact, has corralled $30 million in outside funds to invest in three more neighborhoods. They include a piece of Southwest Detroit near Clark Park, Livernois-McNichols, and West Village.

Whether Reese and Sands knew that when they wrote their article isn't clear; but nice as it sounds, $10 million for one blighted and struggling neighborhood is not a lot of money.

"The pace at which revitalization is spreading to adjacent areas is far too slow to eliminate divisions between downtown and neighborhood, city and suburb (read: black and white) or rich or poor in the city," the academics conclude. If that weren't bad enough, they also found that "Even in Midtown, poverty remains high, and most new jobs are going to suburbanites."

They do offer potential solutions, none of which are surprising. They suggest the city invest in public schools, and provide services to neighborhoods — the whole nine yards the politicians in Lansing aren't about to do for a bunch of black folks who vote Democratic.

However, there was one more thing Sands and Reese came up with that rang a bell: "One option to address the revenue shortfall would be re-evaluate existing tax abatements, tax increment financing, and neighborhood enterprise zones. All of these programs tend to divert revenue out of the general fund and into the private sector."

John King, Detroit's last great bookstore impresario, had said much the same thing to me as we walked down Vernor Avenue, freezing our old asses. How could someone fix the city, I asked?

"Well, what they gotta do something about is crime. They say it's down, but it's still driving people out. But what really sucks is these ridiculous tax abatements. They came in and reassessed all these houses for far more than they are worth. They (the owners) can't pay and they lose their homes. Car insurance, too."

He told me of people who buy car insurance somehow for three days so they can renew their registration. By the way, I asked — were the three houses he lived in as a kid still standing?

I knew he'd know. "Oh yeah. They're all in good shape. You know why? Hispanic immigrants bought all three. They keep them in good shape. We need more immigrants, man."

Too bad someone else doesn't get that.

Just to clarify: For years, King also owned and operated the somewhat misnamed "Big Bookstore" on the fringe of Wayne State's campus, which was a great place to go for an old dirty magazine or a paperback copy of The Naked and the Dead.

Sadly, it is closing sometime on or before the end of this month. He refused to deny that it would be turned into a North Korean missile tracking station, though the rumors are that someone plans to turn this onetime tire store into fancy apartments.

If so, I hope they leave the magazines.