Detroit's 'renaissance': behind glitter, persistent gray

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The American dream has paused, if not come on outright hard times in Detroit. Symbols of optimism coexist in an uneasy patchwork with symbols of frustration and decay.

Renaissance Center, a downtown architectural marvel, thrusts skyward at the river's edge. Nearby, elderly folk are imprisoned within old apartments, kept going with the help of churches and missions that survive for chiefly that purpose.

Detroit mayors have said for years that the city and southeast Michigan must become less dependent on the auto industry. Yet Detroit Mayor Coleman Young has had to turn to General Motors -- razing part of the inner city as big as a suburb and displacing thousands of residents for a new Cadillac plant -- to keep manufacturing jobs close by.

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Detroit has a new opera company. It has restored an old accoustical gem of a concert hall. IT hosted the Republican National Convention last year, and shortly will hold the football Super Bowl in its north suburban stadium.

But these glints of culture and spectacle are set against the gray of working class values still bound fast to the home, or to hunting and fishing in Michigan's north woods.

The city of Detroit has a black mayor, but the black community itself remains scattered, divided by many moods and styles -- from Malcolm X militance and oldtime gospel singing to the self-absortion of a rising professional class.

And while blacks now control city government, with the city three-fourths black, the most energetic new entrepreneurial class appears to be other newcomers to the city. Chaldeans have been taking over the supermarkets, Yugoslavs the city's bakeries. Detroit's oldest parish, on the old French riverfront, anchors a vast track of Latino homes and storefronts downriver.

Nearby, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor thrives as one of the world's great campuses. Within the city, Wayne State university's enrollment has faded 10 percent since last year, as the auto recession squeezes working-class family budgets.

President Reagan's popularity in Michigan still holds strong, as it does elsewhere in the US, despite Michigan's lead in unemployment.

Republican pollster Robert Teeter says Reagan has a 59 percent approval rating in Michigan, with union workers only two points lower than the state average.

And yet there is vast potential for a steep Republican slide in Michigan.

"If there's any place for the success or failure of Reagan's economic program to count, it's Michigan," says Mr. Teeter, underscoring a theme of the state's Republican Gov. William G. Milliken.

Detroit and Michigan have been through seven recessions since World War II, says Louis Ferman, director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, a joint Wayne State and University of Michigan project.

However, Detroit and the state now seem poised for more serious trouble, say Mr. Ferman and other experts. Previous recessions hit blue-collar workers hardest, and blue-collar workers typically blame themselves -- their lack of education for instance -- for hard times. But since 1975, and in the current slump, white-collar workers are being displaced, and such workers tend to blame the system and not themselves for their plight.

The high overall Reagan support masks a feeling of hopelessness that besets many Detroiters, 60 percent of whome receive some kind of public assistance.

"The conditions are there that could produce another riot as in 1967 -- unemployment, civil injustice," says University of Michigan urban architect Gerald Crane. "It could very well happen again." Reagan's cutbacks on social and urban programs are taking away, rather than stimulating a sense of hope among the out-of-work, he says.

"No one cares," says William Bruce Looney, a black Detroit architect, of the sense of abandonment in the city. Some city land has been vacant so long that few can recall whether it was urban renewal, the '67 riot, or simple neglect that led to the razing.

Detroit is not alone in this feeling of unease amidst signs of progress.

"Despite the arch of St. Louis, 27 percent of its residents decided to leave it in the last decade," says urban planner Crane. "In Detroit, despite our best efforts at rebuilding, 20 percent decided to leave."

Southeast Michigan is doing somewhat better than the City of Detroit. Its population appears to have stabilized at about 4.3 million, edging farther into exurbia each decade. "Detroit, as a region, like most of the northeast regions, is not doing badly," Crane says.

The city itself is becoming "suburbanized" as vast tracts are converted into one-story plant and parking lot expanses typical of suburdan industrial sprawl. Physically, Detroit, down 300,000 to 1.2 million population since 1970, appears to be being absorbed into its own suburbs.

"Detroit is a city that reflects economics but not much else," concludes Toby Citrin, a Detroit lawyer. "The plus in Detroit was always social and economic mobility. Racial, ethnic, religious minorities could always move ahead earlier here."

The hope of getting an economic foothold for the family was seen as worth the risk of joining the boom-and-bust auto industry work force.

The fear now is another boom, if it comes, may pass many in the region by.

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