A Viennese Reporter In Detroit: 'The Experience Was Overwhelming'

Last weekend, as one out-of-town reporter, Bob Simon of "60 Minutes," grabbed headlines for comparing Detroit to Mogadishu, Somalia, another reporter was visiting and getting a different take on the city.

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Julia Damianova, of the Kurier newspaper in Vienna, Austria, spent two days in Detroit reporting about bankruptcy and what comes next. She happened to be here when former Bürgermeister Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced in federal court, and she heard a lot about "Korruption und Missmanagement."

But she also talked to Detroiters and explored the city and came away wanting to know more. Damianova grew up in Sophia, Bulgaria, is based in Washington, D.C., and speaks fluent English. What follows is a report for Deadline Detroit about her visit.

By Julia Damianova

This was my first time in Detroit and the experience was overwhelming. It is a fascinating place of seemingly incompatible extremes - decaying industry, widespread poverty, a great music scene and -- quite surprisingly --  fantastic art in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

I spent one and a half days in Detroit that were full of contrasting experiences. Immediately upon arrival I wanted to get some orientation and addresses from someone local who knows the city well. Walking along Lafayette Blvd., I found downtown in a much better shape than I expected. Perhaps it was a little emptier than a typical U.S. downtown -- too many spacious and totally empty parking lots, but fantastic stylish buildings that have a New York air about them.

Later, I sat down for a chat with a lawyer specialized in municipal bankruptcy. He told me that Detroit's downfall is due to a combination of corruption, incompetence and bad luck. We had a long chat over drinks in my hotel's bar and before we parted, the lawyer had a glimpse in my city map and the places circled on it that I wanted to visit -- mostly in the eastern part of town. "Who ever told you to go there?! This is very dangerous. Call me on my cell phone if you sense trouble and also when you come back."

Now, that confused me a little. I have, of course, read a lot about crime in Detroit, but did not come to the city with the mindset of visiting a war zone.

My second day in town began at the Theodore Levine Federal Courthouse where former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was about to be sentenced. It was nothing short of a lucky coincidence that I happened to be in Detroit on that day, and, although I was not allowed in the courtroom itself, I was given an even better option: to watch the proceedings in a room for the general public. It was packed. There were probably around 50 or more people in it.

Even the court security guards left their posts briefly and came in to watch. I talked, among others, to a 54-year old retired construction worker, an African-American -- James. He told me he voted for Kilpatrick at the time because he felt he is young and could do good things for the city. In November James is planning to vote for Mike Duggan because he explains what he wants to do for the city. "Benny Napoleon ain't a bad person, but I ain't heard him say nothing about what he's going to do," James explained.

Right after the sentence was handed down, I drove to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Amazing collection -- a

precious Bruegel and a number of other paintings I would really not have expected to find there. The Diego Rivera murals are, of course, the centerpiece. But what amazed me most was the dedication of the museum staff to the museum, and how much thought and energy they have invested in creating new intriguing ways to present the collection to the general public. I hope all artworks stay in the museum because selling them to cover for the bankruptcy would be like selling the soul of the city. And it would not help revenues from tourism.

Leaving the neat Midtown area, I headed east for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Urban Farm. What I loved most about the project is that they don't simply provide meals for the poor, but offer them healthy meals from good ingredients.

I drove around the area that so many people warned me to avoid. I went up to the Packard plant, got lost, saw abandoned houses and empty lots, dotted by well-kept gardens and freshly painted houses. And although I have seen those images on photographs many times before, it was a special experience to actually be there in person. Some corners looked doggier than others, but people were friendly and pointed me on my way out when my GPS failed.

What I learned about Detroit in my two days there is that there is so much to learn bout the city. I am looking forward to my next trip to continue exploring it.

Her story is headlined "Detroit's Sage von Geldgier und Zerfall" (Detroit's Saga of Greed and Decay). Click here to read it. (It's the second story from the top.)

Here is the first paragraph for Deadline Detroit readers who read German:

By Julia Damianova, Detroit

Der frühere Bürgermeister Kwame Kilpatrick trägt nicht wie gewöhnlich einen maßgeschneiderten Anzug, sondern eine hellgrüne Gefängniskleidung mit kurzen Ärmeln. Der große hochgewachsene Mann scheint wie in sich versunken. Seine schwarzen Arme hat er vor sich auf dem Tisch gelegt und starrt sie an. Er schaut nicht ein einziges Mal hoch zu Richterin Nancy Edmunds im Gerichtsgebäude in der Downtown von Detroit. Sie ist gerade dabei, Kilpatrick zu 28 Jahren Haft zu verurteilen. Es geht um Erpressung, Bestechung, Betrug, und andere kriminelle Geschäfte. Kilpatrick war einmal ein aufstrebender junger Politiker, jetzt ist er zu einer tragischen Symbolfigur des Niedergangs von Detroit im Staat Michigan im Norden der USA, an der kanadischen Grenze, geworden. Im Sommer dieses Jahres hat die einst stolze Stadt der amerikanischen Autobauer Konkurs beantragt. Auch darüber wird ein Gericht entscheiden. Nächsten Monat soll die Entscheidung fallen.

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