Detroit's gambit to lure people back downtown

Understanding how far this city has come - and how far it still has to go - is as easy as taking a 15-minute, 50-cent ride on the Detroit People Mover, the three-mile loop of rail that runs around the city's center.

A look up and down Woodward Avenue reveals the progress made in the past 10 years.

Out one window, a flurry of construction activity marks the home of a new corporate headquarters, while next door, renovations are turning an old office building into new loft apartments. Out the other side, giant concrete tigers stare down from atop the brick facade of Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers' new home, as diners across the street sit out on the terrace of the Hockeytown Cafe, a tribute to the city's favorite skating sons, the Red Wings.

But as the train circles around, a very different Detroit emerges, full of crumbling buildings, vacant storefronts, and empty streets.

As Detroit officially turns 300 years old this summer, it can point to significant progress, but the story remains unfinished. Luring business back downtown with tax cuts - and suburbanites with entertainment - was only the first step in a long process. Now comes the hard part: spreading change to the neighborhoods and improving schools to lure back families.

Big hurdles

In a sense, the story parallels those of other aging urban centers, like Baltimore or St. Louis. But for Detroit, the poster child for urban decay, the job is perhaps hardest of all. The 2000 census put the city's population at less than 1 million for the first time in 80 years. And Mayor Dennis Archer, a success by almost any account, is stepping down at the end of the year with no clear successor.

Dave Stronski, a bartender at Nemo's Bar and Grill, a city institution, thinks Mr. Archer has done a great job. "But that list of people I hear are running," he says. "Geez, I don't know."

There can be little question that Detroit has made very large strides since Archer's election in 1993. For decades, the city watched more than half its population flee to the suburbs while former Mayor Coleman Young fed into the ill feelings by criticizing those who had left. As crime skyrocketed downtown, Mr. Young came out against handgun control measures, claiming Detroit was "surrounded by hostile suburbs who have guns."

The problems were so bad that in the year before Archer became mayor, only one new home-building permit was issued, says Richard Blouse, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. Now hundreds of new residences are in development. "It's been a very slow process, but it's on the right track."

Since 1994, Detroit has seen $14 billion in business investment in new offices, factories, and facilities.

And slowly the antagonism between the suburbs and the city has melted away, Mr. Blouse says. "He has torn down the boundaries around the city and around the state." Even those who live in and around the city - and suffered through several false starts - feel this time that the "renaissance" the city has long sought is actually under way.

"There is a whole idea now that we are all in this together," says Robert, a retired auto worker who didn't want his last name used. "Everybody has a better outlook, even all the surrounding townships. The city has something to offer now. That's why people come to a city, to be near something," says the lifelong resident, who was lunching at the Renaissance Center, the building General Motors recently moved into.

The three casinos the state allowed into the city have met expectations as well, last year bringing in $743 million and netting the city $73 million in tax money. Sitting in the Greektown Casino, Jim Balough of Cleveland explains that he used to take his in-laws across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. But now they stay in Detroit. "Whenever we have an excuse to come here, they want to come," he says.

Families still holding back

But behind the victories lie some hard truths. Those moving back into Detroit, and other aging urban centers, tend to be a specific type of person - usually younger singles that come in search of a city-living aesthetic. Families, the stable building blocks of communities, are not flowing back downtown. The services and schools they desire are still in the suburbs.

"It's going to be awfully tough to get those people back. They got everything they need out there," says Mr. Stronski, the bartender, who has spent much of his life in the city. "We see the young people down here. They come here to eat and drink and are thrilled to move into the lofts. But hey, you have a major city, a major city, and there isn't even a place to buy pants downtown."

And beyond luring back retail, there is the much more complicated question of rebuilding and distributing city services to a smaller but more diffuse population, says Robin Boyle, a professor of Urban Planning at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit.

"It is very easy to say that Dennis Archer has ignored the neighborhoods, but they are a much harder nut to crack," Mr. Boyle says. "One of the real problems is simply the scale of this city. This is 134 square miles in which you must maintain the roads, pick up the garbage, transport the children to and from school."

Archer himself talks about the need for more federal money to help with those kinds of problems. "The nagging issue really is public education," he said at a recent Monitor policy breakfast. "It's not like we're begging for anything. We just want a chance."

But with Washington's budget-cutting mind-set, that money could be hard to come by. And then there are the larger issues lingering in the city. Parental involvement is key to turning any school system around, but one-third of Detroit's parents are illiterate or literacy challenged, Archer says. "We are asking teachers to be teachers and social workers and psychologists and food providers. Values have to be taught at home, not school."

Hopeful signs

For all the problems the city still faces, there is some good news in the latest round of bad news. Though the city's population is now officially less than 1 million, it appears the long exodus to the suburbs is just about over. The city lost 7.5 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000, the smallest drop since 1960.

And though Archer is leaving with much left to be done, that may not be all bad, says Paul Hillegonds, president of Detroit Renaissance, a nonprofit group focused on restoring the city. "Mayor Archer is still well-liked, but eight years in a city with as many problems as Detroit can burn a lot of political capital. It may take someone else to push the agenda forward now.

Detroit can't suddenly turn its back on the downtown business center right now, just as it seems to be reaching a critical point, Mr. Hillegonds says. The focus must still be building the kind of residences that attract young people and, he hopes, empty nesters. "You simply can't have retail downtown without people, more people," he says.

But when and how does the city start paying attention to the other neighborhoods that need help? That is the question many of the nation's newly "revitalized" cities face.

And as Detroit prepares for its 300th-anniversary celebration this summer, that is the question on the ballot as the city looks for its new mayor.

"This is a hard job, being mayor of a city like Detroit," Blouse says. "Every day you get to pick up the paper and read about what you're not doing."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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