Sunday, July 28, 2013
Did Macomb County play a key role in Detroit's decline?
Growing up in Roseville in the 1970s, by the time I reached junior high school the majority of my neighborhood friends were refugees from Detroit, those who fled at a time when the inner city was showing the earliest signs of degenerating into an urban wasteland.
These suburban families represented the beginning of white flight, a massive population shift that would prove to be Detroit’s undoing over the next four decades.
Once safely settled in suburbia, these whites would eventually lead the charge against cross-district busing and would congregate as an anti-Detroit voting bloc. That led to Macomb County political campaigns that were often won by the candidate who most effectively bashed Detroit. These white-flighters became the core of a political atmosphere in the 1980s and 1990s that made the tri-county area the most segregated metropolitan area in the nation.
The Motor City’s downward spiral was put in motion.
So, in the wake of Detroit’s unprecedented municipal bankruptcy, the question becomes: Did Macomb County and other suburban communities play a leading role in sparking the core city’s downfall?
The ill-informed national pundits pontificating about Motown’s financial failure offer all kinds of ideological theories that don’t add up.
Sure, big-government Democratic politics and aggressive labor unions contributed to the city’s debts. One liberal commentator suggested that Detroit’s decline was caused by too much of a small-government approach.
To blame the $3.5 billion pension debt on “union bosses” is off the mark when you consider that the average city retiree receives $18,000 a year in benefits. To say that political corruption killed Motown — indeed Kwame Kilpatrick’s raiding of funds was breathtakingly brash — is wildly off the mark when the city owes an unfathomable $18 billion to $20 billion in long-term debts.
As Gov. Rick Snyder and his able Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr have said, Detroit’s long, slow slide began 60 years ago due to mismanagement at City Hall and relentless negative inaction — kick the can down the road and let the next mayor take care of the mounting debts.
But if suburbanites are honest about the history of southeast Michigan, they will acknowledge that white flight, which reached a far higher level of retreat in Detroit than in other metropolitan areas, was the clincher that gradually bled the Motor City dry.
I have not seen any figures on the percentage decline in city property values over the past 40 years, but the loss of property tax revenues over those four decades must be staggering. At the peak of the nation’s housing crisis in 2009, the median price of a single family home in Detroit had fallen to a stunning $5,000.
In Detroit, a housing crisis has been ongoing for decades. The unkempt and vacant homes that so shocked suburbanites across the nation during the foreclosure boom of 2008-10 became standard fare in some sections of Detroit starting in the 1970s.
White families who harbored an “us vs. them” attitude as their neighborhoods became more diverse and bailed out, often selling their homes to landlords looking to make a quick buck. What the white-flighters left behind were streets populated by renters with no incentive to maintain their property.
City Hall proved incompetent in trying to halt the oncoming crime and blight. The residents did not stand their ground. Property values plummeted and many residents chose to give up.
With each friend or neighbor that “got out,” more and more families followed the same path north of Eight Mile Road.
This abandonment led to burglaries, street crimes, drug houses and arsons. As many homes became unsellable, the slumlords swooped in.
After 30 years, the results are graphic: shockingly desolate landscapes — the “ruin porn” — that fascinates photographers from across the globe.
One key reason why Detroit is left with so much messiness compared to other Rust Belt cities is size. Consider this: The Motor City’s 139 square miles is so vast that it could fit within its borders all of Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan. One national reporter who wrote about the bankruptcy called that “one of the most incredible factoids ever.”
To deal with the sprawling boundaries, city and federal officials engaged in disastrous urban renewal projects and built freeways that simply made it easier for workers to commute into the city from the suburbs, rather than staying put in the Motor City. Ironically, the good wages and benefits that unionized autoworkers received also encouraged the evacuation of blue collar families.
Meanwhile, the city clumsily fueled this exodus by failing to enforce basic ordinances dealing with weeds and trash and rodents. Small-time crimes such as vandalism and minor assaults were not taken seriously by the Detroit cops.
Nonetheless, much of the mass migration to the suburbs stank of racist motives and bigoted assumptions that a City Hall led by a black mayor was the enemy.
The attitude was unmistakable. In my Roseville neighborhood, the white-flighters used the N-word with little discretion and openly told an array of racist jokes.
A more subtle form of segregation took hold in the business community. I’ve often wondered what Detroit would have looked like if all those gleaming office towers in Troy and Southfield and Auburn Hills, including the impressive Chrysler headquarters, had been built in the downtown area. Imagine all the abandoned buildings and empty lots that could have been replaced by those aesthetically pleasing engines of economic growth.
As the business community turned its back and the inner city’s population slid from 1.2 million in 1980 to 700,000 in 2010, the decline became a death spiral.
The one bright spot in this dark history is the sudden renaissance of the downtown and Midtown areas. Those two enclaves, populated by college-educated professionals, stand in such contrast to the dilapidated neighborhoods that referring to Detroit’s condition as “a tale of two cities” is already reaching cliché status.
In 2013, Detroit is essentially two cities. And for many years, the metropolitan area consisted of two regions: one black, one white, with Eight Mile as the dividing line.
That line is being blurred in recent years by the onset of black flight — minorities moving out of the city into Warren, Eastpointe, Roseville and even Sterling Heights and Clinton Township.
What is the old white-flighters response to this rearranging landscape?
Well, have you heard the one about M-59 becoming the new Eight Mile?