October 4, 2013 at 9:20 am

Special report

Six decades in Detroit: How abandonment, racial tensions and financial missteps bankrupted the city

It was called a city of magic, and many believed the best was yet to come.

For a week in July 1951, Detroit put down its tools to reflect on its magnificence. The city that in four decades transformed from an unremarkable Midwestern community into a prosperous urban powerhouse was celebrating its 250th birthday.

A million people lined Woodward for a parade. A musical written for the occasion, “City of Freedom,” ran for 11 days. The city marked the anniversary by creating the Detroit Historical Museum and launching a fundraising drive for Cobo Hall.

“The magic of Detroit is the way it sprang apparently full grown, fully prepared, into a world-wide metropolitan eminence, virtually overnight, after two centuries of somnolent obscurity,” John C. Manning, editor of The Detroit Times, wrote in the anniversary’s program.

Detroit was something new and hopeful. Its 185 war plants cranked out arms that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II. Its population soared because of a promise: Sacrifice your body to the assembly line, make enough to realize the American dream.

But as Mayor Albert Cobo lit a cake with 250 candles and sent balloons into the summer sky, Detroit was already in decline. President Harry Truman capped the celebration with a speech outside City Hall assuring residents that layoffs rippling through the city were a “temporary situation.”

They weren’t. The nation was on the brink of a recession. The auto industry was consolidating. Racial tensions were festering. The slow descent that ended 62 years later in the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy had begun.

Many of the forces that propelled Detroit to such heights — autos, the might of unions, migration from the South and inexpensive housing — also contributed to its fall.

“Detroit is a boom town on a massive scale — great economic strength, home to the most innovative industry in the history of the world and the most concentrated wealth of its time,” said Kevin Boyle, a Northwestern University professor who grew up on the east side.

“It was always a city built on money. People came to Detroit for jobs, not the natural beauty or the great weather. There was never a commitment to place. It was to money. And then the boom ended.”

Many now wonder how a city that embodied so much of what was so right with America could go so wrong. Gov. Rick Snyder has said the answer lies in the past, arguing Detroit’s finances are “a problem 60 years in the making.”

In six decades, Detroit lost more than 1 million residents and its total property value shrank from $37 billion to $9.4 billion in 2012 dollars. Over that time, the city’s median wages went from among the best in the nation to among the worst. More than two-thirds of city residents now live in poverty and as many as 50 percent are unemployed.

The Detroit News is spotlighting the decade-by-decade changes through Lakewood Street. The block in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood near the border of Grosse Pointe Park was shaped by many of the issues that hit Detroit: race, job loss, crime and civic corruption.

In the 1950s, Lakewood was a beacon to blue-collar families who worked in factories or for the city. Today, it is home to drug houses, empty lots and a handful of residents who place their faith not in the city but in a retired cop nicknamed Jack Rabbit who patrols the block.

The 1950s: Rise of the suburbs

When they came to Detroit, Hassel Ledbetter’s family didn’t have a car. But they could afford a two-story home on Lakewood.

His father, Hassel Ledbetter Sr., was the son of a Tennessee farmer and moved north after high school to Detroit and its promise of high wages for assembly-line work at Chrysler’s plant on Conner Road.

Lakewood buzzed with activity. Its wood and brick homes were modest, but meticulously maintained. Jefferson Avenue was a short walk away and teemed with stores selling shoes, clothes, food and candy.

Mothers stayed home, while fathers went off to jobs at Cummins Diesel, U.S. Rubber, American Motors and nearby Chrysler and Hudson plants.

“It was a normal, almost prototypical neighborhood,” said Ledbetter, who is now 76.

The city was so crowded that Ledbetter’s newspaper route had 100 customers on three blocks. Detroit prided itself on world-class services, from the beaches of nearby Belle Isle and a network of streetcars to libraries with well-stocked shelves whose books on the American West Ledbetter devoured.

“I practically lived there,” he said.

The neighborhood, like many in Detroit, had grown around factories. Many were sprawling, chaotic places typified by the Packard Plant on East Grand, which employed more than 30,000 workers during the height of World War II.

By 1950, 36 years after Henry Ford began paying workers $5 a day, Detroit’s population had quadrupled. Some 350,000 moved to the city seeking work during the war.

