REPORTING FROM DETROIT — The numbers tell a story.
In 1950, the city of Detroit was the nation’s fifth-largest city with a population of 1.8 million people. Today, there are about 706,000 people in what is now the 18th-largest city in the United States. In 1950, African-Americans accounted for less than 20 percent of Detroit’s population. The city is now 83 percent Black, the most majority African-American large city in the United States.
Over the next few months, BET.com will offer wide ranging coverage of Detroit, examining the issues the city confronts in education, crime and in its economic landscape. The focus on Detroit will also look at the people and forces that are seeking to rebuild the city and to help solve its extraordinary problems, from politicians and government officials to business leaders, clergy and community activists.
The decline of Detroit, the worldwide symbol of the nation’s automobile might, has been well chronicled over the last few decades. The once powerful Midwestern powerhouse is now a debilitated shell of its former self, with staggeringly high unemployment, a severely crippled public school system and an ever-climbing homicide rate. The poverty rate here is 35.5 percent, three times the national level, with 57 percent of the city’s children living in poverty.
At the same time, Detroit is struggling to maintain services with a declining tax base in a city whose sheer size is stunning – its 140 square miles could encompass San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Manhattan combined. With jobs scarce and an ailing economy, there are few neighborhoods here that are not littered with abandoned homes.
The city is largely devoid of the services and amenities that citizens of other major cities take for granted. There is not a single major supermarket in the city of Detroit. There has been no major downtown department store since Hudson’s closed its flagship retail operation in 1983.
In recent years, the city’s political and administrative leadership has been something of a national laughingstock. There is currently an ongoing trial of a scandalized former mayor for alleged misdeeds. That comes in the aftermath of a sex scandal that forced out the city’s chief of police, the second person in two years to resign from that position over inappropriate relations with a subordinate worker.
Yet, there are glimmers – if not outright signs – of hope here.
“There’s probably no other city in America that has the problems that Detroit has because we have a huge population that has left,” said Charles Pugh, the Detroit city council president, speaking with BET.com. “We have some unique challenges, which also give us unique opportunities to think outside the box and really have more incentivized businesses to move here.”
In fact, the city has seen a growth in its medical and technology industries with an estimated $800 million of investment by the Detroit Medical Center. Hundreds of millions of dollars in private and government funding have been invested in developing and creating green spaces for the city’s vast riverfront. In recent years, acres of abandoned areas have been converted into commercial farming operations.
Meanwhile, there has been a rebirth of several key neighborhoods. The city’s Midtown section, where Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center are anchored, has been bustling with new development, from stylish lofts to trendy restaurants, art galleries, bakeries and a Whole Foods set to open this year.
Similarly, downtown has been the center of widespread development, from refurbished office buildings and hotels to an upcoming $650 million mixed-use development: a project that will include a new home for the Detroit Red Wings team in the National Hockey League.
“We’ve got a downtown that is starting to come back, a big and strong comeback,” said Mayor Dave Bing, the former basketball Hall of Famer and business owner who has led the city since 2009.
“Our Midtown is making a strong comeback,” Bing said, speaking with BET.com. “Too often, people really focus on the negative things. I’m trying to get away from that. We, both the business community and myself, are really trying to market the positive things that we have.”
Bing has proposed a highly controversial long-term plan that would effectively shut down 45 square miles – about a third of Detroit’s land, with residents shifted into a more compact space for the city to provide services more efficiently.
Despite Detroit’s highly publicized problems, it is a city where residents have banded together to undertake all kinds of projects to improve their city. Some have pooled their funds to keep parks from closing. Others have volunteered to board up abandoned homes and cut grass in vacant areas.
While people, resources and wealth may have hemorrhaged from the city, many Detroiters insist there is one commodity that has remained: spirit.
“The people of Detroit still want this city to be great,” said John Olumba, an African Methodist Episcopal minister who is also a member of the Michigan House of Representatives.
“On any given day, there’s this feeling in Detroit — and maybe it’s idealistic — that this city could turn around,” Olumba said. “That comes from the strength of the people. A lot of the families have been through a lot already. That’s what gives them hope. I don’t know how long that strength is going to hold out. But it’s still there.”
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(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)