Motor City's rebirth in high gear. Plans to revitalize entertainment district spark interest

For 59 years, the Fox Theater has mirrored the growth and subsequent decline of the city of Detroit. In its heyday, the massive, 5,500-seat theater was the jewel of a vibrant downtown, the anchor of a busy entertainment district. Crafted by C. Howard Crane, a Detroiter who became one of the leading designers of the opulent movie palaces of the day, the self-proclaimed ``Temple of Cinema Arts'' opened its doors in 1928 as a black-tie audience thronged to see the silent classic ``Street Angel,'' with Janet Gaynor.

Today the Fox is a crumbling near-ruin. The ticket booth is empty, the massive blood-red marble columns are faded, the plaster-cast gargoyles, gods, and warriors are cracked and chipped, and the five-story-high domed and jeweled ceiling shows the stains of a badly leaking roof.

Now, however, the Fox is being promised a grand rebirth, and with it, many believe, the slow and unsteady revitalization of the Motor City may be ready to move into high gear.

Michael Ilitch, the multimillionaire owner of the Little Caesar's pizza chain and Detroit's Red Wing professional hockey team, has announced that he is buying the Fox and plans to invest $15 million in it. That includes the attached 10-story office building, into which he will move his company's headquarters, currently located in the suburbs. ``We're the first business to relocate back into the city in 27 years,'' he notes.

Indeed, for decades, Detroit has been on a steady decline, made worse by the riots that tore the city apart 20 years ago this month. A population that peaked at 1.8 million in 1950 has dipped to 1 million. Factories and business headquarters have followed the exodus to the suburbs, as well. Few areas have declined as greatly as the old entertainment district. Parking lots and empty yards mark the space where restaurants, shops, and apartment buildings once stood.

Most of those still standing are boarded up or converted to $5-a-day flophouses for the only remaining residents: alcoholics, drug addicts, and retirees too old and poor to flee.

``The area is pretty run down,'' sighs Marc Duncan, assistant manager at the Sibley's Shoe Store located next to the Fox. ``We're the last store left. Everyone else has moved out within the last 10 years.'' But Mr. Duncan was ecstatic when told of the plans to revive the theater, saying that without a doubt, there can be a comeback: ``The skeleton is here. All they have to do is fill it.'' The Fox could become the anchor of a much larger entertainment district, it's generally believed.

Charles Forbes, a local investor, and the man who is selling the Fox to Ilitch, has begun to redevelop several of the other nearby movie houses, including the Palms and the Gem.

A few blocks away, millions of dollars are being invested in the restoration of Orchestra Hall, soon to become the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; the building is considered to have some of the most perfect acoustics in the country.

Similar theater revitalization efforts have taken hold in several other cities, notably in St. Louis, where that city's Fox has become the anchor of a resurgent downtown, notes Keith Fishman, leasing manager at Detroit's Oliver Realty. ``It's working out well in St. Louis, and Detroit is pretty much working on the same format,'' he says.

Until now, redevelopment efforts in Detroit have concentrated primarily on two areas: the narrow band downtown along the river front, and the New Center Area, five miles to the north, where the city and General Motors Corporation have been redeveloping the once plush residential and business district surrounding GM's headquarters. But Woodward Avenue, connecting the two districts, has become a ``no-man's land'' of addicts, hookers, and burned-out buildings.

``We no longer have a main street in Detroit,'' says Sue Marx Smock, interim dean at the College of Urban Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University.

According to Detroit realtors, there have been an increasing number of ``nibbles'' from suburban and out-of-state developers, including as New York's Donald Trump. ``I think within two or three years, you'll see a transformation along Woodward Avenue,'' boasts Mayor Coleman Young. ``It anchors the lower part of Woodward all the way up to the New Center Area.''

Mayor Young and other city officials also say that the Fox gives new justification to the long troubled ``People Mover,'' a 2.5-mile-long elevated train system that circles the downtown district. Until now, only a small fraction of the route has been redeveloped, leading critics to question whether there was any need for investing close to $200 million in what some have called ``a train to nowhere.''

Now, however, the People Mover makes more sense as the link between the established river-front strip, the popular Greektown restaurant area, and the promised theater district, located at the outermost stop along the elevated rail route.

In the years before its decline, the Fox was the center of international attention, as the home of the Motor Town Review. Here stars such as Little Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye appeared regularly.

By 1972 the Motor Town Review and Motown Records had abandoned the Fox, and Detroit.

Ilitch says that when his refurbished theater opens in September 1988, ``we feel we'll be able to book as many as 250 acts a year there.''

That is good news to Walter Ware, the man who has been house manager at the faded Fox since 1952. ``Me and the theater was born in the same year,'' he says with a mixture of pride and sadness. ``I've watched it go downhill. But I'm planning to stay right here and watch them bring it back. I been working hard here for a long time, and now I'm due my reward.''

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