Afterward, the auto industry deemed multi-story plants inefficient. Manufacturers favored sprawling, single-story facilities that extended assembly lines and covered hundreds if not thousands of acres.

From 1945 to 1960, car companies built 33 plants in Metro Detroit. None was in Detroit. The city had no space because of the population explosion and was landlocked since its last annexation in 1926.

“(There was) no room to rejuvenate the manufacturing base on a single-story platform,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who studies land use and ran for mayor in 1977.

The east side was the hardest hit, losing 70,000 jobs in the 1950s, as competition and consolidation forced closure or mergers of automakers such as Hudson and Packard.

Government policies encouraged suburban growth. The city’s congestion, deteriorating housing and new highways made it easier for residents to leave.

Most blacks had nowhere to go. They were confined to pockets of the city, hemmed in by federal housing policies and activist groups that enforced segregation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhoods such as Black Bottom thrived with hundreds of black-owned businesses. By the 1950s, the neighborhoods had begun to decline and blacks were increasingly relegated to housing projects.

New arrivals brought old prejudices. They erupted in 1943, when a shoving incident on Belle Isle ignited a three-day riot between blacks and whites that left 34 dead.

“You had a system that pits against each other immigrant whites and blacks from the South,” said the Rev. Richard Sauerzopf, who studies Detroit for Michigan State University’s Global Urban Studies Program.

“In Detroit, the solution wasn’t to make it work. It was to leave.”

By the end of the 1950s, the suburbs were in full flower. Northland Center in Southfield, then the world’s largest shopping center, had opened in 1954. Two years later, Detroit’s water department began expanding lines to farm fields to expand city revenues.

By decade’s end, 1 of 4 white residents would leave the city. On Lakewood, the surrounding neighborhood lost 2,000 of its 13,600 residents in the 1950s.

Blacks lived about five blocks away. There were only seven total in the neighborhood. But as layoffs mounted, Ledbetter said neighbors asked: “How long before blacks move in and lower property values?”

“There were an awful lot of whites who didn’t like blacks,” said Ledbetter, who added he never heard his parents disparage African-Americans.

The 1960s: Race tensions boil over

A unique sound from Detroit — Motown — was on the airwaves. And Lakewood proved equally harmonious to David and Carol Angeleri when they moved a few doors down from the Ledbetters in 1963.

“It was one of the most beautiful neighborhoods a kid could grow up in … ,” he said. “We look back at it as if it was almost a utopia.”

Upon graduating from Southeastern High School, David Angeleri faced traditional career choices: factory life, the military or perhaps college. Angeleri opted for a job with the city, beginning as a clerk.

It paid less than auto plants, but provided stability and decent benefits. He concluded factory work “wasn’t for me” after seeing his uncle careen from overtime-stuffed paychecks to months-long strikes and layoffs.

At the time, the city governmenthad about 23,000 workers. They operated four city-owned hospitals, two zoos, meat and dairy inspections, welfare rolls and “everything else that dawned on people to do because the City Council sat around thinking, ‘What can we do for the people to keep getting elected?’ ” said Edward Rago, a former budget official who began working for the city in 1964.

But tensions were rising, inside City Hall and out. Crime was up. Police were cracking down. A year before the Angeleris moved in, a young, charismatic mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, took office and inherited a $28 million budget deficit.

He pushed through the city’s first income tax on residents and commuters. His predecessor, Louis Miriani, had passed a massive property tax increase. So began a series of cash infusions that would bridge the gap for about a decade until the next crisis, Rago said.

It continued for decades until Detroit had the highest tax rate of any big city in America.

“People kept leaving, but City Hall never downsized as we dropped off. Once jobs are created, they are hard to get rid of,” Rago said.

The city’s racial tensionscouldn’t be solved with more money. Motown may have brought blacks and whites together nationwide, but it couldn’t do the same for its namesake city.

Blacks flooded to Detroit to work in auto plants through World War II, but typically got the worst jobs in foundries. The barriers remained after work.

From 1938 to 1968, Federal Housing Administration policies barred loans in neighborhoods with “inharmonious racial or nationality groups.” That made it virtually impossible for blacks to move into white areas. Those who did were often met by mobs who feared black neighbors would depress home values, Boyle said.

