DETRIOT For 14 months, since 9/11/01, American politicians and news media have bird-dogged the alleged injustice of U.S. government policy towards Arab minorities. But now along comes an unlikely source, the hit movie 8 Mile, to remind us of the real government injustice in America: 30 years of urban policy that have crippled a generation of American youth.
Behind the star power of the popular, foul-mouthed Eminem and a classic script about a young man trying to escape the ghetto, 8 Mile topped the box office at $54 million in its first weekend. But the movie is more than a star vehicle it is a brave, un-PC, and brutally honest portrayal of America's most infamous urban nightmare, Detroit.
The title of the movie is both a literal and symbolic reference to Eight Mile Road, the street that runs along the entire northern boundary of Detroit. As riots, nonexistent city services, and poor schools accelerated the exodus of Detroit's population in the last 30 years, Eight Mile also came to symbolize the growing rift between city and suburb, white and black, safe streets and crime. "Eight Mile" has come to be a generic term. Central Avenue or Telegraph Road on the west side and Mack Avenue on the eastern boundary are also "Eight Mile" roads. For movie director Curtis Hanson, Eight Mile is a metaphor for overcoming the odds.
And as politics, Eight Mile is stark evidence of the failure of liberal urban policy.
Coincidentally, greater metro Detroit is also home to America's most densely populated Arab-American community. And it is thriving.
Since 9/11, 20 new businesses have opened on a three-mile stretch of East Dearborn's Warren Avenue alone. The commercial heart of the Detroit area's 93,000-member Arab community, East Dearborn borders Detroit's west side. Warren Avenue is the American Dream come alive a street jammed with grocers, restaurants, and appliance stores that service the neat, working-class, predominantly Arab neighborhoods behind it. Shoppers of every ethnic variety bustle along the neatly manicured sidewalks from merchant to merchant, their stores' names displayed in both English and Arabic. It is an American success story, unaffected by the tremors of 9/11.
But when Warren Avenue crosses Central Avenue, the vista dramatically changes. Central marks the border of East Dearborn, the beginning of Detroit, and the end of hope. Like someone has flipped a switch, the streets are suddenly lifeless. Storefront after storefront stands empty or boarded up. Graffiti defaces walls, and grass pokes through cracked, neglected sidewalks. The few faces that populate these desolate streets are mostly African American.
When asked to explain the startling change where Warren meets Central, Detroit congressman John Conyers bluntly answers: "Racism." But the white/black divide of Eight Mile is really a myth a convenient crutch. Southfield, the prosperous suburb immediately northwest of Detroit is 54-percent African American. Dearborn is 30-percent Arab. Detroit's bordering townships are racial melting pots of Arab, Polish, black, and Jew, hardly the WASPish communities Conyers remark would lead you to believe.
The reason hope ends at Central, Telegraph, Eight Mile, and Mack is not because of racism, but government policy. Small entrepreneurs have no confidence that the city will protect their stores. Detroit charges a 1 percent income tax for non-residents working in Detroit. The city's ill-educated workforce sports a staggering 47-percent illiteracy rate. And a generation of welfare addicts are just now gaining the discipline necessary to keep a job.
The results of these public policies are everywhere. Detroit, Michigan's largest city with 970,000 people, has only one movie theater, the Phoenix on Eight Mile (where a man was shot in the stomach on the film's opening night). It does not contain a single large retail store. Not one. Detroiters must travel to neighboring Dearborn to find a Sears or a Marshall's. Seventy percent of children are born into single-parent households. Kids walking to school along Hamilton Avenue on the city's west side or John R Road on the east side just to use two of numerous examples pass rows of abandoned buildings (an estimated 10,700 dot the city), dope addicts and criminals often lurking inside. On the city's main street, Woodward Avenue, teenagers serve Popeye's and McDonald's kid's meals from behind bulletproof glass.
8 Mile's relentless depiction of this apocalyptic landscape has provoked cries from Detroit boosters that the film makes Detroit look like one big ghetto. No Detroit public officials attended the film's premier at The Phoenix presumably irked by its depiction of the city. The city's Democratic politicians hope that not talking about the city's problems will make them go away.
Speechless at the failure of liberal policies in Detroit, the state's Democratic politicians have just "moved on." This fall's competitive campaign for governor was shockingly devoid of solutions for urban Detroit. Instead, the Democrat's three primary candidates Jennifer Granholm, David Bonior, and Jim Blanchard concentrated on how to win Detroit's suburbs. Granholm won the party's nomination and ultimately the governorship by courting "soccer moms," declaring herself a bureaucracy-buster, and trumpeting her pro-choice abortion politics.
Improbably- given that not a single Republican has served in city government in memory conservative state politicians have been alone in proposing solutions to Detroit ' s crisis. Upon entering office in1990, GOP governor John Engler passed a series of sweeping welfare reforms that have lifted thousand of Detroiters into meaningful lives of work. He also spearheaded the creation of state "renaissance zones" impoverished areas designated tax-free in order to lure business development. In 1998, Engler made a deal with the city to reduce its job-crippling, non-resident income tax from 1.5 to .5 percent over ten years in exchange for increased revenue-sharing from the state. And in the late 1990s, state Republicans succeeded in approving charter schools finally providing Detroit parents with an alternative to the decaying public system. Today, with long waiting lists to get into existing charters, Republicans are proposing to raise the cap on the number of charters allowed.
At every turn, these reforms were met by fierce resistance from state and city Democrats and their entrenched union allies.
And so we have 8 Mile. It is sober reminder that at the dawn of the 21st century, America's greatest challenge is not to be more civil to those among us who "look different." Legally, minorities have achieved the means to fight injustice in this country. Today, much greater injustices are being perpetuated by government policies that are depriving inner-city children of the hope to grow up in stable families and communities.
Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News, and a freelance writer.