December 4, 2016 rss
header twitter link facebook link home link
View Resource Guide and Job Postings

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

There are Two “Detroits”

September 13, 2013

DETROIT — Suppose I told you that most of what you thought you knew about Detroit was wrong, that the city was largely thriving:

  • That it has one of the highest job creation rates in the nation, despite taking a serious hit from the near-death experience—and permanent contraction—of the domestic auto industry five years ago.
  • That most Detroiters are white, affluent, and that there has been very little real population loss.

All that may sound crazy. But there is, in fact, more than one Detroit. The one covered incessantly in the national media looks nothing like what I’ve outlined above.

That Detroit is a desperately poor city whose ruined neighborhoods largely look like a third-world African village in the ruins of a bombed-out German city at the end of World War II. That Detroit has been taken over by the state and has filed for bankruptcy. Everything the city owns has been mortgaged to the point where the city has nearly $20 billion in unfunded liabilities. That Detroit is nearly all black, poorly educated, with horrible city services, dysfunctional schools and high crime rates. That Detroit’s real unemployment rate, the mayor says, may be 40 percent or more. Estimates are that there are only 685,000 or so people left in that Detroit.

But that Detroit is surrounded by the rest of the story.

The rest, that is, of Detroit: The 3.7 million or so other people who live in the six-county metropolitan region. They are much better off, have better schools and opportunities. Meet one of the residents in an airport in San Diego or Atlanta, and they are unlikely to say they are from Canton, Bloomfield Township, or a dozen other places nobody knows. They will say they are from Detroit. Then, they will begin to explain …

Why is the original Detroit in such terrible shape?

There are many reasons, but the fact that there are two “Detroits” is a big part of the reason. Urbanologist David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is fascinated by what makes cities thrive…and what makes them die. Twenty years ago, in his landmark book, “Cities Without Suburbs” he conclusively demonstrated a key fact about America’s cities:

“The real city is the total metropolitan area, city and suburb,” he said. So, what makes the difference between thriving and dying cities? “Elasticity.” Cities that were “elastic”—that could annex their borders and expand territory—nearly always got richer and stronger. Cities that did not expand, declined.

Looked at one way, Detroit did continue to expand. National stories all mention that Detroit’s population officially peaked in 1950, when it had 1,849,568 people. Since then, Detroit has continually shrunk. But not really. The metropolitan area had 3.2 million in 1950. Half a century later, that had risen to almost 4.5 million. That should have meant a bigger—not smaller—tax base. But while the vast majority of people came to the area for Detroit jobs, within a few decades they no longer lived in—or paid taxes to—Detroit. That, rather than race, may be the biggest problem,

When Coleman Young won election as mayor in Detroit in November 1973, he said he was happy. But he added: “On the other hand, I knew … I was taking over the administration of Detroit because the white people didn’t want the damn thing anymore. They were getting the hell out.” They were, indeed.

Detroit was 90 percent white when World War II started; it had more than 1.5 million white residents in 1950. By the last census, that had fallen to 55,504. In his book Two Nations, Andrew Hacker, a political science professor, showed that integration has essentially failed, and that whites tend to leave any neighborhood in which blacks are more than 10 percent of the population. This seems to have been even more true in Detroit.

And Detroit is an anomaly among cities for reasons other than race. Though founded by the French in 1701, Detroit was a medium-sized town (at best) for centuries. Then came the automobile. Detroit, which had 285,000 people in 1900, had almost 1.6 million by 1930. The newcomers poured in from the south, from the countryside, from Eastern and Southern Europe. They stayed a generation. But when the freeways opened up the doors to the suburbs in the 1950s, they had no long history with the city, and little nostalgia holding them there; there was simply no incentive to stay.

There are many reasons for the city’s decline thereafter. Corruption got the biggest headlines and certainly played a role. But race and, especially, “elasticity,” were even deadlier poisons. People left for the suburbs—in some cases moving a single block away—and Detroit lost the power to tax them. The city responded by increasing taxes on those who remained, which drove more people to leave, increasing the speed of the vicious circle. Detroit promised benefits and pensions to city workers, hoping to have the funds to pay them. But it didn’t. In recent years, black flight has exceeded white flight. Detroit has fewer black residents than it did in 1970 and fewer white ones than in 1870.

Now there will be bankruptcy, and trauma for those who will lose things they never imagined losing. Eventually, a Detroit shorn of its debts should emerge. But if those in power choose to ignore the fact that the city is, indeed, the metropolitan area and don’t provide for some form of revenue and power sharing across the region, it is hard—if not impossible—to see how Detroit can possibly survive, let alone thrive.

Nor is it easy to see how Michigan can have much future, if its largest city remains largely a penniless and blighted ruin.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

September 12, 2013 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gary Taylor // Sep 13, 2013 at 10:10 am

    What if Grand Rapids becomes the largest city? Is Michigan saved then?

  • 2 Bruce Hassen // Sep 13, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Sure; Detroit wants suburban money but with no strings attached. That is not going to happen.

  • 3 Anagnorisis // Sep 13, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Thanks, Jack, for that rundown, clarifies. If one does in fact look at the greater metropolitan Detroit area it is doing just fine, thank you. It’s true we suburbanites and exurbanites came south of 8 Mile for educations and cultural exposure throughout the 20th century – and usually just as summarily went back home. It is however, to my evaluation, impossible to consider any other than racial divide as catalyst. I lived in central city Detroit throughout the fabled 60s and saw the transition in progress. But on the other hand, what else would one expect from a people subjugated for five centuries? We got what we paid for. Resuscitation? I don’t think so. All that remains is moving the DIA, WSU and a few other bastions to the suburbs. Last one out please turn off the lights. O wait; they’re already off.

