Motor City Blues

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I
was born in Detroit in 1954. It was the year Detroit’s population
peaked at just under 2 million and made Detroit the nation’s 4th
largest city. Most Detroiters were white, gainfully employed and
educated. The automobile industry was experiencing full employment
and wages and benefits were among the best in the nation. Automotive
success supported a myriad of other businesses from construction
to retail to recreation. There was comparatively little crime. My
father who survived 30 missions as a navigator on a B-24 bomber
was free of Korean military service, and was busy building his practice
as a certified public accountant. We had clean clothes and my mother
put three square meals on the table daily. We ate real butter, whole
milk, fatty beef and lots of sugar. We played in the streets all
day, ventured miles from our home without a cell phone or parental
oversight, and rode bikes without helmets. The Twin Pines truck
would arrive in our driveway and place a delivery of cold glass
milk bottles with cardboard caps into our milk chute. I laughed
at Soupy
Sales
, Milky The Clown and the Three Stooges on one of the four
channels our TV featured. Changing it required getting off the couch
and turning a knob. On occasion you had to turn the rabbit ears
to eliminate "snow." We never had our Halloween candy
x-rayed. My parents drove exquisitely large chariots of two-toned
steel with huge tail fins and no seatbelts. Life was good in my
Detroit.

Black
Detroiters — then referred to as Negroes, coloreds or worse — no
doubt have less idyllic memories of those days in Detroit. Detroit
in the 50′s was a firmly segregated city. Like the TV’s of the time
Detroit was black and white. We rarely saw "negroes," except for
those who took the bus to come clean neighborhood homes or work
in car washes. My only direct contact was with our handyman, Jimmy
Wilson. As a young boy I had no idea how or where Jimmy lived. I
only knew him as a soft-spoken older guy who did great work, told
great stories over a cool drink with us and always had a smile.
If there was trouble brewing between the races I never knew it from
Jimmy.

In
the 60′s Detroit felt the same wave of change that was sweeping
the nation. Still, life in my Detroit was everything a young boy
could ask for even while sharing a bedroom with my two brothers.
One day, I met two boys about my age while out riding bikes with
my friend. They were not from my neighborhood. I knew because they
were not my color. They asked if they could use our bikes to race
each other. They took off swiftly and were never seen again — neither
were our bikes. My father was furious with me for trusting two colored
boys with my new bike. A white police officer who came to our home
to take a stolen property report warned my parents, "They’ll
take anything that isn’t nailed down." It was my first lesson
about the Detroit I did not live in and the end of my Leave-It-To-Beaver
world.

We
always went into downtown Detroit for special occasions like birthday
dinners, premier movies, and the Detroit Tigers or Lions games at
Tiger Stadium. There were local traditions like the Thanksgiving
Day parade and breakfast with Santa at J.L. Hudson’s department
store. On trips downtown we would encounter "coloreds" working as
vendors at the ballgames, elevator operators at JL Hudsons or cleaning
up tables at the best restaurants. I never thought twice about the
order of things. Downtown was where everyone went if they were lucky.
It was where things were happening and where the streets were full
of people busy enjoying city life. City busses travelled electrically,
with huge antennae that were connected to a system of overhead wires.
The Ambassador Bridge and the Windsor tunnel connected Detroit to
Canada just across the Detroit River. In 1962, my father took us
to the foot of the river to join the crowds gawking at the site
of the British freighter Montrose which had sunk just beneath
the bridge. Good or bad, it seemed that everything worth seeing
happened downtown.

The
nuns and teachers at my Catholic grade school were in tears and
we were all sent home from school early. It was November 22, 1963.
Three days later I returned from church to see a replay of Jack
Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on TV. Life was about to change.

In
1965 my father convinced my mother to consider a larger home in
a suburb of Detroit. My father had the house built in 1965 and we
moved in on my birthday in 1966. I had my own room, but it felt
strange to me. The homes were spread out and everything seemed so
far away. We had no milk chute. What was this? I always wanted to
return to the city to see old friends and visit familiar environs,
but I was consigned to suburban life. My parents wanted to settle
into their new neighborhood and I was not old enough to drive.

