Detroit haunted by poverty, scandal

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DETROIT | When Charley Ballard tells the story of Detroit’s myriad woes, he starts with 8 Mile Road.

The street, located eight miles from the city center, came to worldwide fame through a namesake feature film starring rapper Eminem, a local artist whose music offered biting social commentary about his life navigating between Detroit’s white and black cultures.

Mr. Ballard, a Michigan State University economist, sees the thoroughfare as a clear racial dividing line of the city’s population — and as an asphalt prologue to the long and twisted tale of how once-proud Motown became a mess of a town over the past few decades.

“You can’t talk about Detroit without talking about race,” Mr. Ballard says.

Mr. Ballard is a numbers guy who researches tax structures, but he says the figures that chart the fiscal downturn of the city don’t tell the full story. It is, he says, the very human elements of the city that have dragged Detroit deeper into despair.

Immediately south of 8 Mile, Mr. Ballard says, the population is 80 percent nonwhite; north of the line, it’s about 20 percent nonwhite.

In the 1970s, when Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor, took office in the wake of civil rights strife, many whites fled to the suburbs, polarizing the area and seeding bitterness that remains palpable to this day.

Now, says Mr. Ballard, “one of the unfortunate outgrowths of decades of racial tension is the tendency of parts of the African-American community to circle the wagons.”

As many longtime Detroiters fled the crime and grit for an easier and cheaper life away from downtown, the city slowly became a fortress of malfeasance and poverty.

Now Detroit sits on the verge of bankruptcy, beset by political scandal, a declining population, troubled industry, high crime and unemployment rates and one of the worst school systems in the country.

Forbes magazine recently ranked Detroit No. 2 on its list of America’s emptiest cities, behind only Las Vegas. The city, according to some estimates, has 60,000 to 80,000 abandoned homes and businesses.

The median price for homes sold in December 2008 fell to $75,000.The median household income dropped 24 percent over the last eight years to about $35,000, well below the $54,200 figure statewide.

The shining silver high-rise headquarters of General Motors Corp. looms over downtown, a symbol of the city’s storied automotive history. Yet, locals in the inner city have no major grocery store in which to shop.

A deal to expand the massive Cobo Hall Convention Center, which houses the city’s annual North American International Auto Show, now may be lost. Once the largest convention complex in the world, Cobo now has plenty of competition. German automakers threatened to pull out this year and showcase their wares at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a venue more befitting their stature.

A failure of the Cobo expansion plan, which sparked political and business infighting, would stymie hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue brought from show-goers and exhibitors as well as cause the loss of convention events because the current space is too small by today’s standards.

Casinos came to Detroit in 1999 — a new MGM Grand opened last year — and they have helped drive visitors to downtown. The Detroit Tigers lure big crowds to their sparkling baseball complex, and the Detroit Lions draw fans to the indoor facilities at Ford Field. But a host of empty storefronts nearby offer a visage of blight from block to block.

The city also is suffering a political crisis, abetted by a city hall drama that drew national attention over the last year.

The latest of the tawdry scandals involved the city’s youthful and charismatic former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who approved a multimillion-dollar settlement with police officers who claimed they were fired because of an internal probe into the mayor’s personal actions.

Mr. Kilpatrick ended up in jail for lying about his role in the matter and about an affair he had with his chief of staff — the details of which were laid bare in a series of explicit and embarrassing text messages published by local newspapers that had mined public records and exposed the couple’s dishonesty.

Mr. Kilpatrick was released from jail last week after serving nearly four months for perjury. His lover, Christine Beatty, remains behind bars.

The protracted and defiant downfall of Mr. Kilpatrick, the son of Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, put the city on even shakier political ground and divided some of its key political players.

Change came to America in the form of a popular and black president, Barack Obama, but in Detroit, a city in which more than 80 percent of the residents are black, voter apathy still reigned. Only 55 percent of Detroiters turned out for the historic presidential election.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican who grew up in Detroit, says he’s loath to tell the city how to reform, but he acknowledges that his hometown needs a major lifeline.

Mr. Patterson’s father worked for Chrysler for 43 years, and he stills drives one of their cars as a nod to his legacy. It’s tough, he allows, to watch Detroit decay.

“Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning would say: ‘Let me count the ways,’” he says of the city’s problems. “Most of what is broken, you could throw a dart at the city’s organizational chart and start there.”

Detroit’s public schools are particularly troubled.

“The city’s school system is in free fall, and it cannot seem to get its act together,” Mr. Patterson says. “They have had three superintendents over the last five years. It’s chaotic, and we are losing a generation of kids.”

The literacy rate for adults in the city is less than 50 percent, and high school dropout rates are among the nation’s highest.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week singled out Detroit as the urban area about which he is most concerned.

“Without getting into too many details, I am extraordinarily concerned about the poor quality of education, quite frankly, the children of Detroit are receiving,” Mr. Duncan said. “I lose sleep over that one. And I think the dropout rate there is devastating.”

Detroit must improve the education system, and, he said, the federal government is watching the system closely.

“There have been lots of adult issues and politics that I think have really done our children of Detroit a great disservice,” Mr. Duncan said.

Detroit Public Schools officials declined to comment.

