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Away from Super Bowl glitz, many in Detroit live a grim reality

Associated Press

Detroit — Before the Super Bowl kickoff this weekend, private planes will land here, limousines will clog the streets, and lavish parties will be thrown for those with famous names or lots of money. The kitchens of Ford Field will be stocked with two tonnes of lobster.

Much of the rest of Detroit, though, is a landscape dotted with burned-out buildings, where liquor stores abound but supermarkets are hard to come by, and where drugs, violence and unemployment are everyday realities.

Officials in the poorest big city in the U.S. see hosting the game as a huge boost. They say it will be a catalyst for further development and provide a chance to improve Detroit's gritty reputation. They hope visitors will take note of new restaurants, clubs and lofts downtown. To make sure the city makes a good impression, dilapidated buildings have been torn down, roads repaved and landmarks renovated.

Yet with the exception of a few square kilometres in the centre of town, many residents say they have not seen any improvement. And they don't expect the Super Bowl to have an effect on their lives.

"They spend all that money on the Super Bowl . . . but they ain't doing nothing for here," said Arthur Lauderdale, 59, who lives about six kilometres from the heart of downtown on Detroit's east side.

The scenery along Van Dyke Street near Lauderdale's home would be familiar to anyone who has seen "8 Mile," Eminem's movie about life in Detroit. The street's once-bustling commercial section is dominated by boarded-up stores, charred buildings and vacant lots. The only signs of activity are at storefront churches and the occasional liquor store and hot-dog joint.

That is not to say there are no thriving areas outside of downtown. Detroit has several historic neighbourhoods of stately mansions, and new housing developments for the middle class have sprung up here and there. But those are exceptions in a city that people have been fleeing for half a century.

Lauderdale's neighbour, 56-year-old Lenerle Workman, said she recently moved back to Van Dyke Street, where she grew up, only because of special tax breaks for homeowners in the neighbourhood. She recalled a time when the street was lined with trees and a florist occupied what is now an empty lot across from her home.

"There's blocks where there's only one house (left) on the block," she said. "Where did all those people go?"

Nearly two million people lived in Detroit in the 1950s; today it has fewer than 900,000. According to the Census Bureau, more than a third of those people lived at or below the federal poverty line in 2004, the largest percentage of any U.S. city with a population of 250,000 or more.

Detroit's 2005 unemployment rate was 14.1 per cent, more than 21/2 times the national level.

The city has announced deep cuts in services over the past year to cope with an enormous deficit. Hundreds of municipal employees have been laid off, bus service has been scaled back, nine recreation centres have been shuttered, and bulk trash pickup has been cancelled.

"We're forgotten people," Workman said.

Walking home from a bus stop, 54-year-old Raymond Parker said recent development in the city would not help him.

"They're building up for the middle class," said Parker, who works at a soup kitchen and does not have a car or a telephone. "I don't knock it, but until I get to that pay scale, it wouldn't affect me."

Detroit, which logged 374 homicides last year, consistently ranks at or near the top of an annual list of the most dangerous cities compiled by Morgan Quitno Press.

City officials say Super Bowl visitors should not be intimidated by the statistics, saying downtown is relatively safe.

But that is small comfort in outlying neighbourhoods.

Workman points to a bus stop at the corner where a young man was recently shot to death. She is disturbed by the comings and goings at a reputed drug house next door and by the hostile-looking youths who hang around outside the liquor store across the street.

She and her neighbours say they cannot count on police to help in this part of the city.

"You learn how to adapt and keep you a gun," Lauderdale said.

Organizers of the Super Bowl festivities have sought to ensure the larger community is not ignored amid all the VIP parties. Besides a free four-day winter festival being held downtown ahead of the game, dozens of fundraisers will collect money for mostly local charities. The NFL and the city's Super Bowl host committee are each contributing $1 million US toward construction of a $6-million youth centre.

Host committee chairman Roger Penske said he is optimistic that the development that has started downtown will gradually spread to the rest of the city.

Parker, the soup kitchen employee, said he does not begrudge Super Bowl revellers their fun, but he won't be joining in.

"We, as people who don't have that kind of money, shouldn't even be downtown," he said.

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