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Sometimes, the Reality We Believe Is Not the Reality That Is

August 31, 1995|JAMES RICCI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DETROIT — Thinking about this city, you've got to be careful you don't recognize things for what they're not. This applies right down to the very geography of the place.

Take the Detroit River. It's not really a river. It's a narrow strait in which the gray-green waters of Lake Huron gather themselves and rush headlong southwest for Lake Erie.

Take Canada. If you're standing downtown at Hart Plaza and looking across the Detroit River at the skyline of Windsor, Ontario, you must be facing north, correct? In reality, a lonely tip of Ontario curls up from below and, were it not for the river that's not a river, would nuzzle Detroit from underneath. Here, Canada is due south.

Geography at least is fairly immutable. When you move to the realm of human affairs, you must be even warier of perceptions, especially initial ones.

Take Deletha Word.

Two weekends ago, in an incident that was quickly reported around the world, the 33-year-old woman with the melancholy name leaped to her death in the small hours of the morning from a crowded bridge that gracefully connects the Detroit mainland with its famous island park, Belle Isle.

She was trying to escape the 300-pound man whose car she had accidentally bumped into. According to police, the man had smashed her car's windows with a tire iron, dragged her from her vehicle--stripping off most of her clothes in the process--slammed her against the hood of her car and pounded her with his fists. He had, it was reported, momentarily held her over the railing and loudly announced, "I should throw this bitch over the bridge!"

Deletha Word, who was called Lisa and was 5-foot-4 and 115 pounds, and could not swim, didn't give him the chance. She broke free and jumped into the swift, night-blackened waters 40 feet below. Her body was found nine hours later several miles downstream. One leg had been severed, presumably by the propeller of an unwary boat.

That Lisa Word's was a terrible and needless death was not, however, what propelled the story around the globe and provoked such great interest. It took something even uglier, namely, reports that perhaps half a hundred people had witnessed the assault, and had laughed and cheered and urged the terrified woman to jump, as though the whole thing were some grand entertainment.

No one, initial reports said, had called the police. No one had tried to stop the assault. No one had done anything to save Lisa Word from the river.

In no time, people throughout the civilized world were wagging their heads and clucking about the devolution of humankind that clearly had taken root in Detroit, Mich., U.S.A.

The reports, inevitably, changed. Police investigators and eyewitnesses began casting doubt on whether the death of Lisa Word was quite the ghastly meltdown of social cohesion it was at first portrayed to be. Some in the witnessing crowd, and even in the alleged assailant's party, may have tried to stop the 300-pound man, who faces a charge of second-degree murder in the case. Two bystanders, at considerable risk to themselves, leaped into the surging waters to try to rescue Word.

These refinements of the tale might have restored some perspective, but they had nothing like the sucker-punch effect of the initial reports. The dreadful first images had flown and done their work. They could no more be called back for correction than Lisa Word could have risen from the river to the bridge railing to reconsider jumping.

Detroiters were as angered and distraught by Lisa Word's death as anyone else, and probably more so. But they are also minutely defensive about the reputation of their city, even as they gloom over its vast shortcomings.

It is all touching, and a little pathetic, this preoccupation with what others think.

The city has gotten, for instance, a fair amount of good press about the recent drop in Detroit's crime rate. Only 271 citizens were murdered in the first half of this year, compared with 298 in the first half of 1994. Such statistics help feed a different image--of Detroit as a city that is slowly turning back from the abyss.

But, as with the perceptions raised by Lisa Word's death, those engendered by the declining homicide rate beg for closer scrutiny. Although the economy has picked up some, drugs and guns continue to proliferate in the city, more kids drop out of high school than stay in, out-of-wedlock births continue unabated, and so on.

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