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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The rise of Oakland County is built upon Detroit's fall

The other morning the tv was on a channel showing a repeat of a Dateline NBC show on a cable channel.  It featured a crime spree in the Detroit suburbs that started with a car jacking.  The driver of the car was killed and his body was found in a burned out, vacant bungalow on Detroit's east side.

These abandoned houses, some touched by fire, are actually in Highland Park, an incorporated community separate from Detroit, but completely enclosed by it.  Photo: Patricia Beck, Detroit Free Press.   Note that this block looks way better than the area where Matt Landry's body was discovered.

Television footage of the mother of the dead man, Matt Landry, was featured in the story, plaintively calling on the mayor of Detroit "to clean up your city and tear down all those vacant houses."

Understanding her pain, I was still pissed, because she saw no connection between the exodus of 1.2 million Detroit residents out of the city to the suburbs, and how this exodus has produced the city's cycle of abandonment and failure.  Outmigration has been a plague that has been brought down on the city.  People like she and her husband have some responsibility, even if minute, for Detroit's decline.

-- "GOODBYE DETROIT: The Bulldozing And Burning of Detroit," Radiant Writing blog

2.  The connection between Detroit's abandonment and the rise of Suburban Detroit is made even more directly in the story "Drop Dead, Detroit!:  The suburban kingpin who is thriving off the city's decline," featured in the current issue of New Yorker Magazine.   (I too was part of the suburban outmigration, having finally left Detroit by 1972, for Oakland County, with interim stops in Wayne County towns along the way.)

The story is a profile of L. Brooks Patterson, Executive of Oakland County Michigan.  He has been County Executive for 20 years and for 20 years before that he was the elected County Prosecutor.

Media in Detroit have picked up on the story ("New Yorker article quotes L. Brooks Patterson with choice words about Detroit," Detroit Free Press; "'Drop Dead Detroit' remarks," Oakland Press).

The article is chilling in describing how L. Brooks Patterson-Oakland County has been systematic in taking every advantage possible from Detroit's decline--of course, the City of Detroit's leaders have made it easy for him.  Oakland County is still one of the wealthiest counties in the US, and one of the best managed.  Its economy is thriving.

But success is built in large part by Patterson taking every opportunity he can to benefit the county at the expense of Detroit, including opposition to mass transit, which if constructed, would begin to rebalance Detroit's economic opportunities at the metropolitan scale, and opposition to creating a regional water system which would offload some infrastructure costs from the city to the counties.  Rightly, he sees these kinds of steps as better balancing costs amongst the jurisdictions, whereas he would rather that Oakland County continues to benefit at Detroit's expense, in this case by actively disadvantaging Detroit.

To strengthen Oakland County's positioning, he doesn't miss an opportunity to criticize Detroit as crime-ridden and a basket case, with such jokes as:
... when asked what advice he would offer embattled Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano. He said: “Go in the garage, pull the door down, leave the engine running.”

From the article:
... From memory, she cited Patterson's governing philosophy: "If it's good for Detroit and good for Oakland County, I'm for it.; if it's good for Detroit and neutral for Oakland County, I'm for it; if it's good for Detroit and bad for Oakland County, I'm against it."

Tellingly, Patterson leaves "good for Oakland County and bad for Detroit" out of his formulation.  It is possible to see the county's success as largely dependent on the city's decline, as white flight dispersed some of Detroit's strongest resources into suburbia.  McGraw, of Deadline Detroit, said, "Patterson had a platform and he used it to denigrate Detroit and Detroiters, and to give voice to people who moved out of the city and resent what the city has become--even though their departures contributed to it.  Instead of being a leader who says, 'We're gonna work with Detroit,' he's been perceived as an enemy of Detroit, because he's acted like an enemy.  For so many years, he's been a drumbeat: 'Detroit is bad.  Detroiters are out to rip us off.  They want tax breaks, but look how well we're managing our county.'  He did manage the county well.  But it's so much easier to manage growth than it is to manage loss or blight."
Interestingly, it turns out that Patterson grew up in the same Detroit neighborhood, Rosedale Park, that I once lived in,  where our Congresswoman lived a block or two down my street (I think that's why snow was cleared from our sidewalks, but we'll never know now, 45 years later), home to public officials, business leaders, a future Mayor, etc.  It was a solid middle class neighborhood.

3.  The article points out that things are changing a bit for Oakland County, as some businesses like Quicken Loans, attracted by historic building stock and urban opportunity, have relocated to Detroit out from the suburbs.

Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1942.  Wikipedia image.  The manufacturing prowess of the US auto industry was one of the key elements of the success of the US military effort in World War II.

Still, it will be a long time before Detroit can stabilize, in large part because of the city-suburban divide and the advantages of greater suburban population which also means more legislators in the State House and Senate to represent suburban interests.

A solution would be reorganizing how government is structured in the tri-county area (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties--Macomb County, located mostly east of Detroit, is where Matt Landry was carjacked).

There should be a hard "metropolitan-scaled" government created (1) to take responsibility for certain infrastructure and civic assets like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Zoo, and other cultural assets that are used by the entire region, but paid for by the city (recently, a regional tax of a 10-year duration was instituted to support the museum) and (2) to re-integrate transit back into the city and suburbs, (3) if only to staunch and reduce the costs to government of sprawl and exurbanism--the Detroit metropolitan area is the most spread out of any US metro--and (4) to reposition the region for the 21st century economy (not unlike what is happening in Fairfax and Loudoun County with the opening of the Silver Line Metrorail extension there).

And I think about a merger of Detroit and Wayne County, but as the article points out, the real wealth in the region is in Oakland County.  How do you restructure the way the local municipalities and the counties are structured to correct the clear economic and political imbalances that currently exist?

4.  But it won't happen.  While the Michigan State Government could probably force a reorganization of Metro Government in Greater Detroit, comparable to how Toronto and Montreal were reorganized by their provincial governments, it would require legislation and agreement, including agreement by "out-state" legislators, legislators from outside of Southeastern Michigan.

And not unlike how the rest of New York State derides New York City, the State of Michigan has spent 40+ years deriding Detroit and the Detroit Metropolitan area, while sucking money from it--for example, one of the reasons that Michigan still has a constellation of great public universities is because they were built on auto industry money.

This is proven by the bankruptcy process foisted on the city by the Governor.

Location, location, location.  Image of abandoned bungalows on Moran Street from Detroit Unreal Estate Agency blog.  Houses like these in my neighborhood in Washington, DC are worth close to $400,000.  In Detroit, similar houses are worthless.

Not that that bankruptcy isn't necessary if only to rightsize financial obligations to the city's current ability to pay--but it wasn't the only choice and it mostly was political, another example of politicians using Detroit as a scapegoat and whipping boy, blaming the city's condition as the result of personal failures of its leaders and residents--not that they haven't contributed--rather than on the structural conditions and processes that produced the desolation that now has come to a head (see "Six decades in Detroit: How abandonment, racial tensions and financial missteps bankrupted the city," Detroit News).

5.  Parenthetically, note that L. Brooks Patterson operates similarly to Gov. Chris Christie.  Oakland County has one of the strongest County-based Main Street commercial district revitalization programs in the US.  In 2005, When the City of Ferndale opposed the widening of the nearby I-75 Freeway as not beneficial to the city (not unlike how Arlington County Virginia opposes HOT Lanes in their county as oppositional to their transportation priorities as set forth in their planning documents), they were dropped from the Main Street program, because the County Executive supported the freeway widening.

But the projects have moved forward.  See "SEMCOG approves $1 billion I-75 widening project for Oakland" from the Oakland Press and "$2.6 billion I-94, I-75 widening projects in Detroit and suburbs move forward" from MLive.

That massive highway widening projects are still being pursued in Greater Detroit (I-94 is also to be widened) demonstrates how automobility--once Detroit's biggest strength, is now its bane.
6.  Note that this process is not atypical, it's how it works in other regions across the country.  Baltimore suffers from almost exactly the same process, but it lucks out in that the County Executives from the suburban jurisdictions mostly aren't as skilled as L. Brooks Patterson, so Baltimore City still manages to compete for residents and jobs, although it still mostly loses out.

DC has been saved from a similar fate by (1) the federal government's presence in the core--a certain percentage of federal government activity is required by law to remain in DC, although suburban and West Virginia legislators do everything they can to move federal agencies to their communities--which helps to fill up Downtown office space with organizations that benefit from being located close to the government; (2) attractive neighborhoods filled with historic building stock; (3) that once subway service was added to the city, made living in these neighborhoods worth it even in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as the city became less safe and municipal services declined, because it was more "efficient" to get to work than it was living in the suburbs.

But it's still a struggle.

