Quick Paint Job Can’t Hide Rust in Motor City

Times Staff Writer

When a wily old minister to Russia’s Catherine the Great wanted to fool her into thinking that her land was rich, bountiful and bustling with activity, he built “Potemkin villages,” fake storefronts and phony houses that she could see as she sailed past the rural landscape along Russia’s waterways.

Two hundred years later, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young has set up a little Potemkin village of his own--to fool yet another Russian leader--and hundreds of other foreign visitors to the Motor City as well.

When Soviet Ambassador to the United States Yuri V. Dubinin, his wife, and a host of foreign journalists and other dignitaries descended on Detroit this week for the premiere of the city’s newly expanded international auto show, Young sought to hide the fact that Detroit is hemorrhaging people, jobs and economic strength.

In order to convince the foreign visitors that this deeply troubled city is actually in the midst of a rousing recovery, Detroit officials spent a reported $70,000 to spruce up the facades of long-abandoned buildings lining the route of Detroit’s People Mover, an elevated monorail that loops around downtown.


Just before the press preview for the North American International Auto Show began here earlier this week, city workers were busy attaching huge, colorful awnings and window covers to at least three broken-down, abandoned buildings--including two hotels vacant for at least a decade--across the street from one of the People Mover stops.

The whole idea was to make the buildings look occupied to the untrained eyes of out-of-towners zipping past on the elevated rail line.

Plan Revealed

Unfortunately for Detroit officials, however, the local media revealed the plan just before the press preview began, sparking a public controversy just as the city was trying to put on its best face for its visitors.

Community activists charged that the city was wasting precious money desperately needed for real development projects.

“Detroit is long past the point where you can paint up here, fix up there, and make people believe there aren’t any problems,” complained David Dasher, director of the Michigan Avenue Community Organization, an inner city group seeking to improve Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods. “It doesn’t fool anybody, and all it’s going to do is subject the city to ridicule.”

City officials defended the action, however, arguing that they were just trying to give Detroit an extra touch-up. It was worth the cost, they said, to help polish the city’s image during the big auto show, being held in the city’s newly expanded convention center.

“Anytime you have company into your house, you tidy it up,” said Bob Berg, spokesman for Mayor Young. “When you have company, don’t you straighten up your house, don’t you dust and clean, don’t you put away your shoes?”

‘Spruce Up’

“It’s an effort to spruce up a little bit for this many visitors,” added Barbara Gattorn, spokeswoman for the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

This isn’t the first time that Detroit has tried to cover its blemishes with makeup, however.

When the city hosted the 1980 Republican National Convention, the facade of an entire block of abandoned buildings in the heart of downtown was covered by a huge wooden sign that proclaimed the area to be the “Monroe Block” historic preservation project. The impression given was that the buildings were on the verge of being renovated.

Today, more than eight years later, the block remains abandoned, and only in recent weeks has the city finally painted over the Monroe Block sign. Now, the buildings are likely to be demolished.

Dasher argues that such cosmetic efforts are not only silly, but also can lead city leaders to lose sight of the deeper need to work on Detroit’s very real problems.

“The trouble with that kind of propaganda is that the only people who believe it are the propagandists,” Dasher said. “They end up believing the city is somehow OK. I don’t think it’s possible to manipulate the image of Detroit to hide the fact that the city has serious problems.”