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Detroit Hopes to Showcase Improvements

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Detroit, Michigan hopes to showcase improvements

Friday, January 9, 2004 Posted: 8:23 AM EST (1323 GMT)

story.detroit.jpg

Part of the Detroit, Michigan skyline,with the Labor Legacy Monument "Transcending" in the foreground

DETROIT, Michigan (AP) -- When people think of Detroit, many picture a barren and unwelcoming place defined by violence and poverty -- but the city gets a chance to shake that reputation once a year.

The annual North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public Saturday, brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Motor City. Last year, more than 810,000 attended.

They come to check out the latest from the auto industry, but local officials hope they notice changes in the city as well.

"This auto show gives us the opportunity to introduce Detroit to the world again," Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said.

Since the last show, retail and nightlife have expanded downtown, as long-running development projects finally begin to bear fruit. Business owners say they see more activity lately, and restaurant-goers can't count on finding parking spots in front of their favorite establishments.

Once a booming industrial city with a population approaching 2 million a half-century ago, Detroit is fighting to attract people to its aging urban center. The city's population, which fell below 1 million during the 1990s, has continued eroding steadily in the new century, according to Census Bureau estimates released in July that put Detroit's population at 925,051 as of July 2002.

Morgan Quitno Press, a Lawrence, Kansas-based research company, has ranked Detroit as the nation's most dangerous city in the past four out of five years. The rankings are based on a city's rate for six crime categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.

Critics: Detroit has high murder rate, few restaurants

Of the 10 largest U.S. cities, Detroit had the highest per capita homicide rate last year -- 39 per 100,000 residents. However, some smaller cities, including the nation's capital, had higher per capita homicide rates.

Less serious a problem, but still a source of widespread criticism, is that Detroit has few restaurants compared to other major cities and even fewer stores.

Ornate buildings from the early 20th century stand vacant, their windows boarded up and interiors looted. Outside of rush hour, pedestrians are rare. Steam spewing out of heating pipes under the pavement makes the city seem even more desolate.

For at least a decade, Detroit's leaders have been saying downtown is undergoing a renaissance. The city's boosters say those who venture here only for occasional events like the auto show will see a difference.

Entertainment options have been expanding, and nine new restaurants opened downtown last year, Kilpatrick said.

Among the physical changes in the past year is the opening of a new music center, which includes the restoration of the historic Orchestra Hall with its near-flawless acoustics. Compuware moved its headquarters from suburban Farmington Hills to downtown Detroit. Its new building, where about 4,000 people work, also houses a Borders bookstore and a Hard Rock Cafe, both of which opened to great fanfare in November.

These latest additions are part of a recent period of development that has included General Motors' 1996 purchase of the Renaissance Center skyscrapers for its headquarters, the opening of two new stadiums, an opera house and three casinos, and the conversion of many old buildings into lofts.

"For us who've been around here through the dark days, it's like day and night," said Lowell Boileau, an artist whose online exhibit of photographs, "The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" chronicles both decay and rebirth. "Five to seven years ago, you basically could have shot a cannon (through downtown) and not hit anybody."

Sorin Ratiu, a resident of nearby Sterling Heights, said the city seemed cleaner to him as he showed his visiting mother around on a recent afternoon. But Ratiu, 40, said Detroit was still "a bit desolate" and that he avoids it at night.

More changes have been promised in the coming years. A small park with a fountain is being built in front of the Compuware building. Plans are in the works for a system of connected parks along the riverfront. The 2006 Super Bowl, to be hosted by Detroit, is a target date for much of the work.

Karla Zimmerman, who wrote the Great Lakes section of the upcoming edition of Lonely Planet's U.S. guide, said Detroit's "post-apocalyptic feel," combined with several renowned museums, make it a fascinating destination.

"If you're from a different country and you're trying to get a feel for what the U.S.A. is like, Detroit is kind of a nice bite," she said.

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