Detroit's woes extend beyond the auto industry

Schools, scandal beleaguer city

Detroit, based on many measures, is the nation's most beleaguered city. Pictured here is a vacant auto dealership. Detroit, based on many measures, is the nation's most beleaguered city. Pictured here is a vacant auto dealership. (Carlos Osorio/ Associated Press)
By David Crary and Corey Williams
Associated Press / December 21, 2008
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DETROIT - One measure of how tough times are in the Motor City: Some of the offenders in jail don't want to be released; some who do get out promptly reoffend to head back where there's heat, healthcare, and three meals a day.

"For the first time, I'm seeing guys make a conscious decision they'll be better off in prison than in the community, homeless and hungry," said Joseph Williams of New Creations Community Outreach, which assists ex-offenders.

For now, better times seem distant. Detroit has, by many measures, replaced New Orleans as America's most beleaguered city.

The jobless rate has climbed past 21 percent, the embattled school district just fired its superintendent, tens of thousands of homes and stores are abandoned, the ex-mayor is in jail for a text-messaging sex scandal.

And overarching these woes is the near-collapse of the US auto industry, Detroit's vital source of jobs and status for more than a century.

"We're the Motor City," said Scott Alan Davis, who oversees community development projects in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods. "When the basis for that name collapses, that's started to scare people."

Among the worried is Warlena McDuell, 81, a retired surgical technician who shares a home with her cancer-stricken daughter. On a recent weekday, she was among hundreds of Detroiters filling grocery carts at a food bank.

"It's a depression - not a recession," McDuell said, with the authority of someone who has lived through both. "It will get worse before it gets better."

Behind her in line was Benjamin Smith, 77, who once held jobs with Uniroyal and Chrysler. Maneuvering his cart slowly, one hand gripping a cane, he was unable to muster much cheer when someone extended holiday good wishes.

"How are we going to do well?" he replied. "Everything's busted up."

The roots of Detroit's current plight go back decades. Court-ordered school busing and the 12th Street riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed, shrinking the city's population from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s to half that now.

About 83 percent of the current population is African-American. Detroit's crime, poverty, unemployment, and school dropout rates are among the worst of any major US city. Car and home insurance rates are high. Chain grocery stores are absent, forcing many Detroiters to rely on high-priced corner stores.

"There's always been a real can-do spirit among our people," said the Rev. Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Church. "That's being beaten down right now. . . . These times, unlike others, have sapped a lot of that spirit from them."

Vann, in addition to overseeing a 5,000-member megachurch, founded the Vanguard Community Development Corp., which under Davis's leadership is building homes and offering education programs in the blighted North End.

One apartment complex, for the elderly, is rising near two grade schools recently closed by the city that now sit empty and ransacked. "It's death to the neighborhood," said Vann, with some anger in his voice, as he gestured to homes that had been abandoned and vandalized since the schools shut down. He worries that despair may take a toll.

For all its woes, Detroit has no shortage of residents offering to tackle them. There are 15 candidates for the Feb. 24 special mayoral election necessitated by the conviction of Kwame Kilpatrick for trying to cover up an affair with a former top aide.

The challenges are daunting. Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. said Friday the city's deficit is approaching $300 million, and he ordered all departments to cut their budgets by 10 percent. The public school district faces a deficit exceeding $400 million, prompting the state to declare a financial emergency. The district's superintendent, Connie Calloway, was fired on Monday.

About 44,000 of the 67,000 homes that have gone into foreclosure since 2005 remain empty, and it costs about $10,000 to demolish each vacant house, according to city planning officials.

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