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City may be smaller, but its problems aren't


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YEAR IN REVIEW: City may be smaller, but its problems aren't

Detroit has a lot to prove as big events come

December 28, 2004



In 2005, America's 11th-largest city will be under the microscope.

Detroit will show the world a reinvigorated downtown, a spiffed-up riverfront and a telegenic mayor during baseball's All-Star game and the run-up to Super Bowl XL.

But most outsiders won't see the city's internal organs, where the picture is far from upbeat. Detroit faces profound problems, and some of them will be coming to a head during the months when national attention is focused on the big games at Comerica Park and Ford Field.

City government is hamstrung by looming deficits and surging violent crime. The school system is hemorrhaging money and students, as population continues its 50-year downward spiral.

Notice we said 11th-largest city?

So long, Top Ten.

It won't be official until the mid-2005 U.S. Census reports, but the population of Detroit -- the nation's 10th-largest city in the 2000 census -- has fallen to about 901,000 people, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Meanwhile, the population of San Jose -- the 11th-largest city in 2000 -- has risen to 926,000 residents, according to California demographers.

Not surprisingly, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is fond of emphasizing improvements. Neighborhoods from Midtown to the far east side have seen hundreds of vacant lots replaced by affordable homes, and some long-desolate corners have welcomed new retailers. The changes downtown have been spectacular. More than two decades after the closing of the massive J.L. Hudson's department store symbolized a decaying central business district, Detroit's heart is shiny and new, led by Campus Martius Park, which features a Rockefeller Center-like ice rink.

While cheerleaders for downtown are upbeat, the portents for gloom are everywhere. The city is coming off a horrendous year for violence, with one of the highest homicide rates in the United States. A respected survey of crime data says Detroit is the nation's second most dangerous city overall.

The 17,000-employee Detroit city government is looking at a $214-million deficit and as many as 3,000 job cuts. Critics talk of possible municipal bankruptcy or a state-appointed receiver who could order large-scale layoffs. In an analysis compiled by Booz Allen Hamilton, consultants for the Dallas Morning News, Detroit was ranked last among 15 large American cities when measured for crime, school quality, economic growth, job creation and other indicators.

All of this will be debated in 2005, as Kilpatrick, the nine City Council seats and the city clerk are up for election. First-termer Kilpatrick will be dealing with lawsuits that threaten his political life and could cost the city millions, which his opponents will use as a campaign fodder.

The Detroit Public Schools system is staring at unprecedented upheaval. Budgetary bloodletting could result in 40 schools closing, and next year, Detroiters will elect a new school board -- its third governing body in five years. Detroit is complex, and its reality can be difficult to divine. City officials are hoping the thousands of visitors and tens of millions of viewers take away an impression like that of two British writers, who visited this past summer.

Laura Barton and Amy Fleming, writing for the Guardian newspaper of London, pegged Detroit as "not glamorous," but "gritty real." They rhapsodized about Motown's music scene, the chow in Greektown and indigenous brews.

And, after attending a show that featured the alternative-country band Blanche at the Magic Stick and a backstage party involving Jack White of the White Stripes, they proclaimed their Detroit adventure "the best night of our lives, in the greatest city in the world."

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