One
year later while we were enjoying a vacation on Mackinac Island
between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan we awoke to news
that a riot had broken out in Detroit. On our ride home we passed
convoys of military vehicles headed into the city. From the safety
of our new suburban home we watched coverage of the riot on TV.
Color had come to TV and to Detroit. 43 people died, almost 1,200
were injured and 7,000 were arrested. Property damage, fires and
looting were widespread. Tanks
and soldiers
patrolled the streets with orders to shoot to kill.
City busses were converted into makeshift jails. What happened to
the city I grew up in so happily? People were stunned, like victims
of a natural disaster who had no idea it was coming. Many would
say that Detroiters should have seen the handwriting on the wall.
In 1943 another race riot took 34 lives in just 36 hours and saw
1,800 arrested. Could the riot be considered the cause of Detroit’s
problems or was it simply the ultimate manifestation of them? Regardless
of one’s answer the riot of ’67 would transform Detroit forever.

In
1968, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series with black players
and white players working together. The entire city celebrated openly
and for a moment forgot the horror that it had experienced a year
and a half before, but only for a moment.

White
flight, as it was called, continued unabated. Nobody had forgotten
the riot of 1967. Block busting was a real estate practice in which
Realtors would convince a white homeowner to sell their home to
a black family in an otherwise all white neighborhood. When other
whites learned that a colored family was moving into their neighborhood
they began selling their own homes in panic and at reduced prices.
"Coloreds" became Afro-Americans and "black power" became a slogan
hopeful to some and feared by others. Downtown had become a ghost
town after dark. Store fronts were covered with heavy steel grates
and padlocked. You could fire cannons up Woodward Avenue at night
and never hit anyone.

The
70′s saw Detroit’s population continue to drop. In addition, those
left in the city were less skilled, less educated and less affluent.
Those who could leave were leaving taking capital, investments and
opportunities with them. Gasoline was 19 cents per gallon and cars
were thirstier than ever. The suburbs continued to grow with malls
popping up like vegetable gardens. Detroit’s police chief was a
white man with a brush cut named John Nichols. Chief Nichols implemented
a unit called STRESS, an acronym for stop-robberies-enjoy-safe-streets.
African-Americans saw Nichols as the embodiment of racism and STRESS
as more of a description of what his police department was causing
them. Nationally, this was the era of the so-called black-sploitation
films in which white police officers gunned down angry African-American
males in city streets. In a case of life imitating art, Detroit
police officers engaged in one of the largest manhunts in city history
in 1973 following a string of killings of white Detroit police officers
by African-American men.

It
was also the era of the muscle car. Perhaps more than anything else,
the muscle car came to symbolize 70′s Detroit. In a city which was
divided racially and struggling economically the muscle car gave
the appearance of power in stark contrast to the condition of the
city which was churning them out. Yet, the hangover of the 1967
riot lingered and the city seemed mired in a malaise with no real
direction forward.

In
1973 Detroit elected it first black mayor. Coleman A. Young was
the pride of African-American Detroiters and the scorn of whites
living just outside of the city who still considered Detroit part
of their birthright. Young defeated Chief Nichols in a clear choice
of white establishment versus African American political assertiveness.
Brash and outspoken, Young never missed an opportunity to lock horns
with white establishment figures. He had a penchant for blaming
whites for every problem which had befallen Detroit. It may have
been ego or idol worship, but the Detroit Zoo — actually located
in suburban Royal Oak — the Detroit City County Building and a city
airport would all be renamed after Coleman A. Young. Many blame
Young’s twenty year legacy as Mayor of Detroit for the further polarization
between black and white Detroiters and the steady decline of the
city itself.

After
years away from the city, I spent 1973 to 1980 attending college
and law school in Detroit. It was my first prolonged exposure to
the city in ten years. The University of Detroit Law School has
occupied its position on Jefferson Avenue just across from the Detroit
riverfront since 1927. I was in the city on a daily basis and spent
my leisure time enjoying the restaurants and night life the city
had to offer. As young students we were eager to see Detroit in
the most positive of lights, but the sad condition of the city was
always evident. We were too busy studying for exams and partying
to realize that one day some of us would become major contributors
to the city’s future. I took a job clerking for a downtown law firm.
My situation was typical of many white Detroiters. I studied in
the city, I worked in the city and I partied in the city, but I
lived outside of the city. It was not just whites who were abandoning
the city. Throughout the 80′s, successful black Detroiters also
joined the caravan north away from the city limits. The city’s tax
base continued to decline and crime was on the rise.

