Development for dummies

Evidently, the main problem Wayne County residents face is having too much money. Detroiters, on the other hand, suffer from not having enough abandoned buildings or enough empty space on which to build new ones. And if that makes you think my blood sugar is out of whack, it’s a lot worse than that.

What I think doesn’t matter. What does matter is what our alleged leaders, who have the power to get their hands on our money, do. Take our famous airport, for instance. To its credit, the Detroit Free Press, whose editorials are traditionally tongue polish for county boss Ed McNamara’s boots, broke the latest major scandal.

Taxpayers who shelled out for the fabulously expensive new terminal may have been startled to learn that they are now going to tear part of it down and rebuild it. Huh? That’s right. But after all, it has been open six months. And Northwest Airlines now evidently wants more gates, so it can fly more lucrative short-hop regional flights.

So we’ll pay for it. Naturally, that makes perfect sense to Ed McNamara, who already has a sweetheart deal giving him effective control of the airport for, like, forever. But maybe if things can be held up, his protégée Jennifer Granholm will do something after she becomes governor. After all, I heard her say she was for ordinary people.

Why sure. The fact that she got her start as McNamara’s appointed corporation counsel, and was hip-deep in all the airport deals shouldn’t worry anybody.

Now that we’re straight on that, let’s zoom downtown and visit the eccentric John King, who runs one of Detroit’s true jewels, his immense used and rare bookstore in two huge buildings on West Lafayette Boulevard right at the southbound Lodge.

He draws patrons from around the nation. Jay Leno stops in when in town. So does William Safire ... and even, when he can’t avoid coming to Detroit, John Engler.

But now, thanks to the Michigan Department of Transportation, aka MDOT, our king is seriously thinking of closing up and leaving. Why? MDOT and SMART, which built a Greyhound bus terminal a block away a mere decade ago, now want to build a new one right next door.

Deborah Lee, the bookstore's manager, says the problem is "not the people who come on the buses. It’s the sort of lowlifes and criminals who tend to hang around bus stations."

Before you think King, Lee et al are a bunch of snooty suburban wine-and-cheese intellectuals, consider this. Every single employee of John King lives in Detroit.

Lee, a tall, elegant African-American woman, spends part of nearly every day pricing rare books and autographs, supervising staff, talking to customers around the country ... and throwing deranged and would-be criminals out of the store.

The last time I was there, it was a lunatic with dyed orange hair who wore a thick woman’s mohair sweater in sweltering heat. He threw a book at Lee and screamed obscenities at her from the street for a good five or 10 minutes.

Sometimes the employees call the cops, though they usually only do that when they feel there is a serious threat to somebody’s life or property.

But the heat usually doesn’t show up till after whoever is causing a problem leaves, "and they usually won’t do anything anyway," an exasperated King says.

He doesn’t need any more problems. While it can’t be denied that King looks like a genetic experiment combining the DNA of Ichabod Crane and George Armstrong Custer, the fact is that he is a native — and extremely loyal — Detroiter. He spent a small fortune renovating his stores and putting in a secure parking lot for his customers.

Rather than live in Livonia, King spent another ton of money building a loft atop his second building, though the usual sullen bureaucrats made that as hard as possible. He often hires local people who are trying to rise above their problems and get their lives together. He’s chased muggers and winos and put up with a lot.

"But I don’t want to lie in bed and listen to bus station noises all night," he says.

Apparently, he doesn’t have any recourse. There doesn’t seem to be any zoning problem, according to Maryann Mahaffey, Detroit City Council president. "I would hate to see him leave. But sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to."

"The terminal really doesn’t have enough space for traffic where it is," a block over on Howard Street. "I don’t know why they put it there to begin with."

That’s a question that could be asked about a lot of things that happen in Detroit, from the airport to the charming little shopping plaza on East Lafayette a couple miles away, where another developer wants to put up faceless condos in a space that currently houses the city’s one good Thai restaurant, the wonderful Paris Cafe, a neighborhood grocery, a neighborhood pharmacy and a video store.

One wonders why the bus terminal couldn’t relocate a few blocks farther away in either direction, where there are plenty of other abandoned buildings and empty lots.

One wonders why whoever is running Detroit thinks eliminating a bustling plaza, or a world-class bookstore, would help bring new life to the city.

Actually, what one really wonders is whether there is any leadership in Detroit, or any vision for the future of what is, to be frank, a postindustrial ruin with small pockets of life, a place that still has some inhabitants who would love to try and be a city again.

But, hey. What’s there to complain about? We’ve got two new stadiums, and the casinos are sending millions back to New Jersey or somewhere, everyday. As the state motto goes, si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, you might want to get the hell out of town. Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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