Racial, Regional Divide Still Haunt Detroit's Progress In Detroit, the predominantly black city and predominantly white suburbs have feuded for decades over finances and control of assets. A recent suburban vote to help a city institution offers hope for better cooperation. But old tensions are still roiling over a proposal to put a beloved city park under state oversight.
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Racial, Regional Divide Still Haunt Detroit's Progress

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Racial, Regional Divide Still Haunt Detroit's Progress

Racial, Regional Divide Still Haunt Detroit's Progress

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Audie Cornish.

And now, the NPR Cities Project.


CORNISH: We're turning to diversity and the economy, how race relations can factor in a city's financial health. Today, we head to Detroit, which has struggled with economic malaise and racial strife. Cooperation between Detroit and its suburbs might have helped keep the region afloat when the auto industry sank but intractable divisions mostly prevented that.

Now, Sarah Hulett, of Michigan Radio, reports on some glimmers of hope.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: So I'm on the city limits. I'm driving down Eight Mile Road, and I'm looking for Birwood Avenue. Here it is.


HULETT: I met up with Jeff Horner. He's an urban planning lecturer at Wayne State University.

JEFF HORNER: How do you do?

HULETT: Hi, Jeff.

When I told him I wanted some insights into Detroit's racial divisions, Horner suggested we meet at a park that's bordered by a concrete wall.

HORNER: We're standing on the east side of the wall. And in the 1940s, this part of Detroit was largely African-American.

HULETT: In those days, Detroit's growth meant white homeowners started looking to build houses next to black neighborhoods like this one. But first, developers needed to get financing, usually secured by the Federal Housing Administration.

HORNER: And the developer who wanted to develop in this area was told no by the FHA, because it was considered to be too close to an African-American neighborhood. And so, the solution that the developer came up with was to build a six-foot-high wall that runs for about three long city blocks.

HULETT: And this wall is just one very visible example of Detroit's segregation. In the 1950s and '60s, the car companies started moving factories to the suburbs. Lots of white families followed. But discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. Detroit got poorer and blacker, and the suburbs got richer and whiter, especially after riots over race and income disparities in 1967.

HORNER: The wall very much is a symbol.

HULETT: The spot where Horner and I are standing is just a few blocks south of Eight Mile Road, which is still a stark dividing line; south of Eight Mile, the city of Detroit is still 83 percent black and full of poverty, north of Eight Mile, Oakland County is 78 percent white and the richest county in the state.

But Horner says the demographics are shifting.

HORNER: I would venture to say by 2020 there will be more black folks in Detroit suburbs than there are in the city of Detroit. We're on that path right now to have more suburban blacks in Detroit than in the city.

HULETT: There are also young white people moving into the city. A decade ago, I was one of them. But in many ways the acrimony remains. You can feel it any time there's a debate over regional cooperation. Inside the city, the fear is the loss of political power. Outside the city, the fear is that hard-earned tax dollars will be siphoned off by a poorly run city.

It's a debate that's played out repeatedly - over the city-owned water system that serves the suburbs, over the zoo and the convention center that serve the region, but needed help staying afloat.

And here is the latest flashpoint: a thousand-acre park called Belle Isle.


HULETT: Do the two of you come out here often?


RUTH ROMAN: Yeah, at least three or four times a week.

HULETT: That's Detroiters Thomas Short and Ruth Roman, sitting side by side in lawn chairs watching the freighters go by. They're not happy about a proposal that would fold this park into Michigan's state park system.

ROMAN: I would prefer for it to stay in Detroit, the ownership of it.

HULETT: How come?

ROMAN: Because it's one of the jewels of the city, you know, it belongs to the city.

HULETT: The proposal is part of a consent agreement between the state and the city that's intended to keep Detroit from sliding into bankruptcy. But it's been derided by some, like Ruth Roman, as yet another attempt by people outside Detroit to erode the city's self-determination.


HULETT: But the park is in need of work that the city can't afford to do. City Councilman James Tate took me on a drive around Belle Isle.

JAMES TATE: This is certainly one area that needs to be updated.

HULETT: The park's once grand and exclusive boat club is now rundown and Mother Nature is taking over the now-closed zoo. Tate says it's time to look at a regional solution to Belle Isle's problems.

TATE: I'm one of those guys that - we just want to see progress. You know, and I think it's important to not just say no to everything because it's uncomfortable and it's different than what you've been doing in the past.

HULETT: Tate is part of a new, under-40 contingent on the city council. Born after the riots, they've got a different take on regional politics than some of their predecessors. A deal that would have the city lease Belle Isle to the state appears to be close; that would require city council approval and that's not a sure thing.

Councilman Kwame Kenyatta says the state should keep its hands off Belle Isle.

KWAME KENYATTA: Partnership doesn't necessarily have to mean control. And I think that has always been the question: Can we be partners without you controlling the menu of what's going to be on the table?

HULETT: Kenyatta says if Coleman Young were still mayor here, he'd be putting up a fight. Young was Detroit's first black mayor and a hero to many black Detroiters. He left office almost 20 years ago, but his name is still regularly invoked in debates over money and political power.

BOB BERG: My name is Bob Berg and I'm a partner with Berg Muirhead and Associates in Detroit.

HULETT: Bob Berg says he's not so sure Young would be opposed to a state partnership to spruce up Belle Isle. Berg was Young's press secretary. Now he runs a PR firm. He says Young was seen as antagonistic, even hostile by many whites - both in the city and the suburbs.

BERG: A lot of white people were very uncomfortable in a situation where they no longer were in control.

HULETT: They still talk about it. My white neighbors still talk about Coleman Young, in a not very favorable way.

BERG: Right, it's amazing. He has been gone 15 years and people still feel passionately. They either love him or they hate him.

HULETT: Before Berg served as Young's press secretary, he did the same job for Bill Milliken, Michigan's white Republican governor in the 1970s. Young and Milliken had a warm relationship. And Milliken fought for state funds to help Detroit institutions like the one we're sitting in.

BERG: Well, we're sitting in the Rivera Court at the DIA.

HULETT: That's the Detroit Institute of Arts. I met him here to talk about a recent success in city-suburb cooperation. Last month, the majority of people in Detroit's suburbs voted to raise their taxes to keep this city institution afloat. Berg's firm handled PR for the campaign. He says the day after the vote, the first people in line were a couple from the suburbs who had never visited the DIA before.

BERG: And we were laughing later that if we were going to try to hand-pick, PR-wise, the first group to come through, that's who you'd have picked. There they are. They're from Livonia.

HULETT: A white suburb.

BERG: A white suburb which, until the last census, was the whitest city in America over 100,000.

HULETT: Berg says the museum vote is a sign that people are starting to see Detroit and its suburbs as one entity that's going to succeed or fail together. Belle Isle is the next test. Many Detroiters are still skeptical that the state will be a fair partner when it comes to co-managing that city gem. But a successful deal could mark the emergence of a metro Detroit where cooperation trumps dysfunction.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, I'm Sarah Hulett for the NPR Cities Project.

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