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


  1. Detroit certainly has a lot of work ahead if it is to reinvent itself. Odds are against it, but stranger things have happened.

    The problem of fragmented suburban governments is an issue in and of itself, as they often don't work together with each other, let alone with the central city and its poor.

    Walling off poverty and instability so we won't have to deal with it seems to be part of American culture right now. Let's wise up and get back to all people being created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Surely the right to a governmental system that can work to heal itself is one of those unspoken rights.

  2. I was just having a conversation about requiring employees to live where they serve. I think it should be a requirement everywhere (not just cities). If you are going to teach in a community, you should live there. If you are going to protect a community, you should live there. If you are going be part of a community, you should live there.

  3. Great article-being an ex-Flintite,would love to see Detroit as well as Michigan bounce back in a big way!

  4. I agree with the residency requirement. I believe they tried to rescind the requirement here in Milwaukee. Didn't happen. We (black folk) who live here in the City of Milwaukee know that most (white) folks who work for the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) keep a City of Milwaukee address, but actually live in the suburbs. I actually had a coworker whose daughter could not find a teaching job in the suburbs where she really wanted to work (due to budget cuts), so she used a friend's address in Milwaukee and got a job with MPS all the while really living outside of Milwaukee in the suburb of Franklin. This woman definitely "did not" want to work with children of color,but because she could not find work elsewhere, she went to the school district that had job available. Maybe that is what's wrong with MPS!

  5. Greg, enjoyed your insights on Detroit. Milwaukee would do well to look at what works there as it struggles with what seems to be ever-widening poverty and inequality. A recent Time magazine article profiled mothers in wealthy Detroit suburbs like Grosse Point. They've formed support groups to help them deal with layoffs, saving money on food and clothes--issues that had previously been totally foreign territory to them.

  6. For years Detroit has lacked dedicated and competent leadership. Even before Kilpatrick, Archer was only looking out for his political interest and caved into the demands of the suburbs. I believe Bing is genuinely passionate but I think lacks know-how to a very complex city structure and politics, "YES POLITICS". The city government is bloated and riddle with incompetence, with an every man for himself mentality. Detroit can easily see its way back even in the mist of this bad economy. You ask how? Kilpatrick had the right ideals but he went power mad and got corrupted, but you must invest in the neighborhoods and make them 1. beautiful 2. safe 3. affordable 4. quality education. This is the foundation you build on and people and industry will rush back to the city. To this you must also strip top heavy, unnecessary personal and salaries like deputy major (150K plus), all of the school board and city council and the perks. Spend this money on police and parks and renovations. There accomplishment has been nil at best. Reduce crime like Baltimore and setup camera's everywhere or at least in your hottest area's, it will increase efficiency and reduce labor cost, honest people will have no problem with this. The main objective is, people want to feel safe. I could go on but I'm already at risk of being to arrogant. Greg thanks, you have away of bringing out the passion in me, by keying in on relevant subjects that affects us the most. Keep up the good work.