Thursday, January 31, 2008


Well, let me devote a separate post to what I love about Detroit, because there is a lot -- from the jazz festivals, the riverfront, the ethnic cuisine, glorious old churches and classic art deco architecture. But here's to what I hate about Detroit, which is its abysmal dysfunction, symbolized by the recent circuitous non-apology by mayor Kwame Kilpatrick who was caught red-handed in a text-messaging scandal involving his perjury, misuse of his police force, misuse of public funds, a lawsuit over the unlawful firing of police officers in which the city was sued millions of dollars -- all to cover up an affair in which the mayor was involved. In his public 'apology', self-servingly staged in a church for effect, the mayor mentioned none of these things directly, but turned the thing around, rejecting rumors that he might resign with the words: "I would never quit on you . . . Ever." Oh, please, Mr. Mayor: QUIT ON US, WOULD YOU PLEASE!

Every day I drive to work five miles up and down the Lodge freeway and see cars driving bumper-to-bumper at 80mph in a 55 zone, more than a few of them with smashed up front ends, cracked windshields, and plastic taped over windows. During my six months here so far I may have seen four police cars on my route. I have been in one auto collision in which my car was totalled and the other driver had no license, and no police officer was available to file a report. Is it any wonder that auto insurance rates for full comprehensive and collision are around $3000/year per vehicle within the 48226 zip code area?

Near the seminary where I teach is the Boston-Edison District, with several avenues of large, beautiful colonial homes, surrounded by what is largely called the 'hood'. Let me be clear by noting that the Detroit riots of July 1967 started at the intersection of 12 Street and Clairmount, just blocks from this area, resulting in 43 dead, 467 injured, 7,200+ arrests, and 2,000+ buildings burned down. Some of our friends have bought homes in this area, which they have endeavored to restore; and for the privilege of living in this area with potholes and broken water manes that never seem to get fixed, the mayor asks them to pay property taxes to the tune of 4K/year on top of their vehicle taxes of 3K/vehicle.

Detroit fills with suburbanite commuters who come in to work or play at her theaters, casinos, or attend a ball game each day and then drive home every night. At night, it's almost dead, except for the casinos and other night spots. My wife says that one could almost run buff naked down the middle of Woodward and not even be noticed. Half the buildings are uninhabited, empty, unused -- like the pyramids, relics of a past civilization. In warmer weather, the bums and panhandlers come out mostly when the suburban crowds appear for a ball game or convention. They can be annoying, especially the ones who have it down to an art form. You want to interrupt them and say, "Remember me? I live here. You're standing in my backyard, buddy. No, I don't have any more dollar bills for you." On the other hand, when ball games are over and the suburbanites come pouring out of stadiums in the evenings, I hate to hear drunks occasionally yell at the black panhandling bums "Get a job, nigger!" Still, I have seen many generous individuals repeatedly stopping to offer charity as well.

Blacks in Detroit communities had the highest per capita ownership of homes in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s. Yet tight-knit African-American enclaves like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were bulldozed to make room for the Chrystler Freeway (I-75) and Lafayette Park and Stalinist-style high rise projects were thrown up to replace their homes. Detroit consists of three concentric rings: (1) the center, which is a small, relatively safe business district consisting of the downtown sky-scrapers across the Detroit River from Canada, circumscribed by the People-Mover, an elevated two-car train, which one can ride for 50 cents fare; (2) a middle ring consisting of a wasteland of old dilapidated large brick homes and buildings, many of them boarded up or caving in on themselves, the intact homes of which are inhabited predominantly by African-Americans, most of them in areas where the most frequent businesses seem to be liquor stores and many, sadly, on streets bearing frequent advertisements for drug re-hab programs; (3) an outer ring consisting of suburbs which are whiter, the farther one travels out. The inner circle contains many unspoiled but empty, or partially empty, magnificent buildings -- abandoned in the white flight of the 1960s, when the interstate system made commuting from the suburbs a possibility. I suppose there is enough blame to go all around for this horrid state of affairs. The ferile drug addicts who roam about, animal-like, with utterly unpredictable behavior. Those who fled, abandoning the inner city buildings and churches and communities, too, in some measure. The whole picture is simply sad. One would like to see this city, once called the "Paris of the midwest" for it's beautiful tree-lined boulivards and avenues and magnificent riverfront, rebuilt once again. One wonders, however, how this could ever happen under the governance of mayors such as Detroit now has.

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