Motor City's 40-Year Decline Halts as Economy Revs Up

DETROIT, one of America's most garish icons of urban decay, has arrested a 40-year-long decline and begun laying a block-by-block foundation for renewal.

To be sure, hulks of abandoned, pre-Depression skyscrapers still glare from a dark skyline, testifying to how far Detroit has fallen since it was one of the world's fastest-growing cities early this century. But recent economic and social indicators are giving a long-awaited ring of authenticity to City Hall's latest revival slogan: ''Jump Starting the Motor City.''

''Even some of the city's worst negatives are turning around; it is really a better picture than before,'' says Earl Ryan, director of the Citizens Research Council, a nonprofit research organization in Detroit.

Much of the renewal - measured in investment, employment, and property values - can be attributed to a recovery in the auto industry. If the revival is to continue, it must extend beyond the Big Three's balance sheets. Detroit must rekindle a sense of neighborliness and enterprise block by block, say economists and city officials.

''We need to focus on social as well as physical revitalization, on instilling a renewed sense of community,'' says Gloria Robinson, director of the city's Department of Planning and Development.

Even without a broad comeback in civic sentiment, Detroit has logged some significant financial achievements:

* It has attracted $2.2 billion in private investment during the past two years for 82 commercial and residential properties.

* The value of city housing has jumped an average of 25 percent since 1992.

* The unemployment rate dropped from 13.4 percent in January 1994 to 8.2 percent in October 1995.

* The state, the city, and a private investor hope to break ground soon for a $235 million, 42,000-seat baseball stadium just north of downtown.

* Detroit's bond rating last year was upgraded by Standard & Poor's from ''BBB negative'' to ''BBB stable.''

* Detroit income-tax revenues, one measure of economic vitality, should swell 10.6 percent this fiscal year, according to Mr. Ryan.

''The decades of decline are over; Detroit is on a new course of growth and opportunity,'' Mayor Dennis Archer said in his State of the City address Monday.

Detroit has held its ground in part because it could not slip much lower.

Rebuilding bridges to the suburbs

Before Mr. Archer took office in 1994, the city population had shrunk by half in 40 years to about 1 million. One in 3 residents lived in poverty, a rate that has begun to improve.

Detroit's travails have been blamed on either the flight of white-owned business and white residents to the suburbs, or on a politics of entitlement and racial antagonism pursued by former Mayor Coleman Young. Mr. Young, like Archer and 76 percent of the city's population, is black.

In contrast to his predecessor, Archer has reached out to the suburbs and tried to reconcile the various races and income classes in the metropolitan area. Although some tensions remain, Archer has elicited a steady stream of goodwill and investment toward the city.

''There is a new tone since the mayor came into office, an open dialogue between Detroit and the suburbs,'' Ryan says. ''The city now views itself not as an entity unto itself but as part of an interdependent region.''

Still, Archer must reverse some relentless trends. Detroit's population will decline 18.3 percent by 2020 to 839,400, according to the latest forecasts by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).

Detroit would fall out of the top 10 rank of US cities for the first time in a century, making it ineligible for some sizable federal aid programs offered only to cities with more than 1 million people.

Moreover, the number of households and jobs will slump 13.8 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively, according to SEMCOG.

Finding intervention that works

Over the past 30 years, the city has received millions of dollars of federal urban-renewal aid, most of which did not measurably contribute to long-term economic prosperity. Consequently, local executives, officials, and community groups have looked for neighborhood-based approaches for vivifying the city's most distressed areas.

The Block Club - a joint project of 35 corporate, government, and community organizations - is one such program. It has targeted for aid a six- to 10- block patch of southwest Detroit, which is included in an area designated for $100 million in federal Empowerment Zone money.

Certainly, the neighborhood seems to call out for aid. From a muddy lot rises the rubble of a razed home. A dog in a trash-strewn yard barks and lunges against a rusty chain-link fence. Boarded-up two-story homes, stripped of their red brick by scavengers, pose a backdrop in tarpaper black.

The club has secured pledges for donated furnaces and hot-water heaters, new windows and doors. It hopes eventually to gather donations in cash and kind of at least $750,000, says Janet Stecher, executive director of Think Twice Foundation Inc., an organizer of The Block Club.

To permanently revive the area, however, the club will need to overcome the skepticism of residents, many of whom suspect that politicians and executives will make small but highly publicized gestures of support and then quit the neighborhood.

Indeed, the program, with its locally grown roots, underscores the difficulties of introducing a top-down initiative, like the federal Empowerment Zone effort, into a neighborhood setting.

''When people see a furnace going into their homes, they will believe it will make a difference,'' Victoria Kovari, executive director of the Southwest Alliance for Neighborhoods, says of The Block Club's efforts. ''Until they see those kinds of results, I share their skepticism.''

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