Now for the future

Nov 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

So the election is finally over, and Detroit has a new mayor-elect. Now what?

Hopefully, a lot. The city doesn’t have a lot of time to lose. Winter is coming, the economy is shrinking, there are pregnant teenagers on the streets, and many neighborhoods would put the Third World to shame.

They would, in fact, anger Detroiters, if they weren’t so used to seeing them. Frankly, when I wrote this, I didn’t know whether Kwame Kilpatrick or Gil Hill had won. What I do know is that if we don’t pull together to do something about Detroit’s real problems, it won’t matter much.

We all need to face a lot of myths about the city. Today, most of what we call “Detroit” is a terribly impoverished black ghetto, with a few decent residential islands and some gleaming downtown buildings.

Did the rest of it go to hell because lazy black trash won’t even keep up their own homes? Or did Detroit rot and die because the whites, in the words of Coleman Young, “didn’t want the damn thing anymore,” and had fled, with their money, business and jobs, to suburbs near and far?

Mainly, Detroit was done in by lines on a map. Here’s what really happened: Back in the Roaring ’20s, the nation‘s two real boom towns were Motown and Los Angeles. Back then, it was possible to guess that, in the long run, Detroit was in a better position.

We had limitless water, and they were in a desert. But we were up against the map. Los Angeles, as it grew, annexed every parcel of land in sight. This wasn’t hard; the area wasn’t yet incorporated; rural people needed city services. So Los Angeles grew, like a giant amoeba. When the rich folks moved homes and businesses out on the fringes of town, the city followed, swallowed ’em up. Los Angeles prospered.

Detroit hasn’t annexed an acre since 1927. Even in its glory days, the city was up against county lines and already-established little cities, from Ferndale to Lincoln Park. Annexing another city is politically very hard. It never happened, and back then didn’t seem to matter much.

Before the 1950s, there were few good roads to the suburbs, and about all you could shop for in the suburbs was live bait. But Detroit’s doom was sealed, not by race but a place: Northland Mall, which opened in 1954, about the time President Eisenhower committed billions to the interstate highway system, guaranteeing local and state road improvements would follow. That made living in the suburbs possible.

More white Detroiters poured out of the city in the 1950s than in any decade before or since, and almost none were thinking about race. They were thinking about a tract house, with a plot of crabgrass and lower taxes.

That out-migration actually slowed in the 1960s. But then came the unexpected “riot” of 1967. Businesses started to leave. Taxes were raised on those who stayed, helping speed the exodus, creating a very vicious circle.

Detroit was still half white in 1974, when Coleman Young became the first black mayor. Forgotten now is that he couldn’t have made it without white liberals who couldn’t stomach the buffoon John Nichols.

Forgotten now is that he actually called for racial unity. He told all criminals to “hit Eight Mile Road. I don’t give a damn if they’re black or white, or they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms.”

Whites heard it differently, perhaps because they wanted to. They left, and businesses left (for example, General Motors, for all intents and purposes, went to Warren), and city revenue dried up and things went to hell.

They’ve been bad ever since. The myth is that things were somewhat reversed under Dennis Archer. Indeed, he lowered the tone of the rhetoric and was met with olive branches from the suburbs. The dizzying national prosperity of the ’90s even trickled down a bit to the streets of Detroit.

Yet, guess what. A higher percentage of the white population left than anytime before — even under that old devil Coleman. Detroit still had 212,278 white residents in 1990. Last year, the census found only 99,921.

Incomes went up — but the number of census tracts where most of the children are living in deep poverty increased. And for the first time ever, the black population declined too, a tiny bit. The naked reality is that black middle-class Detroiters are now also fleeing for the suburbs.

So, again, now what?

Simply, this. Everyone in this great, sprawling metropolitan area needs to recognize that we are one city. When a guy from Chesterfield Township or Leonard meets someone in San Francisco, where do they say they are from? Detroit, naturally. And they are right. We are all Detroit. If the formal political boundaries of the city stretched, in fact, over the tricounty area, or even just Wayne County, there would still be problems and troubled neighborhoods. Los Angeles has bad neighborhoods.

But the central city wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

Total metropolitan government probably won’t ever happen. Suburbanites wouldn’t want the expense. Detroiters wouldn’t want to see their political power diluted. Yet we have to do something.

Transportation is the place to start. There are unfilled jobs in the suburbs, and Detroiters who need them but can’t get there.

Politicians put together a tentative deal for an improved bus system at Mackinac Island last spring, but once they got home, they returned to the usual squabbling.

We need to grow up. Now. We need regional agreements — and new ideas. Detroiters have a lot at stake, including the ones who live in Bloomfield Hills. After all, having a rotting city and an increasingly desperate million people a few miles from your front porch can’t be all that comforting, can it? Didn’t think so. Let’s go.

Jack Lessenberry is a contributing editor to the MT. E-mail comments to [email protected]