More on Detroit: Part 1
There has been a lot of writing on the City of Detroit bankruptcy in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
Urbanophile has a very good piece, "Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? by Pete Saunders," which, like two particularly excellent op-eds, "It's not so simple in Detroit" and "Who's to blame for Detroit's collapse?" in the Los Angeles Times, goes more deeply into the broader conditions that shaped what happened.
In one of the LAT pieces, Scott Martelle, author of Detroit: A Biography, puts the date in the 1950s (I had written the 1970s) to when the Detroit auto industry starting relocating facilities from Detroit and Michigan to other places around the country, in part to make shipping more efficient, but also to reduce the political and economic power of the United Auto Workers union and the strength of the Democratic Party in Michigan state politics. (Also see "Collapse of Detroit," by Scott Martelle from 2011.)
On the Urbanists e-list, James Breuckman wrote a great piece, which he is allowing me to reprint.
So what happened to Detroit? I've had a front row seat for the past 4 decades, watching the City fall apart as I grew up, went away to school, came back, and have lived right on the northern border of the City since coming back. I work in the region and am raising a family here.
It's the -isms. Racism, parochialism, and isolationism.
Racism is obvious. Detroit is the most segregated metropolitan area in the nation. It's deep and insidious.
At its core, Detroit is a company town. For so long it was possible to be ignorant and yet to make a good life because of the auto industry. That generation is older now, and their kids largely flee to greener pastures if they go to college. That was parochialism. Now that auto industry jobs pay $14 and hour with limited benefits, parochialism is dead.
Isolationism, well, there's this attitude that we're just not interested in transit or anything else that would move the region away from our bankrupt way of living. You see, transit brings "those people" out here who will steal our cars and TVs and then go back to where they live. But on the other hand, Chicago and Toronto are such great places to visit! We love going to visit there and seeing all the big buildings and Yonge Street or Michigan Avenue...but when we get back we go back to the mindset of we can't have that here.
Nobody can ever offer a good reason why...but it comes down to isolated jurisdictions jealously guarding their turf and a refusal to have true regional cooperation because, well, racism and an unwillingness to send our money to benefit Detroit etc. etc. We do have a regional transit authority now after only 4 decades of trying, but we'll see what happens when they ask the millage question to fund it. The isolationism is a manifestation of the racism and parochialism, and we have to overcome it. It will take time.
So that's the environment in which Detroit has to operate. Pivoting to the city itself, one of the issues that was touched on by Richard is that the vast majority of the city was built as boomtown worker housing. It was, and is, disposable. It had maybe a 30 year life expectancy when built, and it was all built between 1910 and 1950. It wasn't lovable and it was not maintained, rather, it was fled by anyone with the means to do so. This is key - when you combined sub-par housing stock and a generally poor public realm with the -isms above you got white flight starting in 1950, not 1975. By the time Coleman Young was elected mayor the game was already over.
The parts of town that are doing well now are the ones that pre-date the rise of the auto industry. They were built before 1910, and they were built well. There are some pockets of wealth where the captains of industry built their new money mansions in the 20s that are doing well, too. These areas are probably no more than 20% of the total land area of the City. And that's the crux of the issue - how do you maintain the infrastructure and police a city of 138 square miles based on about 20 square miles of places that are actually desirable to live? There's no question that city government made many bad decisions, but even if they made good decisions there were strong headwinds. They almost would have had to make the optimal decision every time to have avoided some version of the situation the city finds itself in today.
Regionally, there are pockets of walkability centered on 19th and early 20th century towns that were along the interurban lines that were all removed by the start of WWII. I live in one of those towns just north of the northern city border. When we were looking for a place to settle down we looked at some very nice neighborhoods that are just south of us, in the northern parts of Detroit. They have the Detroit Country Club and the University of Detroit as anchor institutions. They have beautiful and substantial houses that were very well built - not disposable. You could get a 2,750 square foot house with a solid wood paneled library and so on in the $150k to $300k range. The flipside is that property tax rates are 50% higher in Detroit than where we live now. Police response times are nonexistent. The streetlights don't work. You have to contract private trash pickup. And you're committing to sending your kids to private school. All this adds up to a huge price premium to live in a City where you basically get no services. Plus the crime, which is real. So instead urban-minded people have to live in one of the old streetcar suburbs that at have varying degrees of urbanism and walkability.
It's an intractable problem, and the issue of the majority of the City being an economic drain will persist after bankruptcy. Unless there is de-incorporation of large parts of the City, or a true commitment to shutting off services to large parts of the City per the Detroit Future City plan, the ledger will never balance.
We wait and hope that the nascent revival in the downtown and midtown - largely in response to massive regional pent up demand for true urbanity - will catalyze spillover benefits for the city's neighborhoods, but there's so much else that has to happen before city living is an option for anyone with children.
But there is hope. More so now than at any other time in my lifetime at least, things are aligning that have the potential to truly create a better future for Detroit. It's just hope for now.