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Detroit Unable to Outrun its Past

Harry C. Alford | 3/13/2013, 1:13 p.m.

I visited Cleveland a few years ago. As I was heading towards downtown I noticed a sign that showed pictures of blighted structures. There was a quote at the bottom of the sign which read, "Cheer up - we are not Detroit!" I guess all major U.S. cities can say the same thing. Nowhere in this nation is a city so ravaged with blight, poverty, drugs, violence, crime and hopelessness than Detroit, Mich. It didn't happen overnight but the disaster is just about complete.

I lived five years in Detroit. It was the city where I met the love of my life, beautiful Kay DeBow, a native of Indianapolis. Gone are the days of great night clubs such as My Fair Lady, Lafayette Orleans, etc. There were so many pretty girls and before Kay I tried to love each and every one of them. The city had many challenges during the late 1970s and early 1980s but the people were tough and proud. Just like today, they ignored the ills. But now the ills are too big to ignore.

In 1950, the census reported Detroit had a population of 2 million. Today, there are less than 700,000 residents and that number is dropping as you read this article. This is a testament that many people during this time were miserable and decided to move out to the suburbs or even out of state. There are more than a few ex-Detroiters living in Texas, Georgia and California today. One of its pride and joy was Motown Records and it moved out completely. There are many empty corporate offices and plants now.

It all began to decline in the 1950s as this city became a complete "Union Town." Cost of labor skyrocketed as unions demanded more and more pay and benefits which often the city could not afford (city, county and school employees). This pushed the pace for tax increases and many residents responded by moving out of the city.

As the more affluent (Whites) left the city limits, the Black vote became more powerful. By 1974, Detroit elected its first Black mayor. Coleman Young was a strong individual with a union background. Not only were people starting to leave but White business began to seek other venues. As the tax base weakened, the demand for higher taxes grew. It became a vicious financial cycle. Meanwhile, Mayor Young changed the city's charter. All nine city council members became at-large. Consequently, he handpicked his city council members who happened to live in just about the same neighborhood. The people had no immediate representation for their particular neighborhoods - no accountability. Detroit has just nine city council members compared to 28 in Indianapolis.

Corruption became rampant. Even the Chief of Police William L. Hart was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing $1.3 million. His deputy, Kenneth Weiner, went in for five years. This epitomizes a deep problem in this city. It is a problem that still exists today. A former city council woman is in jail as you read this.