Detroit consigned to an unnecessarily bleak future?

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

“People are just going to continue to leave”

According to Robert Kleine, who was the state treasurer under Michigan’s previous governor, Jennifer Granholm, it is unlikely that an influx of private investment is going to rescue the city anytime soon.

“City services are already cut down to bare bones,” he said. “You wait for the bus for 45 minutes, if it comes at all. You wait for the police to respond to a call for an hour, if they come at all. Every dollar you take out of those departments now is going to further decrease quality of life in the city. That is not the way you attract people to move there or businesses to invest there.”

Another view of the city: the “Spirit of Detroit,” outside Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

As National Public Radio has reported, there are extraordinarily long wait times for city buses; the Detroit News found earlier this year that the response time of paramedics was disturbingly slow. Bing himself has acknowledged that large parts of the city are currently without public lighting, and that while overall crime has gone down over the last few years, homicides have gone up.

And Daniel McNamara, president of the city’s firefighters union, which is currently in negotiations with the city, warned that the cuts that have been proposed could force the closure of fire stations, which would increase response time. “The most important thing about fighting a fire is getting there fast,” he said. “Who is going to want to move here if there are three houses on a block that have burned down?”

“At this level of cutting, it’s going to be very harmful for quality of life,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. “Everybody talks about trying to make Detroit a better place to live, but when you have poorer services, less park maintenance, more blight, worse bus service, it becomes a worse place to live.”

When Remapping Debate asked Dan Lijana, a spokesperson for Mayor Bing, whether the Mayor believed the cuts would have a negative impact on quality of life in the city, he said, “We’re doing our best to minimize that. We’re trying not to cut from police and fire. But the reality is, sometimes when you have less, you have to do less.”

“You can’t talk about a dramatic downsizing of city government without it impacting city services to some level,” said City Councilmember Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. “But to me, given the cash flow problem, it really comes down to a classic ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation.”

Kleine spelled out the likely effect of a reduction in services: “People are just going to continue to leave,” he said. “That is only going to exacerbate the problem in the future.”


Abandoning the future

David Egner, the executive director of the New Economy Initiative, a non-profit group that works to accelerate the redevelopment of the region, said that a lack of strategy has worsened the city’s problems. “We are nowhere near coming up with a long-term strategy,” he said. “When you’re trying to keep the lights on, it’s difficult to add another layer of strategy.” 

The difficulties of the Detroit Works Project, the most ambitious effort so far to provide a long-term plan for the city, exemplifies this trend. Begun as a long-term planning project, it has since shifted some of its resources, at Bing’s request, to short-term planning. Meanwhile, it has pushed back its long-term plan until 2012.

To some community advocates, the possibility that long-term issues are not being addressed reflects the fact that the goal for the city’s future has become very narrow. “We have been in survival mode for so long that some officials have lost the vision of what the city could look like,” said Ponsella Hardaway executive director of the MOSES Project, a community advocacy organization.

Mogk agreed. “With the current proposals, the best Detroit can hope for is to limp along for another few years. It’s common to hear people say that it will take a long time for the city to come back, but that means accepting that thousands of people will probably be unemployed and living in poverty indefinitely,” he said. “The scope of solutions that have been proposed so far have no relationship to the scope of the crisis,” he said.


Looking to the region

Several experts and some city officials said that it is unlikely that Detroit can solve its economic problems by itself. Yet according to Buss and others, most of the solutions that have come forward have been focused solely on efforts the city can make on its own. The exception is a request by Mayor Bing to the Governor to pay $220 million in lost revenue sharing that the state has reneged on over the last decade. The state has made it clear that it will not be providing that money.

“Everybody talks about trying to make Detroit a better place to live, but when you have poorer services, less park maintenance, more blight, worse bus service, it becomes a worse place to live.” — Margaret Dewar

Buss said that by focusing on Detroit-only solutions, both city and state officials were neglecting the reality that what happens to Detroit will affect not only Detroit residents but also the suburbs and even the entire state. “The line of thinking is ‘every city for itself,’” she said. “There is not a recognition of how interconnected all of these places are.”

According to Jeff Horner, a lecturer at Wayne State University, there was a time when people in Detroit and in the state capitol were coming up with broader, more far-sighted ideas. “There was sort of a golden age in the ’60s where people were coming up with some creative solutions,” he said.  At the time, Detroit was only starting to grapple with population decline, as more and more people moved into the suburbs. “People were saying, ‘maybe when we’re thinking about Detroit, we should also be thinking about the suburbs.’” That, of course, was many decades ago.

Urban planners, geographers, economists, and some government officials and advocates in the Detroit area have long thought that it is misguided to think of the City of Detroit in isolation from its suburbs and the rest of the region. And they don’t ignore the fact that the segregation and political fragmentation that exists in the Detroit region has been — and continues to be — a major impediment to Detroit’s revitalization and to the area’s growth in general. “The reality is that as long as that place is so fragmented and so segregated, it’s never going to grow,” Orfield said.

Recognizing the challenges that segregation and fragmentation raise for economic growth and development, many other cities — including Indianapolis, Portland, Louisville, Nashville and the Twin Cities — have put some form of regional government or regional tax-sharing in place. But in Detroit, the strong resistance by both city and suburban officials, combined with decades of apathy on the state level, has resulted in little meaningful progress.

“Those other cities are eating Detroit’s lunch,” Orfield said.


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