“Detroit’s great growth took place at the same time that segregation was created across the North,” said Boyle, whose book, “Arc of Justice,” chronicled Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black Detroit physician charged with murder for defending his home against angry whites in 1925.

“What makes Detroit different is the intensity, the scale and force that didn’t hit a lot of other cities,” Boyle said. “The worst part of (segregation) is that it made people who weren’t racist behave in racist ways: perfectly decent people caught up in these complex forces.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the city began demolishing culturally rich neighborhoods such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley on the east side. Eventually, the land became Interstate 75 and the Lafayette Park high-rise complex.

It was called urban renewal. It was known as Negro removal and thousands were forced from their homes, said the Rev. David Eberhard, a Lutheran minister who moved to Detroit in 1959 to operate Riverside Lutheran, about 2 miles from Lakewood.

“If you don’t want racial tensions that come with integration, then don’t disturb the neighborhoods,” Sauerzopf said. “They displaced hundreds of thousands of blacks and did it overnight. It was absolutely disastrous.”

Blacks’ frustration over police tactics, unemployment and the pace of the civil rights movement led to riots in Buffalo, Cincinnati and Newark in summer 1967. Detroit faced similar problems and Cavanagh warned “the city could explode.”

It did on July 23, 1967, when police raided an unlicensed speakeasy.

Mayhem and fires spread through the city. Eberhard rode up and down Jefferson — past Lakewood — telling kids to go home. He slept on the floor of his church with the window open, listening to gunfire.

“We’d been through Devil’s Nights before and I figured that, for most of these kids, it was just mischief,” said Eberhard, who became pastor of Historic Trinity Lutheran Church on Gratiot after Riverside closed.

“I was naive.”

Call them riots or rebellion, but the civil disobedience was the deadliest in the nation in at least 50 years. The five-day disturbance left 43 dead, 1,189 injured and 2,000 buildings destroyed.

On Lakewood, the Ledbetters were caught by the tug of history. Jobs continued to move to the suburbs and in 1966 his father was transferred to a new Chrysler plant in Trenton.

The family moved to Taylor, whose population tripled from 1950 to 1970 to nearly 70,000. The home on Lakewood languished for more than a year until it was sold to a real estate company two months after the riots.

The company flipped it to a black family. Ledbetter’s former neighbors were furious, tracked down his family and made threatening, anonymous phone calls.

The 1970s: A divided region

Five years later, about half the white residents had left Lakewood when Joseph Hunter bought his brick and white clapboard house.

Moving to Lakewood in 1972, the 25-year-old from Alabama sensed a loss among fellow blacks. That year, Berry Gordy Jr. moved Motown Records to Los Angeles. Friends spoke wistfully about clubs in Paradise Valley that were bulldozed.

But neighbors knew each other and got along. High branches arched a canopy over Lakewood. Lawns were mowed and sidewalks shoveled.

“All but one of the spaces on my street were filled up,” said Hunter, who is now 66.

Hunter quickly found work installing bolts on Plymouth Volares and Dodge Aspens at Chrysler’s Dodge Main plant. The complex, which made the first Dodge in 1914, had become a shadow of itself. At its peak during World War II, it employed 40,000. When Hunter started work, he was one of 8,000 left.

Detroit was hammered by the 1973 oil crisis and competition from smaller, foreign cars. The federal government undercut profits by mandating fuel economy standards in 1975. The Big Three responded with flops — the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.

High-profile efforts to rejuvenatethe city had mixed success.

The Renaissance Center was supposed to revive downtown when it opened in 1977, but was lambasted as a fortress that suffocated surrounding businesses. The People Mover was announced in the 1970s as the hub of a regional transit system, but funding cuts reduced it to a 3-mile loop around a moribund downtown by the time it opened in 1987.

“I wouldn’t say the decline was inevitable,” said Bettie Buss, a former budget analyst who worked for the city from 1969 to 1986. “Other manufacturing cities were able to pivot to a new economic base, but the longer you let things go and don’t make the hard decisions, it became inevitable.”

She and others said a regional government approach could have helped the city. Detroiters may have been moving to the suburbs, but the region’s population was stagnant at about 4 million, creating opportunities for partnerships.

