Detroit Battles Decay, Joblessness In Ultimate US Test of Renewal

ON a driving tour of Detroit, city-planner Kevin Turner stops in an East Side neighborhood near his boyhood home. Outside, there's a torched building tagged with graffiti, a stripped Buick, and a weed-choked lot.

``This is all in the empowerment zone,'' Mr. Turner tells a group of reporters, smiling. ``You might want to take a picture.''

After years of trying to spit-shine their city's image, Detroiters have grown remarkably candid about their civic woes. Once an industrial jewel, Detroit has lost 50 percent of its population and 40 percent of its job base in four decades. It has become a national emblem of urban decay.

But many of its 1 million residents refuse to admit defeat. Spurred by an energetic new mayor, a sympathetic president, and a booming car industry, Detroit is set to begin a 10-year, $2 billion redevelopment effort - the largest in US history.

Hopes are high, but so are the stakes. If Detroit succeeds, it will serve as a model of urban renewal. If it fails, it will become a metaphor for the difficulty of rescuing America's urban cores.

``If you look at trend lines in inner cities over the last 10 years, they're shockingly bad,'' says Bob Keller, president of Detroit Renaissance, a consortium of business leaders. ``If this doesn't work, it will be another decade until somebody else is ready to do something, and things will be worse.''

The renewal efforts revolve around an area of Detroit that earned one of the Clinton administration's six ``empowerment zone'' designations. These awards - also earned by Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia/Camden - include $100 million in tax credits and unusually wide latitude over its use.

The zone, an 18-square-mile area on Detroit's east and southwest sides, typifies urban blight. Unemployment among the zone's 101,000 residents is 29 percent, infant-mortality rates are twice the national average, 63 percent of its children live in poverty, and only half of its adults have high school diplomas. While the zone contains only 10 percent of the city's population, it accounts for 20 percent of all homicides.

``The city, the state, and the federal government have turned their backs on this community,'' says Tony Martinez, owner of a metalworking shop in the zone. ``It could be a showplace for the city, but instead it's just a dump.''

Detroit's empowerment-zone application, which President Clinton lauded as the nation's best, contains 80 programs: everything from classes on parenthood to an environmental high school. In the first year, the city plans to build 300 houses, demolish 1,000 abandoned buildings, enroll 400 people in job training, and open midnight-basketball programs in 12 schools.

The $100-million federal package will fund these projects, as well as provide loans and loan guarantees for small businesses and tax abatements for companies that hire residents in the zone or purchase new equipment.

But the real engine of Detroit's effort is private investment. Unprecedented cooperation between banks, schools, and auto companies is expected to pump $1.9 billion into the community over 10 years and create at least 3,275 jobs.

The Big Three automakers pledged $20 million in general funding, and Chrysler plans to hire 500 zone residents to help build Jeeps at its Jefferson Avenue assembly plant. Utility companies, TV stations, newspapers, law firms, and colleges have offered discounts for zone businesses or special support sevices.

While the private money is already trickling in, the federal grant will not be released until the city has put a 50-member oversight board in place.

Yet unlike past renewal efforts, the federal government will not be represented on the management team. ``The corporation will not have any federal agencies breathing down their necks,'' says Gloria Robinson, Detroit's director of planning. ``This time, the government asked us what we needed and gave us a blank sheet of paper, instead of a pile of forms to fill out.''

Ms. Robinson gives most of the credit to Detroit's new mayor, Dennis Archer, who has courted the business community and lobbied for the city in Washington.

While Mr. Archer's predecessor, Coleman Young, brought more than $3 billion in federal money to Detroit in his 20 years in office, Robinson says much of it disappeared into ill-fated projects and city bureaucracy. ``A lot of companies wanted to invest in Detroit, but they didn't have the stamina to deal with [Young's] administration,'' Robinson says.

During his campaign, Archer, a Democrat, vowed to improve the relationship between the city and its large and affluent suburbs. He also pledged to make Detroit a less forbidding place to do business.

After Archer's inaugural, Robert Eaton, chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, said he was ``more enthusiastic about the city of Detroit than I have been in the last 20 years.''

Yet skeptics remain.

A Detroit News columnist recently questioned whether it is possible to teach good working habits to zone residents, many of whom have been mired in poverty and welfare-dependency for two generations. A study by the Detroit-based Heartland Institute found that despite its minimal city services, Detroit's tax burden is seven times that of most Michigan municipalities.

According to Robin Boyle, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, the renewal effort must be a ``metaphor for larger change'' in Detroit, especially at city hall. The main obstacle to success, he says, is Detroit's vast bureaucracy that has been ``immensely difficult'' to reform. If Archer fails, Professor Boyle says, Detroit's business community may never again be so generous.

While he is confident the project will progress through its first years, Mr. Keller says difficulties may arise after seven years, especially if the city's economy stalls. Others wonder whether the new GOP-led Congress might cut the program.

Detroiters, for the most part, say it's now or never. Saad Naum, store manager at Xtra Foods inside the zone, says that if the proposed housing improvements are implemented, he would be able to hire as many as 25 additional cashiers. If not, he may have to close.

Outside, a woman who introduces herself as Miss Lucas says that in the 42 years she has lived in the same East Side home, she has watched weeds grow, curbs crumble, and crack houses open. What holds the community together, she says, are longtime residents like herself.

``When we go,'' she says, ``you might as well turn out the lights.''

But for now, at least, hope reigns. Waiting for a bus in front of a homeless shelter, Otis Collins wears a smile as wide as Stimson Boulevard. He has just landed a job as a hi-load driver for $8 an hour, and it's his last night in the shelter.

``I think the mayor's plan will work,'' he says. ``It's already working for me. I love Detroit.''

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