Where things are much worse

Mike Bowler

October 25, 1991|By Mike Bowler

Detroit -- THIS IS a city that looks up to Baltimore -- enviously.

"Detroit's problems aren't insurmountable -- just ask Baltimore," reads the headline on business writer Jon Pepper's article in last Sunday's Detroit News-Free Press. Baltimore, says Pepper, "is a city where business doesn't wait to be handed its vision by government. Business sets its own agenda and pursues it with startling aggressiveness. It achieves its goals by convincing government, educators and community leaders that it shares a mutual interest in fortifying the central city."

Business has taken the initiative in Baltimore "for more than 30 years," adds Pepper, "and it shows. A previously dumpy waterfront has been transformed into a vibrant civic plaza reminiscent of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The rest of downtown is clean, attractive and thriving. It's the city's business community, through the Greater Baltimore Committee, that sells the rest of Maryland on the importance of a strong Baltimore."

Elsewhere in the same newspaper, Joe H. Stroud, the Free Press editor, indulges in more Baltimore praise: "Across the country, there are stories about cities once virtually given up for dead -- St. Louis and Baltimore are two others that come to mind -- that have somehow pulled themselves together and reshaped their prospects."

To this Baltimorean, a regular Detroit visitor for 30 years, all of this Sunday morning hyperbole is a bit dizzying. Clean, attractive and thriving? Downtown Baltimore? Aren't Stroud and Pepper praising the city that Fortune magazine just the other day demoted from the top 10 to 36th (among 50 cities) in "pro-business attitude"? Well, yes, but Detroit is ranked 46th. The fact is Detroit is a city with which Baltimore compares favorably by almost any measure. Detroit is dying proof that things here could always be worse.

Downtown crime? I go to brunch at the Motor City's sparkling Renaissance Center, a late-70s business and hotel complex on the riverfront that was supposed to rescue Detroit's dying downtown (but hasn't). Everywhere there are security officers shepherding patrons from auto to elevator to restaurant. Hotel guests are warned that they leave the center at their own risk to venture into downtown Detroit. A frequent traveler tells me that Rio de Janeiro and Detroit are the only two cities in which he would not venture from his hotel.

Racial problems? I attend a 30-year high school reunion deep in the Detroit suburbs, at least 40 miles from the east Detroit school being remembered. None of the 330 graduates and spouses at the reunion lives near the school; few, if any, live in Detroit. "Detroit," writes Stroud, "is being terribly damaged. Southeast Michigan is polarized, racially and geographically. Its institutions are under siege. The poor are being cut off the welfare rolls in significant numbers and can't get jobs that offer them much real chance to get on their feet."

A mayor who seems at times to lack leadership qualities, who feuds with the governor, who has a sometimes rocky relationship with business? Detroit Mayor-for-Life Coleman Young's legacy after 18 years is a city that is quite literally falling apart. There are thousands of boarded-up houses; long, dreary stretches along city streets in which everything has been torn down without replacement. When the sun is just right, parts of Detroit look like parts of southern Lebanon.

Even the Detroit Tigers, symbol of civic pride, may follow the football Lions to the suburbs. Domino's pizza owner Tom Monaghan, who bought the team in 1983 and has seen it nearly double in value, is making (mostly through the club president, Bo Schembechler) the same kind of (heavily) veiled threat Baltimoreans heard several years ago from Edward Bennett Williams. That threat is "Build me a stadium or wave me BTC bye-bye." But Detroit politics are so bitter and convoluted that the chances of reaching agreement on a new site (if the team leaves Tiger Stadium) seem almost as hopeless as the chances of agreeing on a financing package.

Should Baltimoreans find satisfaction in Detroit's plight? Not for a second, for the same reason that the comfortable folks in the suburbs should find no satisfaction in the plight of the cities.

What's bad for Detroit -- frighteningly warped federal priorities; state finance formulas that favor the suburbs; the huge, desperate burden of municipal government; growing poverty -- is also bad for Baltimore. And it's bad for the country. A Louis Harris poll last summer showed 77 percent of Americans believe the nation cannot survive unless the problems of its cities are solved. When they start to be solved in Detroit, they will start to be solved in Baltimore. We're in it together.

Mike Bowler edits this page.

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