Never in our lifetime has Detroit — with the possible exception of Coleman Young’s first run — faced a more important mayoral election.
That’s because enough things have happened over the past few years to give the city a shot at either making it — or facing a future as a hopeless slum for many, many years.
There isn’t a whole lot of time to play with. Downtown has, clearly, improved. Whatever you think of the casinos, they are reality, and they are pumping $80 million a year into city coffers. New housing developments are actually happening. And while the jury probably will be out for years on the effort to reform the public schools, an effort is at least being made.
Yet there is plenty to be grim about, too. Indications are that a higher percentage of the city’s children — possibly, more than half — live in deep poverty than 10 years ago, despite the economic boom. The flight of the black middle class to Southfield is now clearly a reality — and a major threat to the city’s future.
And we’ve heard amazing little about serious visions for the future from the major mayoral candidates, with less than three weeks before city voters narrow a crowded field down to two finalists on Sept. 11. Neither have we heard much of what the voters think. Frankly, all the candidates might do very well to spend an hour talking to Debra Stuart, a plain-speaking commercial interior designer who is precisely the kind of person the city needs if it going to make it. Stuart, 38, lives in Detroit because she loves it, believes in the city and wants to support it. She’s not some yuppie playing gentrification games; she is solidly middle-class. She is white; her partner of many years is black, and they have a 13-year-old son, Terry. Born in the city, she grew up mostly in Macomb County, but moved back to Detroit about 1988. She owns a brick bungalow worth about $82,000 on the northeast side, near Schoenherr and Eight Mile Road.
In many ways, her life might be easier if she lived in Warren. But, she says, “I just love being here. There are so many wonderful things in the city.” She thinks it makes sense for her diverse family to live in a diverse area. She loves Greektown, and Belle Isle, and goes to church at nearby Old St. Mary’s. She thinks Dennis Archer, for whom she voted twice, “did a super job with downtown, and deserves a lot of credit.”
But that’s not where people live, and she says bluntly what every city resident knows: “The neighborhoods are going to hell in a breadbasket.” She complains, for instance, that there are almost no neighborhood movie theaters in the city.
That’s hardly a secret. Depending on their politics, some of the various mayoral candidates have been blaming the Archer administration; others, the major corporations that haven’t expanded into the city. Stuart knows there is plenty of blame to go around. And she’s not afraid to kick a sacred cow or two. “Part of the problem is the people who live here, who shop in the suburbs even when there are places here.”
Not long ago, a new Kroger, one of the few supermarkets in the city, opened up near Seven Mile and Gratiot. Triumphantly, Stuart became an instant customer. But she noticed that the store was never very busy. She asked an African-American neighbor, and found, to her horror, he was still driving to a supermarket in Warren. “They think that if it is in the city, it can’t possibly be very good. So what I’m afraid is going to happen is that in a year they’ll leave, and we’ll have another boarded-up building with weeds in the parking lot. Look at the other ethnic communities — they stick together. Why can’t Detroiters do that?”
What does she think about the election? As of now, she’s leaning toward Kwame Kilpatrick. “He is young, and may be open to some fresh ideas and new approaches.” She likes, too, that he has small children. “I wanted to support the city schools,” she said.
For a while, she sent Terry to a public grade school. But then he reached middle/junior high school age, and the building he was to go to “was a total zoo,” with test scores somewhere south of Brazil.
Her son goes to Catholic school now, although she’d rather send him to a good public school with a diverse ethnic mix, like society.
Early on, she was interested in Nicholas Hood III, but as the weeks passed, it seemed that his campaign wasn’t catching fire. The one candidate she is sure she doesn’t want is City Council President Gil Hill.
“So many times, when I watched the City Council meetings he wasn’t even there. Don’t you think the president ought to be there?” Besides, he seems too old and too tied to the establishment.
What, I asked, does she want the next mayor to do? What’s reasonable to expect? “Help get movie theaters and stores in the neighborhoods,” she said.
That, and tear down as many as possible of the 40,000-odd abandoned derelict buildings that make the city look like a post-atomic ruin. Whether she is right in her choice of candidate I don’t know — and I suspect she isn’t entirely sold either. Whether any mayor can bring back long-neglected neighborhoods, most in worse shape than hers, is an even more difficult question. If it were easy, it would already have been done.
What is clear is that Detroit needs a lot more like her. And if families like Stuart’s ever give up and hit Eight Mile Road, whoever is left may want to start looking for the light switch. There will be something left, of course. It just won’t be very pretty.
Read "Message from the hood," a collection of interviews in which Detroiters make it clear that they want one thing from the new mayor: "Take care of the neighborhoods."
Read six candidates' responses to neighborhood concerns.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org