One
could blame those who abandoned the city or one could support their
decision. The fact was that faced with the Herculean task of turning
the city around or pulling up stakes and moving into communities
which were safer, more modern and with greater amenities, most people
followed the latter course. Detroit has suburbs which will stand
with any community in the country for quality of life. Yet, those
who left Detroit were always uneasy about leaving their city behind.

In
the 80′s an odd cultism sprang up. Desperate to have their city
number one in something, Detroiters took pride in its bad-ass reputation.
T-shirts touted, I Survived a Weekend in Detroit. and I’m
So Bad I Vacation in Detroit. The 80′s championship Piston teams
were nicknamed the Bad Boys and had an emblem consisting of skull
and crossbones. The 1984 movie Beverly
Hills Cop
contrasted a violent and seedy Detroit with the
wealthy and idyllic Beverly Hills, California. The 1987 film RoboCop
featured a futuristic Detroit reduced to a virtual wasteland ruled
by criminal gangs. Detroit reigned as Murder Capital USA, throughout
the 80′s, holding the dubious title more than once.

In 1987 Detroit
dedicated a sculpture to native son and heavyweight champion, Joe
Louis. It sits in a plaza across from the Detroit City County Building
on the riverfront. The bronze sculpture is a fist on the end of
a severed arm. For whites the sculpture typified everything they
despised about Mayor Young, even though Young did not design the
sculpture. The fist was seen as a tasteless embodiment of the black
power symbol and a disgrace to Joe Louis. To other Detroiters —
black and white — it was just plain ugly. The City also debuted
the unimaginatively named People Mover in 1987. The elevated public
transit train was over budget, covers a small 2.9-mile loop through
the central business district and operates at a loss; 85% of the
operating cost is subsidized from the shrinking Detroit city budget.

Throughout
the decades I have watched the parade of Detroit institutions leaving
the city. The Bob-Lo Boat, Vernor’s Ginger Ale, the Stroh Brewery,
Awrey Bakery, Sanders Candy, The London Chop House, Lelli’s, Chrysler
Corporation, the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons just to name
a few.

When
I was a boy growing up on Detroit’s northwest side, Devil’s Night
meant soaping windows, egging houses and ringing doorbells. In the
modern era Devil’s Night in Detroit has become known nationally
for its orgy of arson fires, 840 of them on Devil’s Night 1984.
The annual total has since been cut substantially. In 1996, 33,615
city residents answered Mayor Dennis Archer’s call
for citizen volunteers
to help patrol neighborhoods on Devil’s
Night. Arsons were reduced to a still staggering 142, virtually
the lowest they have ever been before or since. In the early 90′s
while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, I was speaking with a corny
lounge singer in an eclectic LA club known as The Dresden. He learned
that I was on vacation and asked where I was from. When I told him
Detroit, he responded: "Detroit? That town is closed!"
It was funny at the time, but not too far from the truth.

One
day while driving into the city I decided to drive by my childhood
home. The neighborhood had declined, but my old house was holding
its own and even had new landscaping. I decided I would ring the
bell and introduce myself. The front door had security bars and
for a moment I thought that I may have made the largest error in
judgment of my life. A man resembling Joe Frazier answered the door,
a large dog at his side. I explained that I grew up in the house,
was driving by and was curious about the house. After putting his
dog away the man returned. "Come on in," he invited, and
I did. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, then retired to the
kitchen and had a long visit over a cool drink. Mike was curious
about the history of the home after learning that my father had
the home built in 1947. It all seemed very familiar, although the
milk chute of my youth had been welded shut in another sign of the
times. We talked about life in the city. Mike let me know I was
welcome back anytime.

Several
attempts have been made in the last two decades to revive downtown
Detroit. It began with the 12 million dollar restoration of the
Fox Theatre in 1988, an architectural wonder dating back to 1928.
A member of my law school class was in charge of that project. Ten
years later a Detroit landmark, the 28 story JL
Hudson Department Store
, which had been closed since 1983, was
demolished in a controlled explosion to make way for the new Campus
Martius
development. There was the opening of Comerica
Park
for the Detroit Tigers in 2000 and Ford
Field
as the new home of the Detroit Lions who moved back into
Detroit in 2002.