Crime also remains a major problem, even though the murder rate dropped 14 percent last year.

“You have a significant level of crime in the community, which keeps a lot of people out of the city,” Mr. Patterson says. “Tourists, suburban dwellers tend to avoid it and just go down to sporting events and the casinos.”

With a special primary election for mayor looming on Tuesday, Detroit is abuzz with political activity, despite its troubles. But the high interest in the next mayor also has baffled outside political minds.

“When you’ve got bad schools, high crime, a high level of taxes and worst of all, you’ve got a 15-16 percent unemployment rate, people are living in an expensive city and living under the veil of criminal behavior running rampant … the next mayor has his hands full,” says Mr. Patterson, a political dynamo who is considering a run for governor in 2010.

Mr. Kilpatrick, the one-time hip-hop mayor, liked to live large. He left his jail cell last week with a phalanx of bodyguards from the Nation of Islam and flew far away from Detroit via private jet for a job interview and, perhaps, a new life in Southlake, Texas, where his wife and children now reside.

Even as he left office in shame, a stunning 15 candidates emerged to run for Mr. Kilpatrick’s job.

Given the condition of the city and the number of difficult problems that beset it, why would so many want the job?

Mr. Patterson has his theories. He notes that the front-runners in the race seem to have the city’s interest at heart, but others — well, perhaps the perks of the job as utilized in the past could be the draw.

“Kwame Kilpatrick traveled with a dozen bodyguards in chauffeur-driven cars and lived in the massive Manoogian mansion,” Mr. Patterson says of the mayor, who rolled more like rap star Diddy than a city leader facing a $300 million deficit.

Among the candidates are Warren Evans, the well-liked former Wayne County sheriff who argues that crime must be a city priority; the Rev. Nicholas Hood III, a Yale-educated pastor with a family history in Detroit; Coleman Young, the 26-year-old son of the former mayor who is a state legislator; former Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix, an education administrator; and current mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., a former journalist and city council president who took over in November under provisions in the city charter after Mr. Kilpatrick was forced out.

Mr. Cockrel, a self-described “geek,” has been a solid and welcome change after the flashy and unstable Kilpatrick years. Yet, some watching his dress rehearsal as interim leader over the past few months wonder if he has the much-needed charisma and vision to lead the city out of its dire situation.

A poll conducted by Denno Noor Polling in January placed businessman Dave Bing and Mr. Cockrel in a statistical tie as front-runners in the special election, earning 28 percent and 22 percent, in a survey of 300 likely voters. Mr. Hendrix came in third with 13 percent.

Mr. Hendrix, who worked as chief government relations officer at Eastern Michigan University before taking leave to campaign, has been endorsed by a contingent of more than 30 religious leaders in the city as well as by former mayor and state Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer.

The Detroit News last week, however, endorsed Mr. Bing, a Washington, D.C., native who starred with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons in the 1960s and 1970s and later was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Bing, 65, now is a successful entrepreneur in the automotive industry who is lauded for his business sense and outsider profile.

The paper said Mr. Bing “is a man of unflinching character and an untarnished reputation. He brings no political baggage to the job, owes no favors and is ideally positioned to purge the pay-for-play culture from City Hall. His political independence would allow him to unite the city’s political factions. His maturity and calm, confident demeanor would be a refreshing change from the flamboyant and corrupt Kilpatrick years. He promises to put in place a much-needed ethical framework for government operations.”

If the endorsement wasn’t enough to convince voters Mr. Bing is not out for just the financial gains of the job, he made a stunning vow during the campaign. He said if elected he would take the $176,176 mayoral salary and use it for additional police officers.

The city’s other major newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, has yet to endorse, but it has dubbed Mr. Bing, Mr. Hendrix and Mr. Evans as top-line candidates in the crowded field.

The troubled school system will require the new mayor’s immediate attention. Facing a district in crisis, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in January appointed an emergency financial manager to oversee the schools for the next year.

Robert Bobb, a former city administrator and deputy mayor in Washington, D.C., who also served as the District’s homeland security adviser, was tapped by the governor to help balance the district’s budget and bring financial and academic authority back to the city’s failing schools.

Fixing Detroit’s schools will be an enormous challenge, says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.

The district faces a $140 million budget deficit from 2008, along with crumbling facilities and an embarrassing lack of academic progress. One school last fall sent students home with notes to parents requesting such basic supplies as toilet paper. Fifty percent of the city’s children live in poverty. The system received a D+ from the National Council on Teacher Quality in the group’s 2008 annual report.

“Detroit is possibly the worst school system in the country right now,” says Mr. Petrilli, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration. “Unlike other school systems that have some reason for hope, you just don’t see that in Detroit. You look at Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia and New Orleans — you’ve had leaders there with clear plans and clear political backing. In Detroit, it’s chaos and a food fight between various political factions.

“No education leader is going to be successful in that environment, regardless of the reforms they put in place. What the city of Detroit needs is some stable political leadership.”

About the Author
Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups is a Midwest-based national correspondent for The Washington Times. She is a native of West Virginia and received her undergraduate degree from Marshall University and her master’s degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her news career spans more than 20 years. She has reported for several newspapers, has edited two magazines and before joining the Times, ...

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