Change The Locks!

Guess who once was given a key to the city of Detroit: Saddam Hussein. The Detroit News discovered recently that in 1980 the Iraqi president was awarded a ceremonial key by a pastor of Detroit's Chaldean Christian community.
by | May 2003

Guess who once was given a key to the city of Detroit: Saddam Hussein. The Detroit News discovered recently that in 1980 the Iraqi president was awarded a ceremonial key by a pastor of Detroit's Chaldean Christian community. (About a million Iraqis are Christian, many of them members of the Chaldean denomination.) There's a picture to prove it: In the picture, the minister is handing a box with the key to a younger, slimmer Saddam. "It is very strange, thinking about it now," the minister told the newspaper. Strange indeed. In those days, Saddam was an American ally, and his government was courting Iraqi immigrants in the U.S. As part of its friendship campaign, it hosted a delegation of Detroit Chaldeans on an all-expenses-paid visit to their homeland. And more: Saddam gave the group a $200,000 donation to pay off their church's building debt and build a parish center. In return, he got the key to the city, compliments of then-Mayor Coleman Young. "Today," the minister added, "we use the [parish] center to teach American citizenship classes."

SAFE, BUT UGLY

What if you had a device that could make small businesses safer in your city but also made the city much uglier? Worth the price? There is just such a device: roll-down metal doors. Oakland, California, has block after block of stores with ugly security doors, prison-like exterior bars or wrought-iron security gates. The effect at night, when the stores are closed and the metal doors rolled down, is deeply depressing, city officials say. "It gives a sense that our community is not a very safe city," said one. Another complains that the doors and metal bars "exaggerate the perception of an unsafe area or war zone." With good reason, shop owners reply. "There is a lot of crime in Oakland," says the owner of a Mexican imports store. "Who's trying to kid who?" She adds, "Come out here at 10 o'clock at night, you're going to find another planet. The prostitutes come out, the pimps come out, the street people come out." City officials insist there are better ways of protecting businesses, and they're looking at limiting or banning exterior security devices. For the time being, though, city council members are cool to the idea, in part because the city doesn't have the money to help building owners replace metal doors with break- resistant glass and interior security bars. Still, some council members are interested in banning future installations. "How our city looks and how welcoming it is for pedestrians and people driving by is critical," says one.

HEY ELWOOD, WHERE'S JAKE?

College alumni associations operate on the theory that your college experience was so intense, you'll want to stay connected with it the rest of your life. Would the same thing work for cities? If you grew up in New York, Detroit or San Francisco and moved away, would you spend a weekend mingling with other expatriates, growing misty-eyed over talk about Coney Island, Tiger Stadium or Golden Gate Park? Downtown officials in Scottsdale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, think so, because they recently hosted a two-and-a-half day celebration called "Chicagofest." "More people are here from Chicago than any other place except for California," said one downtown official. "So the event will give these people a place to meet and mingle and relive their Chicago times." What could you have done at Chicagofest? Gorged on Chicago-style pizza, sliders and hot dogs and listened to Chicago music. On one stage, you'd have heard a blues singer called Big Peete, on another stage a doo-wop band called the Alley Cats. But mostly you'd have heard polkas. Polka bands at Chicagofest performed for a combined 5 hours and 15 minutes. The headliners: a group called the Bouncing Czechs.

TELL US WHAT YOU REALLY THINK, MR. MAYOR

How bad is the state of retailing in the Fifth and Forbes area, once downtown Pittsburgh's premier shopping district? "If anybody needs new nails or a wig, they are in great shape," Mayor Tom Murphy told a civic club recently. "If you go beyond that, you are in trouble." One problem is, as the mayor indicates, lousy stores. The bigger issue is a mayor who's fed up with dealing with the problem. Murphy once viewed the revitalization of Fifth and Forbes as his most enduring accomplishment, launching a sweeping plan in 1996 that involved condemning and flattening a good portion of the area and putting in a glitzy new development. Shopkeepers, building owners and preservationists, though, weren't buying it, and after endless protests, the mayor gave up in 2000. "Maybe we overreached," Murphy said. "Maybe that was too much for people to absorb." A few months ago, the mayor quietly brought in another group of developers to try to figure out how to get the area back on its feet. These developers haven't come back with their ideas yet, but clearly the mayor's ambitions aren't nearly as lofty as they once were. "We make this up as we go," he said. And he sounded positively morose about working with the latest development group. It's like "jumping off the cliff" while being "tied together," he said. His hope is that "there is enough rope to get to the bottom."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Urban Notebook