Monday, September 27, 2010

The suburbs are killing Detroit - and themselves

Detroit – Sporting waves in his close-cropped hair, my cousin Tommy drove fast cars, wore sharp clothes, spoke the latest jive and walked the latest strut. That’s the Detroit way, he explained when as an older teen in the early 1960s he would visit my family in southeast Washington, D.C.
He regarded my home town as kind of square – which got no argument from my friends and me. We knew that, with the likes of the Cadillac and the Mustang, the Supremes and the Miracles, Detroit defined hip.

These days, of course, Detroit doesn’t strut; it hobbles, and on makeshift crutches. Its fall from riches to rags was doubtless the most spectacular of any American city. The Motor City’s plight sends chills down the spine of big-city mayors elsewhere. They know its fate is where their trend lines may head.

Still, under what appears to be the sagacious leadership of Mayor Dave Bing, the ex-Piston basketball star, this battered, emaciated city is trying valiantly to heal itself. As the first stage in the effort to come up with a plan, Bing initiated a series of listening sessions, where residents poured their hearts out about the harshness of life in a city recently rated by and bizjournals as the most stressful in America.

This ambitious effort at renewal is badly handicapped, however. While the shenanigans of previous Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick certainly didn’t help, the sources of the city’s woes lie mostly outside its borders, where current Mayor Bing has little control. A chief culprit is the proliferation of municipalities that make up the Detroit area.

Detroit is half the city it once was. The number of residents shrank from 1.85 million in 1950 to 911,000 today, knocking Detroit from fifth to 11th in the ranking of American cities. The big, fashionable Victorian house that the young Tommy called home is now an empty, weedy lot; Detroit is saddled with an estimated 60,000 such lots. What’s more, some 93,000 housing units – a fourth of the city’s housing stock – sit vacant.

Detroit residents voice their concerns at community meeting in rotunda
of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing addresses community meeting
Five community forums convened by Bing drew thousands. The last took place last week at the elegant Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Bing got several ears-full: Direct opportunities at ex-felons. Lobby Washington in behalf of Detroiters, not just General Motors. Make the payment for trash collection fairer. Ask the governor to declare a state of emergency in response to a foreclosure crisis in Detroit. Be mindful that unused land may have environmental hazards that must be cleaned up. Set up a regional transit authority. Make contractors pick up trash before mowing empty lots. Restore the requirement that city employees live in the city. Encourage more retail downtown to draw people to live there. Don’t just rehabilitate; put new houses on empty lots.

The listening isn’t over. The next step in the planning process will entail 40 smaller neighborhood meetings.

Bing is wise to adopt this bottom-up approach to planning. But the problems are tough to get a handle on.

Lyke Thomspon, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, noted in an interview that “130-plus municipalities of one kind or another” lie in the three-county Detroit area (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties). He adds that most of the people who left the city moved to the suburbs, rather than out of state.

In short, unfettered suburban sprawl has played a key role in hollowing out Detroit. One problem with sprawl is the suburban habit of walling out poor people through snob zoning and other means, thereby putting the burden of poverty on the city, which, due to the flight of wealth to these very suburbs, have a declining ability to deal with the problem.

Professor Robin Boyle
Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State and native of Scotland, notes that Europe’s industrial cities, such as Liverpool and Essex in England, are going through the pangs of job losses just as is America’s Rust Belt. But the European cities aren’t suffering as much due to strict land-use regulations that prevent sprawl.

Detroit used to blunt some of the damaging impact of sprawl by reserving city jobs for city residents. The city thus used one of its own precious resources - jobs - to help fight unemployment within its borders and to shore up the city’s economy and tax base. In 1999, however, the Michigan Legislature outlawed residency requirements for public employees and thus took away this survival tool.

In the long run, though, the hollowing out of Detroit, the metro area’s flagship, hurts the suburbs, too. A shabby main city tends to keep corporations away from the entire area, not just the city. What’s more, a vibrant hub acts as a magnet for the young creative class, which urban planners regard as vital to an area’s future prosperity.

Tellingly, this city is not alone in losing people. Since 2004, while the nation has been growing, the entire Detroit metro area has annually seen its population drop, according to the Census Bureau.

The suburbs ignore Detroit’s fate at their own peril.

Photos are by Gregory Stanford