by Jackson Bartlett
In the heat of the Great Recession, media, urban planners, developers, and later city and state officials have taken the opportunity to argue that the only solution for Detroit is disassembly. Self-proclaimed stakeholders (other than the actual residents of these areas) rammed through Detroit Works citing an unavoidable fact: providing city services to areas with rural densities and depressed property values is an unsustainable model for the city.
Their plan to take entire neighborhoods offline, so to speak, and transfer that land to worthy investors harkens back to the disastrous urban-renewal saga of the post-war era in Detroit and, similarly, is only the most convenient solution for city leaders. The speed at which the project is rolling ahead has many resident activists scrambling to negotiate the terms of this city shut-down, but we cannot forget that other options are available—that the whole idea of putting the city to sleep has shut out more creative solutions.
Detroit Works in a Regional Context
Detroit Works is being proposed as a solution to decades of urban disinvestment, white flight, and urban sprawl that has choked the state budget and the city proper. For decades home-building and the construction of new schools, roads, libraries, water and sewerage infrastructure, and other public expenses have rapidly out-paced population growth in Southeast Michigan, stretching tax revenues ever thinner to service a larger built environment.
With land area consumption at 2.5 times the rate of population growth in Michigan according to Transportation Riders United, we have rapidly added to the amount of built environment to support and maintain with public funds. And while each tax dollar gets spread thinner in Michigan, the actual number of tax dollars is also declining due to the perfect storm of a permanent recession and the Republicans’ decades-long liberalization of tax policy.
In other words, the further out we build the suburbs, the less money there is to go to existing infrastructure, schools, and other population supports, particularly in Detroit. In a state with a suburban-controlled legislature, Detroit has born the majority of this thinning out of the tax dollar.
Couple this with the well-known catastrophe of white-flight thanks to discriminatory federal housing policies, industrial flight thanks to free trade, cuts in federal revenue-sharing during the 1980’s, and the foreclosure scandal and you have the frightening urban landscape Detroiters are living with today. The city proper has, in effect, subsidized continued suburban growth with its own economic and human rights disaster.
If Not Right-Sizing, Then What?
To cope with the reality that over-building the suburbs has stretched the city and the state’s resources thin, the mayor (with the governor’s blessing) has decided to simply shuffle people out of the wreckage and into other areas, rather than consider addressing this uneven development across the region.
While other regions like Portland, Washington D.C., and even San Antonio experimented with coordinated regional planning to limit sprawl and central city decline, Michigan simply let the wheels fall off and is junking the car.
In 1973, just after the federal government began to wind-down its investments in urban areas to fund the war in Vietnam, the Oregon State Legislature enacted a law requiring cities to draw development boundaries. Portland’s density increased while the density of almost all other cities was decreasing rapidly. State law there still limits developers from building beyond a certain area, concentrating services, jobs, and resources, thus increasing access to them for everyone.
And while the District of Columbia and its suburbs are known for sprawl and traffic congestion, the physical imprint of metro Washington is actually much smaller than cities to the West thanks to the heavy regulation of automobile use and large public investments in mass transit.
Limited freeway construction has created the highest levels of traffic congestion in the nation, while long-distance commuter-rail travel (versus the subway) is priced too high to make sense for most people. This has kept people living closer to the core, again concentrating services, jobs, and resources, if not as well as in Portland. Moreover, the states of Maryland and Texas have made fiscal and legislative commitments to supporting and enabling anti-sprawl policies in their cities, propping up local efforts to fight unsustainable growth models. Making it legal and possible for cities to restrict irresponsible land-use on their fringes and suburban secession is a big piece of the solution for American cities.
Certainly, as rich folks are compelled to live close to downtown in a place like Washington, real estate values go up, leading to the sometimes nasty battles waged by the gentry against the poor; however, what separates the black ghettos of Detroit, Chicago, and LA from their denser counterparts in Boston, D.C., Oakland, and elsewhere is that many of the black poor are located so far from urban services and amenities that their standard of living is significantly lower.