  • 4 Tony Vargas // Sep 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Brighton is a suburb of Detroit. Make of that what you will.

  • 5 James Brazier // Sep 13, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Detroit declined due to policies of developing all land to have urban amenities, racism and partisan politics.

    Development policies were accelerated by the New Deal and WWII industrialization. All utilities became far cheaper and transportation became far faster and reliable during this time. The post-war boom built upon the infrastructure initiatives with even more policies to improve upon them.

    Racism had been an essential landscape feature of Detroit as shown in the book Arc of Justice. As the minority population expanded, the residential areas did too with a ripple effect on the other population. Bradley v. Milliken, a Supreme Court decision in 1974, blessed the suburban boundaries as barriers to integration by busing. This hastened the exodus of whites from Detroit.

    Partisan politics played a big role in structural policies to make Detroit both fiscally challenged and a high tax area. Michigan’s constitutional convention was dominated by the GOP 90 to 44. Convention delegates were chosen in malapportioned districts with huge population inequities that benefited the GOP. They reduced the equity of taxation among Michigan municipalities with several measures. Property assessment valuation was halved with Detroit being harmed the most with this new policy. Detroit and other cities were then given the right to tax incomes of residents and commuters with Detroit given the highest rates. This meant that new development within Detroit and cities would be taxed much higher than if done outside them.

    Unfortunately, the only real remedy for Detroit and other cities relies upon state policies. State government could tackle the problem of inequitable local taxation by leveling the tax rates paid on property, sales and incomes to make residence and place of business irrelevant. Creation of metro area government to include Detroit and its suburbs is a step towards this ideal. But it would unravel and businesses and residents find cheaper places to do business and reside for which development would always be profitable.

    Michigan needs to end urban sprawl but racism and partisan politics interact with these policies in ways that usually defeat helping inner cities like Detroit. It does not help the political calculus for the major parties to be dominant in different areas of the landscape: Republicans in rural areas and Democrats in cities. Political fortunes work against real solutions since development policies have transformed places to live and do business into markets with winner and losers. New rules for regulating these markets must address development policies and tax rate inequities to be successful.

  • 6 Bill Ralls // Sep 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting, informative article, with insights and fresh perspective. Excellent writing as always.

  • 7 Euni Rose // Sep 14, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Of course you are right on the money, Jack. One thing that was left out (surprisingly, ’cause you know everything!) was the development of what was the Northland Shopping Center, first regional shopping center in the country. That served to kill downtown shopping, and of course helped develop Oak Park and Southfield for the returning veterans of World War II and the Korean War. This suburban living, with people closing their doors at night after returning from work, and literally living in their backyards with no interaction of neighbors, also helped to destroy the cohesiveness of the region. Personally, I’m not a native of this area, but since moving here many years ago, I have always considered myself to be a resident of the Detroit Metropolitan area; having always lived in diverse neighborhoods my whole life, it sickens me that this area is so intensely divided. Keep on keeping on, and your friend Donna Quixote will do the same!

  • 8 Joseph Novak // Sep 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Yes, but. This is how it should be. Rather, it should be Metropolitan Detroit, but ask many Detroiters, those living south of 8 Mile (and the eastern half of Wayne County), Your a Detroiter; or a suburbanite. And the media has either pushed or created that concept.

  • 9 Philip Dryden // Sep 16, 2013 at 7:52 am

    It’s interesting that we refer to ourselves as “Metro Detroiters’, yet feel no real allegiance to the city. Those in the suburbs seem content to let the core of their identity die without as much as lifting a caring finger to help rejuvenate the source of their identity.

  • 10 Dan // Oct 13, 2013 at 1:24 am

    “”””Brighton is a suburb of Detroit. Make of that what you will.”””

    Noooooooo. As a native of the area, I’d like to still think of Brighton as country. I rarely go to the tri-county area anyway. The suburbs stop at the Livingston County line. 🙂

  • 11 hidemyass pro // Mar 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.

  • 12 watch this video // Mar 13, 2014 at 12:49 am

    707784 240899You must participate in a contest for probably the greatest blogs on the web. I will recommend this web site! 949212

  • 13 0aBxjRhmT // Mar 13, 2014 at 3:45 am

    434330 27250You produced some decent points there. I looked online for that dilemma and identified a lot of people goes coupled with with all your internet site. 829291

  • 14 Learn More Here // Mar 13, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Hi! I’ve been following your website for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Humble Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent work!

  • 15 Discover More // Mar 14, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I am very happy to read this. This is the type of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that is at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this greatest doc.

  • 16 Deedra Zemjanis // Mar 15, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  • 17 Davida Panessa // Mar 16, 2014 at 3:43 am

    I was just looking for this info for some time. After six hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your website. I wonder what is the lack of Google strategy that don’t rank this type of informative sites in top of the list. Generally the top sites are full of garbage.

  • 18 Sparkle Minten // Mar 17, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Very good written story. It will be beneficial to anyone who usess it, as well as me. Keep up the good work – can’r wait to read more posts.





© 2007-2011 All rights reserved. Site design by Kimberly Hopkins, khopdesign, llc.