I
had lunch with a good friend from law school the week before opening
day at Comerica Park. She had been in charge of the development
and expressed concern about how it would be received by Detroiters.
I advised her not to worry since there was nothing she could do
about it now and pointed out that while sentimentalists would cling
for some time to the nostalgic allure of Tiger Stadium new generations
would grow up in Detroit with Comerica as their ballpark. Both Ford
Field and Comerica are beautiful facilities, but they are both privately
owned operations which were subsidized with taxpayer dollars. This
was objectionable to many state residents who may never even set
foot inside of these facilities and who felt that if the owners
were truly committed to the projects they should have completed
them without any tax concessions. In the last few years Detroit
has hosted the SuperBowl, NCAA Final Four and the MLB All Star Game.

Casinos were
approved for Detroit in 1996. While producing tax revenue for an
irresponsible government in Lansing, they have not been the boon
to downtown businesses that was predicted. Casinos are not in the
business of giving away money. Moreover, Casinos make food, drink
and entertainment affordable precisely to keep customers from patronizing
the very businesses casinos were supposed to benefit. In 2007 MGM
Grand opened its permanent casino and hotel location in Detroit
at a cost of 800 million dollars. MGM boasts some of the finest
restaurants, entertainment, accommodations, spas and shops in the
city. MGM did not make this investment to boost its competition.

Also in 2007
the Detroit Riverfront
Conservancy
opened the first of several phases of a planned
waterfront revival. The project has met with strong positive reviews.
Another member of my law school class serves as the President and
Chief Executive Officer of this project. She admonished me over
breakfast recently for not having been to the River Walk and insisted
upon taking me on a personal tour. We had a wide-ranging discussion
about the state of the city and its future. She implored me to be
an ambassador for the city. Neither of us knew thirty years ago
that we would be having these discussions.

In
the same year that River Walk and MGM Grand opened, I attended the
funeral of a friend’s son. My friend lives in the suburbs. Her son
was kidnapped, robbed and then executed in one of the hundreds of
abandoned homes in Detroit. Jason was white and his assailants were
black. Jason was just one of hundreds — mostly black — murdered
in the city last year. Also last year another friend of mine was
returning from a casino to his car which was parked on a downtown
street. Once inside the car he found himself facing a young
man who pointed his gun into my friend’s face and demanded that
he turn over his car. Unfortunately for this young man, my friend
was proficient with a handgun and licensed to carry one. As he opened
the door to exit his car my friend shot and killed the criminal.
The criminal’s three friends were also armed, but took flight at
the sight and sound of the shooting. They were captured by police
who came running in response to the sound of gunfire. Oh yes, the
incident took place directly across the street from Detroit Police
Headquarters in broad daylight. My friend was not charged with a
crime. In this case my friend was white and lived in the suburbs
and the dead man was black and a resident of Detroit.

That is the
other side of the Detroit story. Despite high-profile development
within the central business district much of Detroit continues to
resemble a third-world country. The absence of law and order — real
or perceived
— continues to plague the city and keeps many away
from living, working or playing in Detroit. Some argue that crime
is down in all categories in the last eight years, but that ignores
the commensurate drop in population. While the actual number of
crimes may have fallen, crime
rates
have actually risen.

City
schools are a disaster
both fiscally and in their educational
mission
. Detroit high schools have the lowest graduation rate
in the nation. Young couples who choose to move into new city housing
and work downtown ultimately leave when their children become of
school age. The city has dozens of school
buildings sitting empty and abandoned
, but the city school board
refuses to consider leasing them to parties interested in opening
them as charter schools.

The most severe aspect of city decay is the state of its residential
neighborhoods. Home to more than 1,800,000 people in 1954, Detroit’s
population has dwindled to less than 900,000 in 2008. An obvious
impact of this population drop is that the housing inventory designed
for a population of almost 2 million cannot be occupied or maintained
by a population which is 53% smaller. The result has been vast tracts
of abandoned and rotting housing which have become havens for drug
dealers, rapists, murderers and rodents, the targets of thieves
and arsonists and a drain on the city tax rolls. The city earns
no tax revenue on them and has to use city funds to have them demolished.
Worse yet, because those who had the means to leave have left, those
who have remained in the city suffer with living in the
most impoverished major city in the nation
. It is not only homes
which sit empty and rotting in the city. Abandoned schools, businesses
and industrial sites also blight the landscape. A 1989 study by
the Detroit Free Press reported more than 15,000 empty buildings
in the city.
There are so many vacant lots — an estimated 40,000 — and so
few residents to occupy them that plans have been discussed to condense
the remaining populace into a contiguous area and clear the abandoned
sections. There have even been proposals to convert the empty areas
to urban
farming
. Those who remain in Detroit are like survivors adrift
in a leaky lifeboat hoping to be rescued. The issue of race has
been eclipsed by the economic plight to which they have been consigned
in common.

