Program Note: For more on how Detroit is coping with the economy, tune in to AC360° tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
It had been at least 10 years since I’d seen parts of my hometown Detroit's neighborhood streets. I grew up on the east side, and spent more time in the area during the early days of my career at the CNN Detroit Bureau. Could it be possibly be any worse than the blight I remember from back then? Yes.
In some neighborhoods, empty lots outnumber the burnt out shells of what were once fine, middle-class homes. The area was built for the working class of the 1940s and 1950s, and survived the racial tensions and riots of 1967 but – like many things here – it could not survive the Motor City meltdown and its ripple effect.
The drive into the city should have been fair warning. At midday, I-75, which winds through the heart of downtown Detroit, was as empty as a snow holiday in my current hometown of Atlanta. I expected the proverbial tumbleweed to roll across the highway. I remember that strip, a major highway leading to the Bridge to Canada, packed with trucks of all sizes. Not on this day, though.
One street off Van Dyke on Detroit's east side had 10 abandoned homes; four charred from fires. Yet there were still a few hold-outs, homes with people still living in them, coping everyday with a neighborhood in decay. I ran into a woman delivering mail for the post office, amazed people still lived in this area. "Sure they do, but yea, these other buildings, it's just sad. I feel safe, but it is a little surreal, with that,' she said, looking at one torched house, blackened from a fire, with mainly the frame still standing. A neglected plot had become just another eyesore for the city.
The meltdown of these neighborhoods didn't all happen during this economic cycle. This has been going on for almost 40 years. In the ‘70s, Mayor Roman Gribbs invested in the downtown area. The Renaissance Center, now headquarters for General Motors, was built. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Mayor Coleman Young didn’t invest much in many of the neighborhoods. The most recently elected Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, had his own share of problems, which eventually lead to his resignation and a city plagued by rampant decay.
But there are signs of hope. There are some neighborhood streets with nice, modest, well-kept homes and lawns. Indian Village, a posh Victorian-style neighborhood, with huge vintage homes, is sandwiched around other not-so-nice blocks. But it is still pristine, almost like walking back in time. It’s getting harder and harder to find these pockets. Many are trying to temporarily forget their troubles the old-fashioned way – it was impossible to find an empty bar on St. Patrick's Day. Even Bally Cork and Nemo's, both blocks from the half torn down Tiger Stadium, were standing room only in the area called "Corktown.”
There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel for most people. I have immediate family and friends who work in the auto industry, and this recession is new territory for everyone. Some have watched property values plunge by 50 percent. A good friend, who owned an East side bar and grill, had been warning me now for over a year, "This is beyond a recession, this is a Depression.” He had to cut staff and figure out ways to stay in business given the reliance on consistent patronage of people in the auto industry.
He showed me rows of industrial buildings up for sale on Groesbeck Highway, the major industrial highway in the east suburbs. "We're still at least a year from getting out of this," he guessed.
The spring weather this week here was a psychological shot in the arm. The bleakest winter in memory is finally about to pass. But the abandoned homes and businesses aren't going anywhere ... hopefully neither are those good folks who still live in the city.
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