Note that I do intend to write a piece comparing the response by Pittsburgh, Bilbao, Detroit, and Liverpool to similar circumstances.  Both Pittsburgh and Bilbao lost their steel and chemical industries (Bilbao also suffered from the decline of its role as a port), while Detroit lost its role as a center of production for the auto industry--and the gas crisis in 1973 should have been a wake-up call to the city of a change in material conditions.

Pittsburgh and Bilbao responded with wide ranging revitalization plans--it helped that both cities didn't have to deal with racism and segregation--and Detroit didn't, although it was a place where a number of successful one-shot projects (Renaissance Center, casinos, People Mover, new convention center, new baseball and football stadiums, etc.) that didn't contribute well enough to an overall program for reversing decline.

In that sense, Detroit's elected leaders did fail, and do bear some responsibility for the current failures, because they didn't act to manage the city's decline in a manner that would reduce the negative impact.

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At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

There's also been outward migration from Pontiac. Pontiac isn't probably what most people consider a major city but for my family in the area, we've never identified as being from Detroit. I have never set foot in the city. We are from Pontiac and Oakland County and have been since the 18th century. Pontiac is where my grandparents grew up and where they went to high school. Pontiac has suffered outmigration as well of course. All to the benefit of suburban Oakland County, a trend that began during the great depression. West Acres (where my great and uncle raised their kids and my grandparents lived while their house in another part of West Bloomfield was finished) was a new deal built suburb like Greenbelt in Maryland. I had a big debate with my aunt the other day for saying my family is from Detroit. "Your grandmother would have slapped you for that. We're from Pontiac."

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh yeah, I am a big fan of economic geography's "location theory."

Back in the day, Pontiac was one day's carriage ride from Downtown Detroit, and Flint was the next city north on a day's carriage ride, while going west, Ann Arbor, then Jackson, then Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, etc., functioned similarly.

The thing that I didn't discuss in the necessary detail was racial segregation. Probably outside of Detroit (and Highland Park, Ecorse, Inkster, etc.), Pontiac became the most heavily African-American city in the region, definitely in Oakland County, which precipitated a white flight movement of its own. Not that I am accusing your family of white flight.

In my foster child days, I went to Pontiac schools for part of 6th grade and all of 7th grade, as part of the early busing program there. Part of the Pontiac School district included nearby towns like Sylvan Lake and probably Keego Harbor.

... your point about Detroit vs. Pontiac and your aunt... it bugs the s* out of me on "Rehab Addict" when Nicole Curtis talks about how she's from Detroit... blah, blah, blah (although I love her, think she does great work). She grew up in-graduated from high school in Lake Orion, which is at least 20 miles or so from 8 Mile Road.

She didn't grow up in Detroit. Granted, neither did I, but I lived there off and on til I was 12 years old.

At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Definitely racism involved, at least with my grandfather. This conversation got me to look up Pontiac. I had only a casual understanding of the horrible idea of the Pontiac Plan. My grandfather's boyhood home was leveled to make way for Wide Track Drive. I remember touring Pontiac in the early 1980s, right as construction on the first phase of the Pontiac Plan was finished. It was a ghost town and the core of the city was entirely surrounded by vacant lots and the ridiculous beltway loop of Wide Track. (Maybe the only street ever named for a marketing slogan of a car.)

That actually led me to this description of the Pontiac Plan and an organization/blog dedicated to improving Pontiac and the surrounding communities. Thought you'd be interested.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Not that it was L. Brooks' fault, it started before him, when the govt. moved out of Pontiac to the County Govt. Center further north. Plus Pontiac Mall, which took the retail, like Sears, out of the core of the city.

I have some vague memories of Pontiac from the early 1970s. It was not pretty then...

But what is interesting is that the Detroit area kept some cities that for decades managed to keep their downtown cores despite the malls--Birmingham definitely, Grosse Point, the Westborn area of Dearborn.

This was "abetted" by the existence of regional department store chains, Crowleys (which merged with another company called Demery's) and Jacobsons, which was based in Grand Rapids and in the 1970s moved east and opened stores. (They had a downtown store in Ann Arbor for a long, long time too.)

They went out of business eventually, but because Hudsons owned the main malls (Taubman too), it was worth it for them to counter-program.

The reason I mention this is that in theory, they offered another model that Pontiac could have adopted.

HOWEVER, like Detroit, I think Pontiac suffered from the perception of it being predominately black, plus the exit of the govt. offices out of the city.

The Pontiac Plan likely came about after all that other leakage had been going on for awhile.

I will check out that site.


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