Instead, relations continued to sour.The city’s first black mayor, Coleman A. Young, took office in 1974. That year, the city had 714 homicides, up nearly 600 in 10 years, and became known as the Murder Capital of America.

Young’s inaugural speech addressing the problem became notorious.

“I issue an open warning to all the dope pushers, to all the rip-off artists, to all muggers,” he said. “It is time to leave Detroit. Hit Eight Mile Road.”

Many blacks took it as a livelier version of the same anti-crime speech mayors had made for 20 years. Others heard something altogether different: An invitation to white residents to leave.

So began a long-running suburb-city battle that featured Young as a star player until his retirement in 1993.

“Coleman Young was the most unpopular person in Oakland County,” said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who came to prominence in the 1970s as a private attorney representing opponents of a busing plan in Detroit and Pontiac.

“He turned off the suburbs with his vitriolic media comments. More than acerbic, they were downright nasty.”

Young’s backers said whites mistook the mayor’s strident defense of Detroit as race baiting. They point to his efforts to expand businesses, shrink the city’s deficit and launch a string of high-profile projects including Joe Louis Arena and the expansion of Cobo Center.

“Coleman knew that blacks in Detroit never owned anything, they worked for someone else. He wanted to change that,” said Eberhard, the Lutheran pastor who was elected to the City Council in the 1970s.

“He fought like hell for the city. People didn’t like him because he cussed and was black.”

Young was elected amid an uproar over efforts to end segregation in Detroit Public Schools. An initial plan would have bused children from 53 districts outside Detroit into the city and send Detroit children into the suburbs.

The plan was scrapped. A second plan, for Detroit residents, would have sent children across the city to racially balance schools.

The Angeleris had moved to Coram Street on the northeast side and could see their children’s elementary school from their front porch. The plan — which would have sent them to schools across town — was too much.

Save for one year of kindergarten for their oldest daughter, they sent their children to Catholic schools.

“We resented that. We were already paying taxes and we had to do this to keep my kids safe,” Carol Angeleri said.

By decade’s end, 414,000 whites would leave, making Detroit a majority black city.

Most whites left Lakewood as well. Hunter suffered one layoff after another as the auto industry foundered. He was transferred to Chrysler’s Lynch Road assembly plant that made the Chrysler New Yorker, Dodge St. Regis and Plymouth Gran Fury.

The jeweler, shoe store and bakery on Jefferson closed.

In 1979, Chrysler announced it would permanently shut Dodge Main and Lynch Road.

“I wasn’t worried,” Hunter said. “All of Chrysler couldn’t just go away.”

The 1980s: The crack wars

On Jan. 7, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act, authorizing a $1.5 billion bailout of the automaker.

The money allowed Chrysler to bounce back from near death with the introduction of the K-Car and, later, the first minivan, the Dodge Caravan.

It was made in Windsor, Ont. No one came to Detroit’s rescue.

Most plants in the city and state laid off workers. Statewide, unemployment was 17 percent. Among blacks in Detroit, it was closer to 40 percent. By 1981, Ford Motor Co. stock plummeted, prompting speculation of bankruptcy.

Young fought to keep jobs in the city by partnering with General Motors Corp. to use eminent domain in 1981 to clear land in the Poletown neighborhood for General Motors Corp.’s $500 million Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

The plan forced 4,200 people from their homes, demolished 140 businesses and led to a 29-day sit-in at Immaculate Conception Church that ended when police forcibly removed 20 protesters.

As Detroit continued to bleed jobs, a new industry was born near Lakewood. One block from Joseph Hunter’s house, in an abandoned home on Newport, a marijuana dealer named Billy Chambers introduced a new product: crack cocaine.

Like generations of Detroiters, Chambers and his three brothers migrated from the South — Marianna, Ark. — to make money. Like Henry Ford before them, they perfected mass production and distribution. Their products: $5, $10 and $20 rocks of crack.

By 1987, Chambers controlled or supplied half of Detroit’s 1,000 crack houses. One of their top lieutenants appeared on a video dipping his hand into a laundry basket full of dollar bills and exclaiming, “money, money, money!”

