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Published: Friday, 1/28/2005

Once mighty Motor City now a rusting ruin

DETROIT - The one thing on which virtually everyone in Michigan agrees is that the state's largest and most famous city is in an appalling mess.

But what they disagree violently on is who is to blame. They argue over who can fix it, how to fix it, or even whether the city can be saved at all.

For many, the state of Detroit was symbolized perfectly by what happened last weekend when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a very large, 34-year-old man with a large diamond in his left ear, appeared before the cameras to confirm what he had been denying for days. Yes, the luxury Lincoln Navigator the city had leased for $24,995 a year had been meant for his wife and children.

However, he claimed he decided it was too extravagant and had intended to send it back. He had never lied about it, he said, even though he had spent several days lying about it, as had other city officials. When one TV reporter followed the mayor to Washington to ask about it, a security guard acted like a thug and smashed his face into a wall, live on television.

Washington police then said they would no longer protect the mayor on his visits because of his incessant nonstop nightclub hopping into the wee hours, something the mayor denied, saying he never went "clubbing" at all.

All that would have been embarrassing had it happened to the mayor of Palm Beach during an economic boom. But Detroit is in dreadful shape, with unemployment rising past 14 percent and a budget deficit spiraling out of control. Earlier this month, the mayor had announced that nearly a thousand jobs were being eliminated, and the already inadequate bus service was being cut back.

Now, those who need to take a bus to get to work in the wee hours are out of luck. That's no minor inconvenience in the once-mighty Motor City, where, ironically, something like a third of the residents have no access to cars.

And that's just the tip of the rusting ruin.

Fifty years ago, Detroit was a bustling industrial metropolis with 2 million people. Now, it has barely 910,000, and is shrinking fast.

The public schools are in even more appalling shape - the mayor himself refuses to put his kids in them - and they are likely to get worse now that further reform efforts have been rejected by the voters.

Legally, the city has to balance its budget. But with this year's deficit running anywhere from $230 million to $380 million, even the draconian cuts he announced may not be enough. Legislators and others are beginning to whisper the dreaded word receivership. Some think the state could end up having to take over the city within the next few years, and send in a special master to run it. Highland Park, a desperately impoverished enclave surrounded by Detroit, lost control of its own affairs years ago.

Even more startling, many - perhaps millions - of Michiganders don't care. That includes many who live in Hillsdale or Traverse City, but also well-off suburbanites who live a short hop from the city's famous border, Eight Mile Road.

Many say the city brought its problems on itself (by which they usually mean, the blacks destroyed it after the whites moved out) and actually believe that what happens in Detroit is totally irrelevant to them and their lives.

For many, Detroit's problems are easy to ignore. Fewer people live in the city than at any time since World War I. Detroit is now home to only 9 percent of the state's population. Most of those who live there are black; most who don't are white. The state and the city exist in almost separate worlds.

But those who say the city doesn't matter, or who think they can get by ignoring it are dead wrong, said Freman Hendrix, who is attempting to unseat Mayor Kilpatrick in this fall's election.

"How can the rest of the state feel secure if their major city isn't functioning?" asked Mr. Hendrix, a financial expert and a former deputy mayor under the business-oriented Dennis Archer.

It is hard to see how anyone can think Michigan can continue to be economically competitive if its main city, its sports and entertainment capital, looks like something out of the Third World, with desperate poverty and services and gated communities only for the rich.

Sooner or later, Michigan - and Detroiters themselves - will have to face some tough decisions about what kind of state, city, and society they want to be. Urban experts like David Rusk think the solution for Detroit is obvious; some form of metropolitan government with the surrounding suburbs it gave birth to.

So far, neither the city nor the suburbs have been willing to consider that, preferring to bash each other instead. It would be nice if a statesman with a vision emerged sometime soon. There may not be that much time left.



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