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Detroit Fights to Stem Urban Flight

Troubled US metropolis tries offbeat solutions to bridge gap between city and suburbs.

With his clipped gray beard and European-cut suit, Richard Kokochak lacks that rugged, pioneering look. But in the quest to revitalize inner-city Detroit, Mr. Kokochak is a veritable Daniel Boone.

A year ago, the Detroit native forged ahead with an exploit his suburban friends called preposterous: He launched an upscale bed-and-breakfast amid a tangle of expressways in Detroit's decayed urban core.

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Kokochak's efforts to lure guests were even more daring. He offered "alternative tours" of junkyards and graffiti - leading visitors crawling into abandoned buildings, and hiking along overgrown train tracks into encampments of the homeless. He's not yet breaking even, but he says guests from Paris to Pontiac are spending $125 a night to stay at his offbeat inn.

As one of America's most-troubled cities struggles back to its feet, Kokochak's inventiveness is attracting what Detroit needs most: people.

While Detroit's megaprojects have been widely publicized - a dual stadium complex, three casinos, and the headquarters of the world's largest car company - experts in urban renewal say ventures like Kokochak's inn in the immigrant neighborhood of Corktown are vital for a genuine inner-city renaissance - rebuilding communities from the curbside up.

Detroit needs "a 24-hour life," says Christine Burdick, interim president of the International Downtown Association in Washington. To become truly vibrant, it must draw people into the fabric of urban neighborhoods, to shop, dine out, stroll, and live.

But after decades of abandonment and stagnation, Motown has far to go.

"We don't have a downtown yet ... a real ... downtown with retail, with restaurants, with coffeehouses, with boutiques," Mayor Dennis Archer says.

For 30 years, the city lost jobs, businesses, and residents to the suburbs. In the 1990s alone, the population, which is 80 percent black, dropped 3.7 percent to less than 1 million.

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Virtually no new single family homes were built in recent decades. Many neighborhoods still lack basic amenities such as supermarkets, eateries, and drug stores. More than 100 buildings in the city stand vacant.

Meanwhile, the divide between Detroit and its predominantly white suburbs deepened. Archer recalls people at suburban cocktail parties bragging about who'd avoided the city the longest.

But if Detroit boosters like Kokochak have their way, suburbanites, tourists, and others will soon be flocking into the city.

A block away from where Kokochak opened his inn last year, Hildegard Loebell palms the steering wheel of her gold 1984 Mercury as she drives through Corktown.

"This is probably our shabbiest street," Ms. Loebell says as she passes a row of sagging, 1890s vintage townhouses. "That place on the corner, it collapsed after someone stole a jack from under the foundation."

In Corktown, as in many Detroit communities, boarded-up houses and vacant lots still testify to years of decline. But today these emblems of neglect are mixed with signs of change: Old homes being renovated, new shops, and the community's first building boom in decades.

Corktown is not unique. Citywide, some 3,800 new housing units are now under way and property values have shot up 23 percent in the past three years.

Many Detroit residents credit Mayor Archer with paving the way for the rebound. A former corporate lawyer, Archer took office in 1994 and moved quickly to dismantle roadblocks of race and resentment that have long alienated the city and its suburbs.

"Before, the majority of people outside felt not only that [Detroit] was unsafe, dirty, and nasty - but that they were unwanted," says Loebell. "The new administration has made a tremendous difference."

One measure of Archer's success is the increased demand and rising prices for homes. Three-bedroom homes that sold for $25,000 four years ago now sell for $60,000. And although most people moving into Detroit are single or childless, families are also trickling in.

"Now we have half a dozen kids around the block," says Cary Watkins, a mother of one who lives in Corktown.

Yet Archer has his critics. Some residents and experts complain that the Archer administration has adopted a "big bang theory" that neglects small-scale neighborhood efforts. Smaller developers badly need more low-interest loan pools, flexible building codes, and a streamlined building-permit process, they say.

"The battle to do sustainable, small-scale economic development in Detroit is very difficult," says Kurt Weigle, president of Cityscape Detroit, a nonprofit economic development group.

Still, small businesses are cropping up. Ms. Watkins, who recently opened a flower shop at her home on Bagley Street, envisions the area becoming an urban village. "It will be a very quaint little place to live and shop in," she says, "a touristy kind of place."

Contrary to popular belief, crime is relatively low in Corktown and other inner-city Detroit neighborhoods, residents and development experts say. "Downtown is one of the safest parts of the city," Mr. Weigle says.

But plenty of hurdles remain for Watkins, Kokochak, and other Detroit residents who want to enliven their neighborhoods.

From the elegant sitting room of his Corktown Inn, Kokochak gazes out over high garden walls to a pockmarked freeway. Just beyond lies Briggs neighborhood, a trash-strewn stretch of burned-out and abandoned buildings. "Whether this will overnight turn into a San Francisco," Kokochak muses, "I don't know."

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