The dealers were so flush they handed out $1 bills to residents. It was lousy compensation for the toll crack took on the city. By 1987, emergency rooms in city hospitals reported 4,500 cocaine-related admissions. After years of decline, the city’s homicide rate peaked that year at 63.5 murders per 100,000 residents.

Lakewood was a war zone.

“Old people are robbed as they walk to the bank on Jefferson,” remembered Hunter, who worked for a Mopar parts plant in Center Line after Dodge Main closed.

“Crackheads were like zombies. They just stole and did crack.”

Family life was changing fast. In 1970, 70 percent of Detroit children had both parents at home. Ten years later, just less than half did. Mirroring trends nationwide among the poor, that number eventually fell to 30 percent today.

As jobs diminished and families split, household incomes fell 25 percent from 1970 to 1980 to $36,500 in today’s dollars. Detroit typically lagged the nation in educational achievement, but by the 1980s, teens could no longer quit high school one day and get a good job at a parts supplier the next.

As options waned, violence increased. By 1988, the Chambers brothers were indicted and imprisoned. That left Detroit’s crack industry wide open and drug gangs fought and killed for turf.

The media called an empty apartment complex on Lakewood “the crack house that can’t be cracked.” It was raided by police, and then reopened. It was firebombed but operated like a drive-through bank teller.

“I could see a little tube come out from behind the plywood,” to a waiting customer outside, Hunter said. “They would drop some cash in the tube, push the tube back in behind the plywood and the tube came back out again with something.”

Hunter’s wife began sleeping on the floor, afraid of stray bullets from a drive-by shooting.

The elms lining Lakewood began to rot. Neighbors left and weren’t replaced. In one decade, the block lost half its 105 occupied homes.

The 1990s: New hope, old problems

By 1993, the only work on Lakewood was bulldozers demolishing vacant houses. As the houses went down, the trees went with them.

As empty spaces expanded, city crews sporadically cut grass but did such a poor job that Hunter and neighbor Joann Thomas began to do it themselves.

The neighborhood was falling fast, with more vacant homes than occupied ones.

“My mortgage was paid off, so I wasn’t going anywhere,” said Thomas, who moved onto Lakewood in 1978 and worked for General Motors.

“People think all this mess happens all at once. But it happens piece by piece and you don’t really understand how much it’s changed.”

At City Hall, the writing was on the wall as well, said Buss, the former city budget official. Under Mayor Dennis Archer, the city had five years of budget surpluses. SUVs launched another comeback for the auto industry. But long-range forecasts made it clear a storm was looming.

In 1950, the city had 1.8 million residents and 8,500 retirees. In 40 years, the number of retirees doubled, while the population fell by half and the tax base by a third. The city’s workforce didn’t keep pace with the decline, falling 13 percent to 19,903 from 1960.

“After a while, the numbers got so dire there was a decision not to do the numbers anymore,” said Buss, who left the city in 1986 and continued to consult the city for private planning groups for another 25 years.

“I would make a presentation and (city officials) would follow me and say, ‘We have a plan. It’s going to fix everything.’ Then they would just borrow more money. It was just pathetic.”

The budgets became more fluid as the city’s tax base shrank. Instead of raises, mayors since the 1970s gave unions concessions, Buss said. The perks made it harder to fire workers, provided premium health care and allowed dozens of employees to work full-time on union issues.

The city had a handful of unions in the 1960s. Most had little power. That began to change in the late 1960s after the Michigan Legislature passed laws allowing for binding arbitration in police and fire unions and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees began aggressively organizing city workers.

By the end of the 1990s, the city had 48 unions.

Part of City Hall’s resistance to meaningful reform was the boom-bust mentality of the auto industry, Buss said. The city had been on the brink so many times before and always bounced back.

“It was so easy. The auto industry was the goose that laid the golden egg for us,” Buss said.

“It formed a lot of cultural expectations of decent wages for low-skilled jobs. It affected the wages and fringes in the public sector. It created a strong union environment and a whole series of union requirements about what a good job was.”

The city’s influence in Lansing had fallen with its economic clout.

In 1970, Detroit was home to 60 percent of the region’s jobs and 20 percent of those in the state. By 2000, one-third of the region’s jobs were in Detroit and only 6 percent of the state’s jobs.