The
old adage says that "you get the government you deserve,"
but nobody deserves the rabble that passes as Detroit City government
these days. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been the subject of a string
of scandals and felony charges. It all began with a party held at
the taxpayer’s expense in the mayor’s Manoogian Mansion. Reports
of drug use and exotic dancers led to an investigation by the Detroit
Police Department. The mayor denied that the party ever took place,
while the chief of a neighboring police department said he was invited
to the party. A dancer who is believed to have performed at the
party was mysteriously gunned down in her car before she could testify.
When the investigation began closing in on the role of the mayor’s
executive protection unit — inexplicably the largest and most expensive
of any major city in the nation — in covering up a possible
extra-marital affair between Kilpatrick and his Chief of Staff,
Christine Beatty, Assistant Chief Gary Brown was suddenly demoted
and Officer Harold Nelthrope was deliberately exposed as the informant
against the executive protection officers. A subsequent lawsuit
by Brown and Nelthrope resulted in a 6 million dollar jury verdict
against Kilpatrick and the city. After interest and attorney fees
the city ultimately paid out 8.4 million dollars. During the trial
Kilpatrick and Beatty denied under oath having had a romantic relationship.
A subpoena produced records of their cellular telephone text messages
which documented a long and heated relationship. Kilpatrick and
Beatty are now facing felony charges, including perjury. While out
on bond Kilpatrick physically assaulted two Wayne County Sheriff’s
Deputies assigned to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office when they
attempted to serve a subpoena at the home of the mayor’s relative.
The mayor was charged with additional felonies arising out that
incident, which, if sustained would also violate the conditions
of his bond in the perjury case. Apparently, violating bond does
not disturb this mayor. Despite bond conditions which restricted
his travel, the mayor precipitously departed to Canada in violation
of his bond and then lied about and concealed the trip. This is
just the mayor. City council members are under federal investigation
for accepting bribes to favor a trash-hauling vendor for a city
contract. The Detroit Police Department remains under the terms
of a consent decree with the Department of Justice as the result
of a 2003 federal
lawsuit
against the city and its police department for corruption.
The consent decree gives the DOJ effective trusteeship over the
Detroit Police Department’s operations. City services such as street
lighting, rubbish removal and emergency services are brutally inefficient.
Investigative journalists for local television news regularly feature
drinking, theft and other abuses by city employees on the job.

Every
city needs a viable central business district. However, no number
of new entertainment venues will bring Detroit back unless and until
basic changes are made to improve education, reduce crime, restore
city services and establish political accountability. Some residents
criticize the central business district’s revival as being the equivalent
of putting a new Easter bonnet on a homeless woman. The required
changes will not take place without the commitment of those who
left Detroit to live in model communities just outside of the city.

Those
of us who left the city are like residents forced to flee their
home in a fire. After getting clear of the threat, they turn to
watch with angst the slow destruction of their treasured home and
hope against hope that it can be saved and rebuilt. Those who fled
will not re-enter or start the rebuilding process until the fire
is completely out even if they were responsible for causing the
fire in the first place.

Ironically,
if there is a metaphor for the city it may lie in its struggling
football team. Although the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings have all
captured titles and given Detroiters reason to cheer in recent years
it is the Detroit Lions who arouse the strongest passions in Detroiters
of all races and economic classes. A listen to Monday morning sports
talk radio reveals there is no color barrier when it comes to the
Lions. Blacks and whites, suburbanites and city residents are equally
passionate about their football team. Detroiters curse the team
and its management for their perennial failures and chronic mediocrity,
but refuse the obvious urge to abandon their struggling Detroit
Lions. Ford Field — where a single ticket can cost several hundred
dollars — is packed every Sunday regardless of how many games the
team has lost. Detroiters celebrate each victory with pride and
see in each win a cause for optimism about the future of their team.
In the end this is exactly how Detroiters — living in the city
or outside of it — feel about their city.

August
19, 2008

John
M. Peters [send him mail]
is a practicing attorney in Michigan.

John
M. Peters Archives

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