Part of what makes Detroit’s poverty so extreme is the sheer level of isolation, encouraged by locating the gentry sometimes twenty and thirty miles from the poor. Detroit could be a site where anti-sprawl policies are coupled with true commitments (supported at the state and federal level as in the past) to housing the working-class and the poor, a solution much more creative than Detroit Works.
Investment is Off the Table
While other cities are struggling to maintain reasonably progressive models of regional development which restrict sprawl, Detroit Works and other city-shrinking projects in Flint, Youngstown, and Buffalo fit better within the current national political climate where government is deciding to shed its responsibility to the people. The deficit and recession mythology guiding de-regulation, tax reductions, and reductions in spending is being taken for granted and, in the Midwest at least, public investment in the inner-city is off the table (with the expectation that private investment will take over).
Recent trends in the political rhetoric suggest that the neoliberal state (including the Democratic Party) is simply taking a crisis opportunity (manufactured or not) to force through unprecedented transfers of wealth from the poor, working, and middle classes to the super-rich. City right-sizing then begins to look more like a way for the state to unload black portions of American cities while continuing to quietly subsidize suburban expansion in affluent all-white areas.
Building new infrastructure, schools, and other public projects in the suburbs requires the constant renegotiation of the state’s relationship to the old Black city to meet these expenses. The question of whether to halt new suburban projects or raise taxes remains quietly ignored. The state is breaking up with Detroit and crying broke, while all along it’s been buying diamonds and pearls for the Townships.
The flip-side of urban poverty and black-ghetto formation is unrestrained suburban growth on the all-white fringes. After Detroit’s 1967 Rebellion the independent Kerner Commission concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies: one black, and one white,” and argued that nowhere else was this clearer than in the American city.
Instead of finally coming to terms with the apartheid system of urban development in Detroit so exaggerated by extreme urban sprawl and its attendant segregation, the mayor and the State are pushing Detroit Works: a neoliberal project allowing all levels of government to wash their hands of the Black portion of the metropolis once and for all.
Detroit Works is a solution for them, not for Detroiters.
I live in New Baltimore, a small town in northern Macomb county and I can tell you that we are not getting more tax dollars from the state of Michigan. I have noticed a more diversified populoation which I am glad to see I know most of the people I see here from Detroit are here because of safety reasons. No one wants to live with bars on their windows, where you can’t go to bed with a window open in the summer or walk to a park and not be afraid that someone may harm you. I do not have an answer how to save Detroit, but, I think it has to be safer in order for anyone to want to live there.
I love this post. I just finished my masters thesis, which was an urban study of Detroit, and I came to a similar conclusion about so-called ‘right-sizing’. Right-sizing, and planned shrinkage in general, avoids the most obvious social problems in cities like Detroit. These obvious problems are the history of racism, the increasingly liberalized global capital structure that took no mercy on Detroit’s Fordist system, and the absurd Federal investments that facilitated and institutionalized inequalities (e.g. ‘urban renewal’ which saw the construction of the freeways that made white flight accelerate). Right-sizing ignores some important facts — 1) that Oakland County is one of the richest places on earth; 2) that the city is 81% black while the suburbs are 80% white; 3) concentrating poverty in other parts of the world has not worked so well (see: Dharavi in Mumbai, Orangi Township in Karachi). Detroit is not so much a city as it is a region. Borders, and border discourse, are very pertinent there.
To the author of this post: I would be more than happy to share my thesis and engage in a further debate of the city. Although I don’t live there now, I lived there for many years and I love Detroit. I want nothing more than to see Detroit become what its residents want it to be.
Hi, I’m a master’s student in Urban Planning at UCLA, I’m looking to also study Detroit for my Thesis/internship. I would love to have an e-mail “conversation” with you about the best way to get involved with this sort of project. Thanks!
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giulia and steve, i’ll be working and writing about these matters too. feel free to send an email. steve, would love to review your thesis. Jeff DeBruyn email@example.com