As the ’90s closed, Gov. John Engler signeda series of laws that would have been unthinkable when Detroit was Michigan’s economic engine. In 1999, state Republicans erased residency rules for municipal workers in Detroit and other cities and removed the Detroit Public Schools’ Board of Education amid accusations of mismanagement.

A year earlier, the state agreed to a deal that gradually lowered Detroit’s income tax in exchange for more revenue sharing. Within a few years, the state would rescind its promise for more money.

The city, though, had a new lifeline: casinos.

And Lakewood had one as well: James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson, a retired Detroit police officer who took it upon himself to keep the neighborhood safe when police couldn’t.

The 2000s: Flash, then crash

The 21st century dawned with new promise and false facades.

Dozens were thrown up, along with wiring and furniture, in abandoned storefronts on Woodward Avenue to convert them into temporary bars for Super Bowl XL in 2006. They were abandoned again after the game, but the good feelings lingered.

Downtown hadn’t looked so good in years, with three new casinos that provided the city some $172 million a year, two new sports arenas, Comerica Park and Ford Field, and a revamped riverfront.

“There was a swell of excitement,” said Reginald Hartsfield, a business consultant and nursing home operator. “It was good for business.”

A new mayor with a diamond stud earring, Kwame Kilpatrick, took office in 2002 promising rebirth. On his agenda: rebuilding Lakewood and the surrounding neighborhood.

In 2005, Kilpatrick agreed to a deal with former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who promised to spend $258 million building 3,000 houses on 1,200 acres. In return, Detroit spent millions of dollars acquiring land, razing homes and rebuilding roads.

Known as the New Far East Side Development, it built no homes but provided work to contractors including a friend of the mayor, Bobby Ferguson.

By then, Lakewood had become a street of empty spaces. From Hunter’s porch, he had a clear view to the next block, Newport, which also was mainly empty. Even the Chambers brothers’ first crack house had been demolished.

The street was riddled with potholes, but that didn’t stop Jack Rabbit Jackson. He started patrolling the neighborhood in his flat-bed tow truck in 2001, a few years before the city shut the 5th police precinct nearby and eliminated 1,900 police officers citywide.

“When I started, a lot of other streets were under siege,” said Jackson, 65, who retired from the force in 1984. “It was homeowners versus the drug dealers and criminals. And the good people needed some help.”

Jackson helped build a network of neighbors, businesses and community groups.

On occasion, he carries a gun during patrols but prefers a video camera. He filmed drug dealers working in abandoned homes, burglars casing houses, chop shoppers dismantling cars and leaving behind stripped frames.

More than once, he waited in his home certain a car outside was a revenge-seeking drug dealer. They were likely deterred by surveillance cameras on Jackson’s porch and scurried back into the shadows.

“You ask anybody around here, they trust Jack Rabbit just as much as the police to stop things around here,” said Thomas, 68, who is retired from GM.

She and others lost faith in the city to provide basic services. By mid-decade, police response times averaged up to an hour or more, ambulances routinely broke, firefighters lacked equipment and 40 percent of the streetlights didn’t work.

That’s partly because the influx of casino money was a short-term fix for long-term problems.By 2005, the city faced a $230 million budget shortfall and had more retirees, 20,000, than workers, 17,000.

Kilpatrick borrowed big, $1.4 billion in 2005 and 2006 to fund the city’s pension systems, then $130 million in 2006 to pay its bills.

“You don’t borrow yourself into a positive position,” said Patterson of Oakland County. “It was pure mismanagement and unbridled spending.”

The bottom fell out in 2008. In September, Kilpatrick resigned facing charges he lied under oath during a police whistle-blower trial.

A month later, the stock market crashed, dragged down by a wave of subprime housing loans. That year, some 4,000 homes per month would go into foreclosure in Detroit, the most in the nation.

As Kilpatrick sat in jail and the nation teetered toward depression, executives from General Motors and Chrysler Corp. flew in corporate jets to ask Capitol Hill for help for their companies.

Both went through bankruptcy but rebounded, aided by an $80 billion government bailout, dramatic restructurings and Fiat’s takeover of Chrysler.

Four years later, the city followed suit, declaring bankruptcy in federal court downtown.

