Detroit — THE American Dream is alive and well and living in Detroit. Moreover, for at least 60 percent of Detroiters, the American Dream is black. Many white Americans, who have been fed doses of Detroit's negative media image over the last two decades, would be surprised by what they find here. They've heard about race riots in the '60s, followed by white flight to the suburbs; industry layoffs and unemployment; high homicide rates; and the decay of the downtown commercial district in favor of suburban shopping malls. The image they have of Detroit's black community is likely to be squalid, violent, and economically depressed.
It is true that the commercial streets that serve the residential neighborhoods abound with evidence of urban blight: Many businesses are boarded up, litter is plentiful, and those stores that are open are often barricaded against crime with metal gates and bulletproof windows.
The crisis in the auto industry during the 1970s took its toll when many jobs -- and many homes -- were lost. Even Denise Glover, who has worked for the city in various capacities and is one of its staunchest supporters, will concede that.
``Many people went through hard times,'' says Ms. Glover, a third-generation Detroiter whose grandparents were among the first small group of blacks to move into an all-white residential neighborhood in northwest Detroit in the 1930s. ``There were people who were displaced as a result of what happened with the automobile situation. There were homes that were lost. It would not be fair to say that we survived it whole. There are still people who have not been called back, who will never be called back.''
But it's on the streets where people live -- and there are miles and miles of such streets here, today almost exclusively black -- that one finds the American Dream.
Stroll down almost any residential street on a summer evening. Sprinklers are ticking over prizewinning lawns. Men are washing their cars or clipping their hedges. Women are tending rosebushes or chatting with their neighbors. Big trees dapple the sidewalks with leafy pools of shade, and kids whiz by on their bikes. Occasionally a teen-ager's motorcycle will roar through the quiet, but otherwise the loudest sounds are children's voices and the ice-cream man's bell.
The sense of peace, order, and contentment with the quiet rhythms of home life is palpable. The squalor and tension of the commercial streets -- though actually quite near -- seem a million miles away.
Unlike many large cities, Detroit consists mostly of single-family houses inside the city limits, built mainly from the 1920s through the 1950s for white employees of the auto industry. Many of these homes are modest, some are more like mansions. Most are made of brick to ward off the harsh Detroit winters. (The prices they sell for seem impossibly low to anyone used to the inflated real estate values of other cities. One attractive one-bedroom house on a double corner lot recently sold for $33,000.) The majority of these homes are in excellent condition, immaculately cared for by their owners.
Take Aquilla Bell. Anyone strolling by her house on a recent evening would findher wielding a trowel on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. Near her are two buckets: one of fertilizer, one of grass seed. It is hard to imagine how the thick, juicy, evenly-trimmed grass could possibly be improved, but Mrs. Bell is quick to point out a few barely discernable pale spots in the green.
In front of Mrs. Bell's house a group of children are playing what looks like a highly esoteric game of tag. You can tell by her prancing grands jet'es that 10-year-old Aquilla Jr. takes ballet lessons. Over her summer vacation she's also taking tennis lessons at the community activities center a few blocks away. And, according to her mother, young Aquilla is an avid reader. The local public library is one of their favorite haunts.
But Mrs. Bell's version of the American Dream has not been without challenges. For one thing, she and Aquilla's father are divorced. He lives in another state, where the child visits him regularly. Mrs. Bell works full-time as a nutritionist. She chose a private school for her daughter, in part because it offers many extracurricular activities to occupy her until she picks her up after work. Moreover, Detroit public schools are noted for low academic achievement, high dropout rates, drug problems, and shootings.
While Mrs. Bell tends her lawn on the west side of town, Kenny Williams is polishing his white Camaro on the East Side. The houses on his street are a little larger than Mrs. Bell's -- two-story, with old-fashioned porches for enjoying the long summer evenings. Mr. Williams's mother lives across the street, and this evening she is sitting on her porch reading. Williams, too, is divorced, and his daughter, Deja, who usually lives with her mother in another part of town, is visiting him. He has nothing but good things to say about his neighbors and his neighborhood.
``We look out for each other,'' he says. ``The neighborhood's nice. You can go outside. You don't have to worry about your children when they go racing down the street.''
A small group has converged around Williams and Deja and the steady, percussive beat from his radio. There's his girlfriend, Helen Matthews, who works in an automotive factory, and his brother, J. W., a recent (public) high school graduate who won a scholarship to the University of Mississippi to study architecture. And there's J. W.'s friend, Mike Flint, who just graduated from a parochial school, and plans to go into computers.
When Williams is asked what most people do in his neighborhood, his reply, with a laugh, is emphatic. ``They work, that's what they do. Some of them work in factories. Some of them are [security] guards. Some of them are police officers.''
Williams himself is a computer operator. Like Mrs. Bell, he sends his daughter to a private school. ``So she can get the best that she can,'' he says. ``You need all the extras you can get right now. . . . You got high technology, and the economy is being transformed. You need a whole lot of education to keep up with the times.''
In recent years, ``the times'' have presented Detroit with some difficult challenges. In the downtown business district, a number of large stores -- most notably Hudson's department store -- have closed down and moved to suburban shopping malls. In spite of impressive efforts to revive the area, some downtown streets are strangely empty, even on a weekday morning. And in late afternoon, the commuters waiting in line for buses to take them back to the suburbs are almost exclusively white. Despite the peaceful, orderly, middle-class neighborhoods within the city limits, many Detroiters, black and white, moved out in their efforts to preserve their version of the American Dream.
But like visitors to Detroit today, they would probably be surprised if they returned to the neighborhoods they left during the '60s and '70s. They would find that, in spite of problems, the American Dream is indeed alive and well in Detroit.