By MAUREEN O’HARA
Capital News Service
LANSING — It was only 25 years ago when Rochester Hills resident Lisa Thielemans excitedly boarded a bus to work in downtown Detroit. Now, that once-busy haven of boutiques and restaurants is all but a memory.
A new study by the University of Michigan’s Institute of for Social Research found that 25 years ago, 35 percent of Detroit residents were “completely satisfied” with life in the urban city, while only 22 percent felt the same in 2001.
Robert W. Marans, a U-M professor of architecture and urban planning and a senior research scientist at the ISR, said numerous factors can influence the results.
“Compared to residents of Detroit 25 years ago, those living in the city today expressed a lower sense of satisfaction with their lives,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether Detroit can truly improve.”
Sen. Joe Young, D-Detroit, believes that Detroit’s constant struggle with neighborhood perception is what keeps people from staying.
“I remember when Detroit was the place to be,” Young said. “1974 was when black pride shifted into focus with the election of Mayor Coleman Young.
“The city shows its scars and Kwame Kilpatrick will have the opportunity to change neighborhood perception.”
Thielemans agrees that life in Detroit was significantly better when she worked downtown at Michigan Bell in her early 20s. Even the commute, she said, is something that many people don’t do anymore. Thielemans currently works as a receptionist at a local elementary school.
“My dad would drop me off at the bus stop and wait until it left,” she said. “Then he would be waiting when I got off. Who does that anymore?”
The study found that while three-quarters of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties residents were at least “somewhat satisfied” with their neighborhoods in both 1974 and 2001, Detroit residents’ satisfaction plunged from 71 percent to 48 percent.
“It was such a shock to be a young adult and see people on the street begging for money,” Thielemans said. “Within such a short time period, I could see the city go downhill.
“First, there were boarded-up buildings, then stores and restaurants closed. It was terrible.”
Danielle Moccia, a University of Detroit Mercy freshman, believes that restoration efforts are a necessary part in bringing more people back to the city. The university has bought a lot of the surrounding area to get rid of abandoned houses and buildings.
“I started to notice things like traffic lights not working,” she said. “But I think it’s slowly starting to pick back up again little by little.”
Diversity is one of the main things that Moccia views as an improvement to the city’s image. She no longer thinks of the crime-ridden area as dangerous, but instead values the “life lessons” that come with going to school downtown.
“I hope more schools are like this because it’s really opened my eyes,” she said.
Marans also discovered that while many believe the days of community spirit and friendly neighborhoods have disappeared, a slightly higher percentage of residents surveyed in 2001 said that they were satisfied with their lives as a whole compared to 1974.
“Objective indicators of quality-of-life such as housing conditions and population density have changed dramatically over the past few decades,” he said. “But in the midst of all the change, subjective feelings of satisfaction have been remarkably stable.”
Being content with life in Southeast Michigan has come about because of a number of different reasons, Marans said, not just the community itself.
“Feelings about community have been offset by other things that are more important to them now, such as family, job and health,” he said. “Over time, other things improve besides where you live.”
But for Thielemans, the sprawling community feeling of Rochester is what drew her to it, despite a decrease in housing satisfaction from 82 percent to 75 percent in 2001.
“There is definitely a high standard of living in the area, but I just think it’s because people’s expectations are higher,” she said. “There are more things to do and more opportunities.”
Marans attributes the decline in satisfaction to an aging housing stock coupled with the desire to have the newest, most up-to-date furnishings possible.
“A house that was bought 25 years ago is not going to be the same house now,” he said. “It’s just simply not new, and new is what people want.”
Perhaps the biggest drop is neighborhood satisfaction among Detroit city residents. Plummeting from 71 percent to 48 percent, people’s rising aspirations prove that the city has not keep up, according to Marans.
“It’s hard to say what will happen with the new mayor,” he said. “In terms of improvement, he may have better services with his cleanup campaign for example, but he has the opportunity to make a change over a four-year period.”
Increased cleanup efforts have begun, as both Moccia and Thielemans have noticed, but both agree that the “good old days” of taking a trip downtown are gone.
“While they may be valiantly trying to get back to the old days, I don’t see it happening in my lifetime,” Thielemans said. “Even walking to the Fox Theater today means avoiding broken glass. It’s just so sad.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By MAUREEN O’HARA