The filing came four months after Kilpatrick stood in the same courthouse and heard jurors find him guilty of public corruption. He and Ferguson were convicted of enriching themselves by fixing bids on public works projects.

Among them: Ferguson’s repairs of water mains along Lakewood for the New Far East Side revitalization project that stalled before a single house was built.

The rebirth may have never happened, but Lakewood residents got some good news in 2011. City crews replaced streetlights that hadn’t worked in years.

They worked for a few weeks. Then they went off and Lakewood again went dark.

Epilogue: What remains

Those whose lives were shaped by Lakewood are left trying to reconcile memories and reality.

Like thousands of autoworkers’ sons, Hassel Ledbetter escaped the factory. A love of learning, fostered at the Detroit Public Library branch on Kercheval, propelled him to leave Michigan. He got a doctorate in physics in the 1960s from the University of Illinois and is now an engineering professor at University of Colorado at Boulder.

He returned a few years ago. The neighborhood he remembers is gone. His house at 1295 Lakewood is a vacant lot owned by Mike Kelly, Detroit’s biggest land speculator. Only 18 of the 100 homes on Ledbetter’s childhood paper route remain.

“I was stunned,” Ledbetter said. “My mind just cannot grasp that and the reasons it could be allowed to happen.”

Safety fears forced the Angeleris to leave the city for Warren in 1993, when David retired as a fire dispatcher. Their old home on Coram now sits in the most murderous ZIP code in America, 48205. It’s patrolled by their son, a Detroit police officer, and son-in-law, a firefighter.

The couple said they’re still loyal to Detroit, but wonder if it’s loyal to them. They worry how bankruptcy would affect David’s $30,000 annual pension — and wonder how a city that not long ago was full of people, houses and taxpayers could be in this situation.

“We didn’t see this,” David Angeleri said. “Like all retirees we’re devastated.”

On Lakewood, years of disinvestment and tumult have faded to calm.

Eleven occupied homes remain between swaths of scrub. The surrounding neighborhood’s population has fallen to 1,700 from 13,600 in 1950. Joseph Hunter leaves a rusted car in the driveway of the empty house next door to make it seem occupied. He drinks only bottled water because the new pipes laid to revive the neighborhood make tap water taste like sewage.

People treat the street like a dumping ground for trash, but Lakewood is primed for a comeback, Hunter said. He’s just not sure he’ll be alive to see it.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Joann Thomas spends her retirement mowing acres of vacant fields surrounding her home. Some weeks, she’s out there every day.

“At night, all you hear is crickets,” she said. “There’s whole families of deer now and possums. I wouldn’t mind some neighbors, but there’s no more trouble. It’s beautiful.”

The factories are long gone. So are the small shops. Even the empty homes have been picked clean by scrappers. There is little crime now because not much remains.

There is little left to steal on this block of what was once called a city of magic.

About this report

This report began with a question: Why Detroit? Other Rust Belt cities faced similar problems in the second half of the 20th century, but didn’t file for bankruptcy. The answer unfolded over eight weeks of research, thousands of pages of city budgets, financial audits, census data, street directories and contemporaneous news accounts, as well as dozens of interviews with experts, residents and former city officials.
The Detroit News told the story through Lakewood Street because it was touched by many of the issues that drove the city’s decline: racial tension, disinvestment, crime and public corruption. The News built databases from city directories to plot the history of the neighborhood and spent hours speaking with remaining residents.
The project team consisted of investigative team editor Joel Kurth, investigative reporter Mike Wilkinson, business reporter Louis Aguilar, graphics and page designer Carolyn Chin, graphics editor Tim Summers and videographer Ankur Dholakia.

(313) 222-2513

Detroit was called a city of magic. But as optimistic residents celebrated its 250th birthday in July 1951, it was already in decline.
Hassel Ledbetter, 76, grew up on Lakewood Street. He now lives in Colorado, ... (Barry Gutierrez / AP)
David Angeleri and wife Carol moved to Lakewood in 1963 but eventually ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
Joseph Hunter moved to Lakewood in 1972 as a 25-year-old. (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
Retired Detroit Police Officer James Jackson is known by his neighbors as ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
Lakewood resident Joann Thomas has taken matters into her own hands to ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)