"For the first time, I'm seeing guys make a conscious decision they'll be better off in prison than in the community, homeless and hungry," said Joseph Williams of New Creations Community Outreach, which assists ex-offenders. "In prison they've got three hots and a cot, so they commit a crime to go back in and come out when times are better."It's more than the basis for that name that has collapsed.
For now, better times seem distant. Even with no hurricane or other natural disaster to blame, Detroit has — by many measures — replaced New Orleans as America's most beleaguered city.
The jobless rate has climbed past 21 percent, the embattled school district just fired its superintendent, tens of thousands of homes and stores are derelict and abandoned, the ex-mayor is in jail for a text-messaging sex scandal. Even the pro football team is a pathetic joke, within two losses of an unprecedented 0-16 season.
And overarching these and many other woes is the near-collapse of the U.S. auto industry, Detroit's vital source of jobs and status for more than a century.
"We're the Motor City," said Scott Alan Davis, who oversees community development projects in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods. "When the basis for that name collapses, that's started to scare people."
The roots of Detroit's current plight go back decades. Court-ordered school busing and the 12th Street riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed, shrinking the city's population from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s to half that now.Crime, unemployment, school leaving: nothing has changed in a quarter century. The mayor at the time I left, Coleman Young, was not obviously corrupt. He was also prone to blaming others for the city's troubles, and taxing nonresidents to pay for his city's failures. (The most amusing anecdote involves the last tax return I filed with Detroit. My tax preparer rounded everything to the nearest dollar: some subaltern in Detroit reworked the whole thing in order to knock about 40 cents off my refund.)
About 83 percent of the current population is African-American; of cities with more than 100,000 people, only Gary, Ind., had a higher percentage in the latest census.
Detroit's crime, poverty, unemployment and school dropout rates are among the worst of any major U.S. city. The bus system is widely panned; car and home insurance rates are high. Chain grocery stores are absent, forcing many Detroiters to rely on high-priced corner stores.
The little prosperity that remains is false.
For Mark Covington, as for many of his neighbors, there are two Detroits. One features swanky casinos, opulent hotels and two new sports stadiums, beckoning high rollers and deep-pocketed out-of-towners to a relatively vibrant downtown. Luxury condo developments are opening; an ambitious RiverWalk project is mostly completed.It's not as if anybody was taken by surprise.
Then there's the vast Detroit of decaying neighborhoods, with weedy, trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out houses. Some areas, even close to downtown, have a rural look because so many lots are now empty.
Looking ahead, Detroit civic leaders express long-term optimism but acknowledge the shift away from a heavy-manufacturing economy will be painful.Let's see, the first Chrysler loan guarantee was, oh, 1980. Things will be different this time, right.
"Up until the '70s, you could come to the city without education, without speaking English, and get a job in the auto industry and instantly be in the middle class, economically speaking," said Mike Stewart, director of Wayne State's Walter P. Reuther Library and an expert on the auto industry.
"A lot of folks in the city depended on these jobs for generations — they don't exist anymore," he said. "A lot of Detroiters are unprepared, educationally and technologically, to cope."