Motor City fights against fulfilling a death wish: David Usborne on the battle to salvage Detroit, scene of the US's most dramatic urban tragedy

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The Independent Online
BESSIE GRAVES is no longer on the phone, but finding her house is not hard. With peeling yellow paint and a roof that sags almost comically at both ends, it looks like a Hollywood mock-up for a spoof horror movie. More than that, on the block of Magnolia and Vermont, it is the only structure still standing.

Visible from her front-room window, shaded by a grey net curtain, is one other house on the corner of the adjacent block and just beyond, a burnt-out brick shell, its blackened roof collapsing inwards. Otherwise the view is of empty space, overgrown with grass and saplings.

'They were mostly Swedes living here. There wasn't a vacant spot in the place, there were so many people,' recalls Mrs Graves, who looks old beyond her 73 years. 'Now everyone has moved out and everything has burnt down. It's a bit like living in the suburbs now. You could say it's almost a better neighbourhood.'

She is possessed of a rare stoicism, founded in faith. From this window, she has witnessed what ranks, arguably, as the United States' most dramatic urban tragedy. A once-proud parent to the automobile revolution and to the Motown sounds of Diana Ross and Little Stevie Wonder, Detroit has gradually been hollowed out by an exodus of people, money and jobs.

The process, which is not unique to Detroit, has been under way for more than three decades. Frightened by violent crime and a perception of black encroachment, middle-class whites - and some blacks - slowly abandoned the city and made new homes in the suburbs. A population that once stood at almost 2 million has been cut almost in half.

The disintegration of the city and of the society left within it, expedited by the withdrawal of most of the old assembly-line jobs, has got to the point where one person thinks only drastic action can help. Marie Farrell- Donaldson, the City Ombudsman, wants neighbourhoods like this and many others to be closed down. A formal proposal to that effect was submitted to the city council last week.

The concept is simple, if a little startling. With a tax base that has all but gone and an infrastructure in virtual collapse, Detroit is running an annual deficit of dollars 30m ( pounds 19m). Mrs Farrell-Donaldson says one way to save money would be to fence off those parts of the city where levels of occupation are lowest and suspend all services normally provided to them, such as street lighting, police protection and rubbish collection. Those still living in the areas, like Mrs Graves, would be rehoused.

'Why should people have to live like this? Somehow we've got to do something. And we know that just cutting back on services is not the answer,' argues Mrs Farrell-Donaldson, conceding that her idea has been widely dismissed, notably by furious neighbourhood leaders. 'What we would be trying to do, in reality, is to downsize the community. We're talking about rightsizing the city to correlate with our budget.' She imagines that several areas, covering up to 20 blocks at a time, could be 'mothballed' and left to return to nature. Conifers would be planted along the fences to soften them to the eye.

The dossier she has compiled for the city council is called Management by Common Sense. She explains: 'To me it shows that you have a management that is in tune with the times, you're putting together a stronger, more viable city. We're talking about urban demise.'

Mrs Graves is uncertain about the idea. Like most black people in the city she arrived in the 1930s in search of work, from the Deep South. She has been in this house for 45 years. She would want proper compensation for moving and a decent new home. 'Otherwise, why should I move from a slum I know to a slum I don't know? I've been here a long time, it would be kind of hard to give up and just say that I were going to move.'

It is a house, however, that also contains unhappy memories. Three years ago, she heard a loud noise in the middle of the night. She came down from her bedroom to find her son dying. He had become the victim of another Detroit drive-by shooting. She had no idea why or whether it had anything to do with drugs. 'I heard him take his last breath and the Lord took him. I could do nothing but talk to the Lord and ask Him to make me strong and help me to understand things I can't change.'

But there are others in areas more desolate than this, who are already clinging to the hope that Mrs Farrell- Donaldson might come to their rescue. Among them is 88-year-old Barbara Bailey, who lives under virtual siege on a once well-to-do street on the East Side. As president of the local association dedicated to resurrecting the neighbourhood, she says she is ready to give up and leave her house of 40 years. But her best offer so far has been a derisory dollars 3,000.

She admits that her circumstances have become pitiful. Opposite is an abandoned house that has become home to crack-cocaine dealers and pimps. The next door house was recently torn down by scavengers. Petrol bombs have been thrown into her garden, she says, by blacks who want to scare her away. She cannot stay by her windows at night, for fear of being hit by a stray bullet from shooting in the street. Several months ago, she was woken by an intruder who bound her and, with two accomplices, stripped the house of its furniture. 'He shook me and shouted 'Get up bitch',' she recalls.

But neither Mrs Graves nor Ms Bailey should pin too much hope on Mrs Farrell-Donaldson. So far, no one in the city leadership has spoken up for a plan that smells so strongly of surrender. Among the many community workers who feel insulted by the proposals, Maggie DeSantis, president of the Warren-Conner Development Coalition, with youth training and redevelopment programmes on the East Side, can barely bring herself to speak about it. 'It is just an absolutely ignorant statement for her to have made that shows she has no understanding at all of what it is going to take to turn the community around. It implies that Detroit is a city of 1 million deadbeats,' she says.

So the proposal will probably die. But those who still love this city - and there are many - are saddened that it should ever have been made.

(Photograph omitted)