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Motor City starts to rev back

DETROIT — DETROIT - Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick beams as he shares the good news: His city will soon get its first Home Depot, Borders bookstore and sushi bar.

"All these things sound so small, but when you're talking about Detroit, it's a big deal," Kilpatrick says. He corrects himself. It's more than a big deal. "It's incredible."

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Scarred by riots, crime and white flight, Detroit lost half its population - nearly 1 million residents - between 1950 and 2000. Now, after decades of decay, downtown Detroit seems poised for a comeback.

The past few days only bolster that contention. The city endured two nights of a blackout last week not only intact but with its reputation burnished. The city was calm.

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"Everyone was bracing for the worst," Kilpatrick said Saturday, thinking that the blackouts might cause looting. "It was never going to happen, and we should take this message around the country." The city, he said, proved itself to be a model. "We are receiving wide-range acclaim for what happened here in the city of Detroit."

The battle to revive the city is not over: Impoverished neighborhoods outside downtown are still struggling. But there's new energy in the heart of the city. People are increasingly eager to move downtown, even from the suburbs.

And new businesses are springing up to serve them. "For every customer we get, there are still two or three bums," says Athena Byron, 25, who recently opened the first walk-up deli downtown. "But you can see the shift as more people are starting to move in."

"The city is working again. That's what it comes down to," says John Ferchill, a Cleveland developer who is building a $27 million Hilton Garden Inn downtown.

'The right place'

Perhaps the signature symbol of Detroit's rebound is the stunning new steel-and-glass headquarters for the software firm Compuware - formerly based in an upscale suburb. Chief Executive Peter Karmanos Jr. began moving his 4,200 employees downtown this summer. The new building will feature a Hard Rock Cafe, and the park out front, modeled on New York City's Rockefeller Plaza, will offer free concerts, an ice-skating rink and a giant fountain.

"When I was in my 20s, there was a lot to do downtown. Detroit was fun," says Karmanos, 60. "That all changed after the riots in 1967. But the city's starting to come back."

He considered building a secluded campus headquarters in the suburbs. "But we have a lot of young employees, and they've been denied an urban experience for two or three generations. Downtown just seemed like the right place to go," Karmanos says.

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One statistic captures the new optimism in Detroit: In the past year and a half, there have been 4,400 housing starts. During the entire decade of the 1980s, there were fewer than 100.

The shuttered office buildings along once-grand Woodward Avenue are being converted into lofts. Crumbling houses on the east side have been bulldozed to make way for $300,000 brick Colonials with koi ponds out back.

The demand for city living has proved so unexpectedly strong that developers have been able to sell condos for $200,000 and up, even in ragged neighborhoods barely beginning to gentrify.

Down the street from buildings scrawled with graffiti, a block of condos under construction sports red "SOLD" signs in nearly every window. On vacant lots where trash tangles in waist-high grass, signs announce: "Coming Soon, Right Here! Luxury Townhomes." In some of these new developments, prices have risen 15 percent in the past year.

Suburban families have for the most part stayed away, uneasy about crime and wary of Detroit's troubled public schools. Violent crime has dropped a lot in the past year, but the city's Police Department has been accused of false arrests and excessive force; a federal monitor has been appointed to supervise reforms.

Many who watched the city's long decline are reluctant to drive downtown even for an evening at the opera: "To our age group, it's scary," says Harriett Ephraim, 71, of Farmington Hills, a wealthy suburb.

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But young professionals increasingly see downtown as exciting - and are buying lofts as investments.

"There's a different atmosphere here now, and it's pretty neat. You kind of want to be here when it all starts," says Randy Smith, 41, who traded his brand-new house on a suburban golf course for a city loft across the street from a burned-out crack house.

Casinos

The city's move toward revival began in 1999 with three casinos, made possible when state voters lifted a ban on urban gaming. The slot machines did such sizzling business that developers who had dismissed Detroit as a poor market began to take a second look.

Local investment came first: football and baseball stadiums built side by side and the renovation of three ornate playhouses downtown. Suddenly, Detroit had an entertainment district. And for the first time in years, traffic jams. To top it off, the city landed a coveted contract to be the host of the 2006 Super Bowl.

Out-of-town investors took notice. They listened when city officials called pitching projects - and dangling tax credits for downtown development.

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After 15 years without a new hotel, Detroit has five in the works. And there's that Home Depot, which will take over a shuttered Kmart in the city's northwest corner.

"Five years ago, they wouldn't even have talked to us," says George Jackson, who runs the Detroit Economic Development Corp.

As in any urban comeback, the progress in Detroit has been uneven.

Ramshackle houses left to rot when their owners fled to the suburbs scar block after block. By some estimates, the city has 10,000 vacant buildings. Detroit spends $12 million a year demolishing the most dangerous structures. But there's nothing to replace them, and the weeds soon take over the vacant lots.

"They say they're going to fix things up down here, but they're not going to do a thing," says Betty Howell, 64. "They don't care about us down here on the east side. This here is all black folks. It's all low-income people. What they're fixing up is for those with money."

City Council President Maryann Mahaffey worries that too many city residents have been left behind in slum housing in Detroit's rush to draw wealthy suburbanites downtown.

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"So many people measure a city as booming because you have cranes up in the sky. But in reality, it's about what's going on in the neighborhoods," Mahaffey says. The Hard Rock Cafe might be a sign that downtown Detroit has turned the corner. But it doesn't do any good, she says, for the families raising children next to vacant buildings that have been taken over by drug dealers.

To push neighborhood improvement, nonprofit groups have begun petitioning for the titles to abandoned properties, arguing that they can move more quickly than the city.

In the northwest corner of Detroit, a group called Motor City Blight Busters has taken title to hundreds of properties. Volunteers knock down the worst eyesores. Anything salvageable, the group renovates for sale to low-income families.

Toya Robinson, 26, says it seems to be working, at least in Brightmoor, where Blight Busters has focused its efforts and is restoring a brick house for her family.

"It's very encouraging. People are starting to care," she says.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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