DETROIT - The Motor City did its gallant best to celebrate Detroit's 300th anniversary last week. There was a parade of tall ships, gala parties, city-sponsored family reunions, and, finally, a re-enactment of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac's famous 1701 canoe landing on Hart Plaza, not far from Cobo Hall.
There were, in fact, things to celebrate - for one thing, having survived three centuries, longer than the nation itself. And in the last few years, a flurry of construction has produced a downtown mini-renaissance, with a new football stadium rising next to the Tigers' gleaming new Comerica Park.
Three new casinos are pumping $80 million a year into city coffers, and thousands of new upscale housing units are under construction in some newly chic neighborhoods.
Yet there was a faint air of sadness behind the smiles, especially for those old enough to remember the 250th anniversary celebration in 1951, when the city was at its zenith. Detroit was the fifth largest city in the nation then, with nearly 2 million people, more than twice as many as now.
Then, this was the unchallenged automotive capital of the world, and the arsenal of democracy, churning out tanks and half-tracks for Korea, as it had for World War II.
Detroit was financially prosperous and politically powerful, and it seemed entirely natural that then-President Truman came from Washington to speak, in an era when presidents did not travel as frequently as today.
Nobody thought twice about foreign cars then, and nobody had any idea that the city might be on the brink of a steep decline. “Suburbs? You really couldn't live very far out in the suburbs then,” remembered Sonny Eliot, the city's best-known TV weatherman. “For one thing, there were really no good roads.”
Everything has changed almost beyond recognition - mainly, for the worse. Most of Detroit's neighborhoods are so blasted and the city is so littered with abandoned red-brick buildings that portions resemble a vast set for a World War movie.
That is even true along the city's main streets - Woodward, Grand River, and Gratiot. And too many of those still open house wig shops, storefront churches, pawn shops, and other signs of a city in decline.
Nearly all white people, whatever they say in public, blame the city's African-American majority for much of the city's squalor. Nearly all black people, whatever they say in public, put a lot of blame on the white financial powers, who took their money and their businesses and fled for the suburbs, once the expressways were in place.
“I knew damn well that if the city had been white and prosperous, it would have run me out of the race,” Coleman Young said when he became Detroit's first black mayor in 1974. “The white people were getting the hell out, more than happy to turn over their troubles to some black sucker like me.”
The real truth is something different. Detroit declined because good roads and low taxes and open land made fleeing to the suburbs the financially smart thing to do, starting about 1955. The local legend is that the whites left because of Coleman and the 1967 riot. In fact, 400,000 left in the 1950s - before race was even an issue. And Detroit was totally helpless to do almost anything about it.
Surrounded by incorporated areas and county boundaries, Detroit could not annex a single parcel of land. The city's tax base shrunk and the infrastructure wore out, and more people left, making things worse still.
Last week, there was lots of wishful thinking and predictions that the city would somehow come roaring back. But nobody was selling any road maps to Oz, and what we know about trends isn't all that encouraging. Despite a decade of boom, the number of census tracts dominated by the desperately poor increased in the 1990s. Middle-class blacks are moving in droves to suburban Southfield, in hope of decent schools.
Yet there is a solution: Some form of regional cooperation, mandated by the legislature, that would require the three great urban counties - Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb - to share resources for the good of everyone.
That's the thesis brilliantly expounded by David Rusk, the urbanologist and former mayor of Albuquerque, who in two excellent books, Cities without Suburbs and Inside Game/Outside Game, demonstrates convincingly that cities with “elastic boundaries” make it, and that walled-off ghettos have no chance.
Three hundred years after Cadillac paddled up the strait, nothing seems clearer than that everyone stands to lose from a central city in ruins and despair, and that there is more than enough money and talent to fix Detroit. All that's lacking is the will, and perhaps a little common sense. Which, come to think of it, is never all that common.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.
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