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With Detroit in dire straits, mayor invites big thinking

Detroit residents hope that the new mayor, Dave Bing, can help the city.

The mayor has, so far, made no commitments. At this point, he just wants residents to face facts. Such as: He cannot afford to send water, garbage trucks and other services to large parts of his city. And: There are so few ambulances that some people have been transported in city-owned sedans. Plus: Last summer, the wheels and rims were stolen off Bing's GMC Yukon security vehicle and it was left on blocks.

"It's a puzzle, and we've got to start putting the pieces together in ways that make sense," Bing said. "The key to our coming back is being focused and making sure that we've got the right kind of density in the right parts of the city."

Bing knows his constitutents are wary. Some proposals, for instance, call for effectively clearing out and closing off enormous sectors of the city. Already, nearly one-third of Detroit - an area the size of Boston - is largely deserted.

"The key is what change will really look like," said Donna Harris, director of a neighborhood community development corporation. "It's not that we dislike change. We dislike being changed."

Sense of urgency

Bing, a Washington native, was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1966, the second player taken that year. Bing the ballplayer was known for a jump shot so smooth he became a Hall of Famer. Bing the mayor looks more comfortable flipping through the city's financial report than glad-handing with constituents.

He pushes back when his scheduler tells him that, after an already long day of meetings, he'll need to do a radio interview and swing by a United Auto Workers reception. "I'm not some kind of toy," he said sarcastically, holding his hand up like puppet-master, before agreeing to go along.

He is in the office at 7 a.m. and does not shut down until well into the night. Lithe and tall, he favors tailored suits and fedoras. He was a wealthy man before becoming mayor and has opted to forgo a salary as he engages in tough negotiations with the city's unions to cut their salaries and pensions.

"Most people would say, 'Hey, you're in your mid-60s. Hell, it's time to just kick back and enjoy life,' Bing said. "And I'll tell you, that was where my head was. But you really look at the time where we are . . . if we don't fix the city now, it's not going to happen."

Bing spent a recent evening at a dinner hosted by the Urban Land Institute's Rose Center, which has agreed to spend $100,000 to help revitalize the two-mile Livernois corridor, a stretch once known as the Avenue of Fashion.

"This city was hot," Bing told the urban planners. In those days, the Big Three auto companies and their suppliers had built the nation's largest black middle class.

Now, the avenue has Family Dollar, Auto Zone and the Gates of Heaven funeral home.

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