Peter Jennings Reports From Detroit

We came to Detroit to ask people how they think the country is faring since the terrorist attacks last fall. But we found they were talking less about Sept. 11, and more about what they have always lived with — the economy and segregation.

In the famous Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the highlights is a 1930s mural by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera that shows men working hard on an assembly line. He was captivated by the raw energy of the automobile industry and the empowerment of the American automobile worker. For much of the 20th century, the worker thrived here.

It is not so much the case today. When Ford, for example, downsized last month — that icy accounting term for getting rid of thousands of jobs — the company said it would get by with fewer people in the future.

Creating new jobs in this troubled city is hard.

"Detroit has the dubious distinction of being the most racially segregated metro area in the United States," said George Galster, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

It has been almost 35 years since the terrible 1967 summer of rioting. Today, white flight is complete. Detroit is 82 percent black and the suburbs are overwhelmingly white.

"Who's telling them they can't move here?" asked one white woman in the suburbs.

"Maybe they just don't feel welcome in this community," said a white man.

A black man in the city center offered a reason why blacks and whites stay separate: "It's a self-protective thing to be among, as they say, your own crowd."

"They just know there's certain lines they just can't cross," offered a black woman.

Detroit pays a high price for segregation. The inner city has most of the problems, and even with the income of the black middle class, there is not enough money. You can't fix a city without money.

"No one is going to move into Detroit until they fix the schools and make it a decent place to live," said one white woman.

New Mayor Has New Hope

The new mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has been on the job for a month. He acknowledges that many whites and blacks want to live separately — but not all. "Not young whites and blacks. When I go to New York, D.C., Boston, you see diversity. When people get old and conservative they want to live apart."

Kilpatrick is 31 and, with a prominent earring in his left ear, anything but conservative.

His mother, Carolyn Kilpatrick, is a Democratic congresswoman in Washington — which may make a difference in getting the federal government to help.

Some businesses see a chance to revitalize downtown. Compuware, which makes business software, is bringing 6,000 jobs to the city.

The city is building a new football stadium, next to the new baseball park, in hopes of attracting people downtown both in the day and at night.

But the urban decay is almost defiant.

"How can you have civic pride when you walk out of your door and see an abandoned, blighted building?" asked Kilpatrick.

The mayor has promised to tear the past down. But will that be enough? What is a mayor with one month on the job if not an optimist?

"Two years from now, people will be talking about Detroit," Kilpatrick said. "'Let's go there for a vacation.'"

Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...