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Published: Friday, 5/14/2004

Could Detroit suburb become the American dream?

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - For many who fought the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the dream was a nation of stable, middle-class, integrated neighborhoods, where Americans of all colors lived and played and went to school together.

And if that dream has any chance of coming true, Southfield is where it should be happening. Stretching for five miles north of Detroit, Southfield has a thriving business district and neighborhoods of well-maintained, largely ranch homes. The daytime population is close to 250,000. At night, a widely diverse 78,000 residents sleep here.

There is a Jewish community and a Chaldean one. There are longtime white residents, many African-Americans, some Asians, and even, Mayor Brenda Lawrence says, immigrants from Nigeria.

So is Southfield the American dream? Is it becoming the place where "little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and girls," as Martin Luther King imagined in his famous speech?

Ms. Lawrence hopes so. Now 49, she won a close race for mayor three years ago, beating a man who had been in office for 29 years. Keeping Southfield a thriving, diverse community is very important to her. "We want every group to realize the truth - that this is a wonderful place to live," she said early one morning before starting her day job as manager of training and development at Southfield's post office.

Ed Powers, executive director of Southfield's chamber of commerce, has nothing but praise for her style. "Don Fracassi did a lot for business in this city. But our new mayor came in with a very unique approach of reaching out to the metropolitan area while at the same time looking after Southfield."

Indeed, he says, despite the economic difficulties of recent years, there has been no weakening of the business community, Mr. Powers said.

"We have an occupancy rate of 80 to 86 percent, and that compares favorably to any place in the region," he added.

But the future of population diversity in Southfield, a city founded in the days of the first suburban exodus from downtown Detroit, seems far less certain. In 1970, the African-American population was less than 1 percent.

That crept up slowly. Throughout the 1990s, city officials maintained the black population had stabilized at around a third of the total. But the 2000 census showed Southfield was 54 percent African-American; 38 percent white.

Kurt Metzger, in charge of population and demographic studies at Wayne State University, predicts that by 2010, Southfield will be "70 to 75 percent African-American," nearly as black as Detroit.

"To some extent it depends on the Orthodox Jewish community," said Mr. Metzger, who was an analyst for the U.S. Census Bureau for years. If they stay it may be a little less; if they leave, it may be a little more."

The problem is that, as New York University political scientist Andrew Hacker puts it, "white residents will stay if black arrivals do not exceed 8 percent. Once the black population passes that point, whites began to leave the neighborhood and the area will be on the way to be becoming all black."

Southfield is different from older industrial cities in that there is no "ghetto," no slum area, just nice residential housing. But starting in the early 1980s it became a mecca for middle-class black families fleeing Detroit's problems - and especially, its dysfunctional schools.

More than one Detroit politician was caught lying about their residence to sneak their children into Southfield schools. Today, 89 percent of Southfield students are black and most of the rest multi-racial.

Yet there are a number of positives, Mr. Metzger notes. New houses are still being built, and the population is still increasing. "And while the new arrivals are African-American, they still seem to be solidly middle-class." But he worries that may change. Southfield schools are in trouble.

Thanks to the city's commercial base, they were once financially secure. But Proposal A changed all that in 1994. Now, Southfield homeowners pay virtually the highest school taxes in the state. In March, they decisively rejected a 20.6-mill request.

On June 14, the schools will try again. Even if that is approved, the schools will have to make $8 million in cuts. But if the millage fails, the result will be financial chaos, and a ruined school system. And then the middle-class of every color will leave. "Without good schools, the only people who move in are the newly wed and the almost dead," said Mr. Metzger.

Mayor Lawrence knows this. She and her husband moved to Southfield in 1986, and put their kids through the schools. That's why, after working both her jobs, she campaigns where and when she can for the millage.

"We're the center of it all," she tells voters, echoing the city slogan. What's yet to be determined is, as William Butler Yeats said, whether this particular center can hold. Whether it does may tell us as much about the future of democracy in America as it does about one particular suburb.



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