Detroit Starts to Make Steady Comeback After Years of Race and Class Acrimony

In his first term, Mayor Archer restores city services and begins to repair ties to wealthy, white suburbs

FOR years, public buses have lumbered through Detroit's gritty, potholed streets, reminding city hall that the way to turn Detroit around is to improve basic city services.

Now, Detroit and its suburbs are streamlining the metropolitan region's sluggish, disjointed bus systems in an effort to create a smooth, cohesive, and revitalizing mass transit system.

The consolidation is the first concrete sign that Mayor Dennis Archer is reversing decades of corrosive enmity between his impoverished and predominantly black city and its prosperous, largely white suburbs.

``We are redefining our image so that people look at us and say, `Wow, they sound like they're getting ready to turn around','' Mayor Archer told the Monitor.

A city/suburb agreement will consolidate four routes that are run separately by the city bus system and a system administered jointly by three metropolitan counties. It is the first step in what city hall hopes will be complete integration of the two bus systems within the next year, says Albert Martin, Detroit's director for transportation.

``It's a very positive step, and it's long overdue,'' says Bettie Buss, senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Archer is ``trying to create a whole new atmosphere of accessibility and openness and friendship, and he's achieving it,'' says Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

The plaudits prompted by partial bus system consolidation show that, to succeed in his first term as mayor, Archer need only restore a trace of credibility to city transit, garbage pickup, law enforcement, and other brass-tacks public services.

The praise also underlines the extremes in rancor, official inertia, and outright deterioration Detroit reached under former Mayor Coleman Young.

Politics of race

In the two decades before stepping aside for Archer in January, Mr. Young amassed much of his power by whipping up class and racial hostility.

Young helped give black Detroiters a sense of political empowerment, but he did so largely by baiting whites. Early in his administration, Young characterized the Detroit Police Department as ``an occupying army'' and pushed for putting more blacks on the force. The confrontational style accelerated a flight to the suburbs.

During Young's time in office the city population shrunk by a third as thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of residents left.

As a result, the city's tax base eroded, its budget deficit ballooned, and by the time Young left office in January, one in three city residents lived in poverty.

Mr. Patterson, who was the prosecutor in affluent Oakland County during much of Young's tenure, says he talked to Young once during the former mayor's 20 years in office. He confers with Archer twice a week.

In mass transit, as in other matters, Young championed autonomy for blacks, even if it meant they missed a chance at economic opportunity.

Sharing the burden

Young and county leaders disagreed for years over how to finance a unified bus system. Suburban leaders refused to ask taxpayers to fund a regional system; Young did not want to share control over city buses.

As a result, Detroit is the only major city in the United States lacking regional mass transit. The absence of such a system has perpetuated economic decline in Detroit and helped solidify the polarization between the city and its suburbs.

Detroit residents each day face an absurd, costly reminder of the feud. Even with partial consolidation, most county buses still do not pick up passengers within Detroit.

Many residents of the depressed city are impoverished because they cannot conveniently travel to jobs in the comparatively robust suburbs. A trip that takes 30 minutes by car usually takes 90 minutes by bus because of poor connections and routing.

Archer and county leaders differ over how to finance a single regional bus system. But Archer has promoted constructive talks on the topic.

Although Archer cannot, after six months in office, point to signs of an economic revival, he rattles off several ways that he has tried to make Detroit ``clean and safe'' and attractive to investors.

* More than 300 police have moved from desks jobs to street patrols and about 2,000 police reserves have been deployed on buses, and in parks and schoolyards.

* City road crews have filled more than 500,000 potholes.

* Garbage collectors have reduced the time between pickups from 14 days to 10 days; in July they plan to begin weekly collection.

Still, the mayor faces terrific challenges. ``What can get us over the racial hurdle, what can resolve the tremendous economic and class distinctions that exist between the city and the suburbs?'' asks Ms. Buss at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Like many big-city mayors, Archer finds his hands tied by tight budgetary constraints. He recently saw enacted a $2.2 billion budget for 1994-1995 in which the city will issue $125 million in deficit-funding bonds. Long-term debt stands at $1,112 per capita, up from $250 in 1984, according to city statistics.

Detroit residents will know they have turned the corner when municipal income tax revenues increase and new residents and investors move to the city and begin to rebuild the wasted tax base, economists say. There are no signs that has begun.

``I don't think you will see business executives overnight putting at risk millions of dollars [in Detroit] until they see that this is a genuine, long-term opportunity,'' Patterson says.

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