Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

More on Detroit: Part 2

Faygo Beverages is a regional soda pop company based in Detroit.  They used to market on sports broadcasts and television.  They made very sweet soda ("Rock'n Rye, etc.) which I used to drink prodigiously til I was about a junior in college and my taste preferences changed a bit.  This was a very famous ad by the company.

Reading James Breuckman's first email reminded me of some of the work by the Brookings Institution a few years ago, in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where they opined that the metropolitan area's problems were somewhat intractable as long as the county was divided into scads of towns, boroughs, and special tax districts--more than 200 separate entities--making it very difficult to manage the area out of decline.

Detroit has the same problem.  It's in Wayne County and abuts Oakland and Macomb County.

You need some sort of regional government and tax harmonization scheme (like in Greater Minneapolis), and regional funding of cultural institutions and parks, like Allegheny County's "Regional Asset District," which I have written about before.  It was created out of recognition that major cultural institutions originally funded by the city only served residents of the entire metropolitan area, and should be funded more broadly.

But Detroit recently agreed to a regional tax for the Detroit Institute of Arts and it has had a regional parks district--separate from city and county park systems--with regional funding, since the 1940s, called the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority.

For lease sign posted on a downtown building.  Getty Images photo by Bill Pugliano.

But politically the likelihood of the creation of some new forms of metropolitan government in Greater Detroit is not likely to happen and it is a shame that the opportunity that Detroit's financial failure provides us to reboot our thinking about metropolitan-scale governance, a la the arguments in Metropolitan Revolution is being missed.

Aaron Renn wrote another important piece in Urbanophile, "What Detroit’s Bankruptcy Teaches America," which offers to us some bitter lessons about "what's happened in Detroit?," something that bugs me a lot, which is why, when we see mounting problems, can't we act in advance, instead of after everything is about at the precipice?

The lessons:

• The Day of Reckoning Can Take Much Longer Than We Think to Come (interestingly, he lists articles from major national magazines dating from the 1940s to the 1960s, about Detroit's decline, also see "Even a Half-Century Ago, Journalists Were Predicting Detroit Would Go Bust: Longstanding flaws contributed significantly to this week's bankruptcy" from The Atlantic)
• Decline Poisons Civic Culture and Sunders the Commonwealth
• America Doesn’t Learn Lessons From the Past

I responded to James Breuckman with this:

The only thing to correct the "problem" would be city-county consolidation but of course, that will never ever happen, or the creation of a Metro Govt. with some tax sharing policies comparable to what has happened in Greater Minneapolis.

The other thing that is interesting about Michigan is the provision of K-12 schooling. It wasn't til I moved to DC in the late 1980s that I learned that Michigan's provision of school districts was atypical, with provision at the city/township level rather than being county-wide. That contributes somehow to some of the problems.

DK if you have been following the Memphis-Shelby County schools saga. The mayor of Memphis got the bright idea to de-organize the city school district to force Shelby County to take it over. Now after 2 tries, 6 affluent Shelby County towns won at the ballot box the ability to set up their own school district.

A joke... when East Detroit was in the process of changing its name to Eastpointe, my best friend in college suggested that Detroit change its name to Pointe.

He wrote:

The school thing in Michigan is very odd. Some cities have 3-4 school districts. In many cases school district boundaries are an interesting artifact of latent racism. The political structure of the region, including schools, was set up to make Detroit fail. The inertia of moving past our isolated balkanized state is a precondition to supporting a revitalized, vibrant Detroit as you correctly point out, but it will take a long time to get there. Many of the regional institutions are now gaining regional support (the Zoo, the DIA, potentially the Detroit Water and Sewer Department), so the process is starting. But there's a long way to go.

... The RAD-model would seem to have benefits - mostly avoiding voter fatigue with the string of one-off requests for specific institutions. But how do the institutions within the RAD divvy up the funds?

The State was going to take Belle Isle and make it a state park, but the Detroit City Council vetoed the deal. It was an irrational decision, but there's a pervasive feeling within the city limits that the white suburbs and the state want to cherry pick all the valuable assets of the City. So even though the City can't afford to maintain it, they wouldn't relinquish control of the island. It will probably happen eventually, because the inevitable. Or, it will get sold to a developer during the bankruptcy proceedings.

The sad thing is that watching Detroit's decline, coupled with living in Oakland County in my junior and high school years and in Ann Arbor for a long time after that, helped me understand revitalization, its problems and opportunities, when I moved to DC.

Even so, DC, because of the relatively steady employment engine of the federal government, with its focus on knowledge-related jobs not metal-bending, the city's historic building stock, walking- and transit- spatial pattern, historicity and identity, and the subway system, has advantages that many other cities do not have.

It's why I've tried to keep a foot in Baltimore, because there the issues and opportunities are different, because like Detroit, they were an industrial town that has been de-industrialized, and they have all the same issues of race that DC and Detroit have.

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At 12:18 PM, Blogger The Urbanophile said...

I actually believe having school districts co-terminus with municipal boundaries is extremely common. It's true in Rhode Island (and I assume most of New England, where the county concept is weak to non-existent), Ohio, and used to be true in Indiana (the districts are still fragmented from this legacy.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

and it's not like in the county-wide systems that you don't have selection and forms of segregation even so.

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I posted a link in the first detroit thread as well on calculation pensions, which is the promixate cause today. Essentialy the assumption is cities can last forever and make payouts, but if there is a run you're really underfunded....

On the social side, as I've said before, cities were gutten by removing racial convenants and then the various school integration issues. Perhaps a net positive to the county, but it has taken 40-50 years to overcome this.

I find it a bit bizzare that Obama can find a way to bailout "detroit" but not the acutal city.


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