Detroit community groups work for city's new glory days

Despair shows on the faces of many people at soup kitchens and in unemployment lines here. And desperation is evident in Craigslist posts from a single mom who needs $950 for medical bills and a man who can afford to pay just $650 for a used car he needs to job hunt.

There is something else, though, in this shrinking city beset by chronic poverty and the unraveling of the industry that once made it great: hope.

"There's fire in the ashes and good things happening everywhere," says Jerry Smith, a Capuchin friar who runs two soup kitchens that serve 2,000 meals a day and have seen a 10% increase in demand. "There are reserves of life and strength in us that we never imagine are there until we absolutely need them."

Detroit needs them now. The city's unemployment rate is 23.2%. Chrysler is in bankruptcy-court protection and General Motors is on the verge of a bankruptcy filing. Since 1980, almost 300,000 people have moved out. The city, now with a population of 916,952, faces a $300 million budget deficit. One-third of residents live below the federal poverty threshold of $17,330 annual income for a family of three.

Those bleak statistics motivate rather than discourage the individuals and non-profit groups trying to revive the American dream here. They are training displaced workers, feeding the poor, providing medical care, planting vegetable gardens on vacant lots and planning a new Detroit that's smaller, greener and less dependent on the auto industry.

"It's never going to be the same city that it was, but maybe it will be a better city," says Mary McDougall, a Detroit native and executive director of Operation Able, a group that trains older displaced workers.

The city's believers say Detroit has resilient residents who will work hard and make changes to help it rebound. "Detroit isn't dying," says Harold Schwartz, 60, who was laid off by an auto-parts supplier. "Too many people love the city to let that happen."

Officials and activists see the collapse as an opportunity to remake the city and shift its manufacturing workforce from cars to emerging industries. "We've always dealt with adversity," says Olga Stella, vice president for business development at Detroit Economic Growth.

Not everyone is optimistic. "I don't know what will become of this place," says Helen Moore, 51, who was laid off five months ago by an accounting company. "I do know its glory days are over."

A car town

Since Henry Ford founded the company that bears his name in 1903, this has been a car town. The auto industry's promise of steady jobs with good pay attracted European immigrants and workers from the South, and by 1950 Detroit was the USA's fourth-largest city.

Detroit is now the 11th-largest U.S. city. Suburban flight and the loss of factory jobs began in the 1960s, but the auto industry's steep decline, the foreclosure crisis and the recession have accelerated decay. Once-vital neighborhoods are filled with boarded-up storefronts and houses. Downtown is still lively, but the ruins of Tiger Stadium and the Michigan Central Depot train station loom nearby.

"We need to work together to get the city from where it is to where everybody wants it to go," Mayor Dave Bing said after being elected this month to complete the term of Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in September amid a sex scandal that put him in jail.

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