New Deal In Detroit

Dennis Archer, Detroit's first new mayor in 20 years, stood at the altar of the First United Methodist Church in suburban Birmingham and looked out at the virtually all-white congregation. A trim, balding, former state Supreme Court judge with wire-rim glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, Archer is a delicate hybrid of preacherly charisma and jurist's decorum. And on this Sunday evening last February, he spelled out the message of his mayoralty. "Let me suggest to you that we are in this fight together," Archer said. "Do we want America, as it is presently, a nation of mistrust merely because of a person's skin?"

Archer's olive-branch politics are a dramatic break from Detroit's recent past. His combative predecessor, Coleman Young, made a career of demonizing the suburbs. Over time, he grew bitter as white flight and global economic competition pushed Detroit into wrenching poverty. Suburbanites were part of a world of antagonists he blamed for his city's descent -- Republican presidents, prosecutors, journalists whose questions he answered in obscenity-laced tirades. Archer, 51 and a generation removed from his ex-mentor, has a shorter enemies list.

He is still struggling with a nearly impossible mission: reinventing an American city synonymous with urban abandonment and industrial ruin. He won election last November -- over a Young-endorsed opponent -- with two essential messages. To Detroiters, he promised restoration of a city government rotten with cronyism and incompetence. To those beyond the city limits, he offered an end to the racial demagoguery of the Young era and an approach based on regional cooperation. He joins a new generation of coalition-minded black mayors (including Mike White of Cleveland and Seattle's Norman Rice) trying to rebuild their cities by forging closer ties with surrounding white suburbs.

Over his first nine months, Archer has tried to energize a bureaucracy locked in an urban ice age. Years of declining budg-ets have left some city departments with rotary-dial phones. Young's tenure also spawned corruption -- his police chief went to jail in 1992 for embezzling $2.4 mil-lion. One of Archer's first executive orders outlawed a Young practice requiring many appointees to sell tickets to political fund-raisers. He also wrote to some holdover officials, asking, "What value do you add to this administration?" His 1995 budget cuts 270 managerial jobs.

Archer set the tone of renewal at his emotional January Inaugural. Often a bland, stumbling speaker, he brought the crowd to its feet with a thundering appeal for self-reliance. "Sweep the sidewalk in front of your house! . . . Pick up the broken glass in your alley! . . . Get a grip on your life and the lives of your children!"

Archer wants more than a new racial harmony with white suburbanites -- he wants their money. He is pushing a merger of the city and suburban bus systems to give work-hungry constituents (unemployment is 13.3 percent, more than twice the national average) better access to jobs in outlying communities. He also supports a regional tax on concert and sports tickets that would generate $40 million a year for the city's art museum and other cultural institutions. The merger is going ahead, but the tax has virtually no support outside the city, and Archer is vague about how he will sell it. Some are doubtful that he will ever persuade suburbanites to ante up. "The problems aren't going to get better just because the mayor is perceived as a nicer guy," says Israeli journalist and Detroit native Ze'ev Chafets, author of "Devil's Night," a 1991 book on the city's decline.

Archer is no miracle worker, but Detroit will need one to attract new investment. White flight has drained nearly half of Detroit's 1.8 million popula-tion since 1950. Beyond the glass-sheathed towers of the downtown Renaissance Center, swaths of the city have reverted to an eerie posturban prairie. Eroding revenues have forced constant increases in taxes, now seven times the state average.

His most promising economic-development project is in limbo. Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch pledged $175 million for a ballpark that would anchor Foxtown, a proposed 80-acre development of museums, condos and theaters. But the plan is hung up in a dispute over state funding. The city's most immediate prospect for economic growth is gambling. Detroit voters approved ballot proposals last month for riverboat gambling and an Indian-run casino in the Greek Town district. The Harrah's hotel chain is also pitching a massive 10-acre, $300 million casino project with a 400-room hotel. All would require state approval. But Archer, who opposed gambling in his campaign, is leery about the social cost of using blackjack tables to lift the city's fortunes. Without more study, he said, "we have more questions than answers."

Archer, who managed one of Young's five mayoral-election campaigns, didn't follow his route to power. While Young came of age on the front lines of the labor and civil-rights movements in the 1940s and 1950s, Archer worked within the white establishment to make his name. He started a law practice and worked his way up the ranks of the American Bar Association, chairing an ABA commission credited with increasing minority representation in big firms. There he became friends with another young ABA activist, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (He played golf with President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard last week.) Opponents seized on Archer's resume last year to paint him as a flunky for white interests. He won 57 percent of the vote, but there is deep black skepticism. He barely split the African-American vote with prosecutor Sharon McPhail while drawing more than 80 percent of nonblacks.

The normally measured Archer bristles at the suggestion that success has left him out of touch with his impoverished city. The son of a handyman with a third-grade education, he grew up in Cassopolis, Mich., a tiny farm community near the Indiana border. After working his way through Western Michigan University, he taught children with learning disabilities while he attended law school. On the wall behind his desk is a Norman Rockwell print of the young black girl in pigtails being escorted to school past a wall scrawled with "nigger" and "KKK." "When someone comes in the office, I want them to have an appreciation for who I am and what I'm about without my having to say it," he said.

Archer's success rests on his ability to create a new center for the city's polarized racial politics. Many blacks revered Coleman Young for the quasi-nationalist zeal he brought to defending the city's interests. They will have to decide if Archer's conciliatory message is a betrayal of that legacy. Suburban whites will be forced to decide how much of a stake they truly have in the city's survival. Young was "a convenient devil for whites," says Chafets. "It was easier to say Coleman Young was a racist than it was to say, "We don't feel comfortable with a black city'." To make a difference, Dennis Archer will have to convince both sides that he's a savior.