Squandered opportunities leave Detroit isolated

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Jan. 11, 2012 — As Remapping Debate recently reported, the short-term fiscal crisis facing the City of Detroit is actually a reflection of more long-standing structural problems related to a shrinking population and an eroding tax base. While it is tempting to see these problems as generated by the city alone, the afflictions facing Detroit are rooted in the way that the region as a whole was allowed and encouraged to develop over the last several decades (see “From boom to bust,” below).

it didn’t have to turn out this way

In Part 1 of our series, we looked at how proposals to deal with the current crisis ignore or exacerbate long-term problems.

Here in Part 2, we look at a series of proposals from the 1970s that attempted to treat Detroit as an integral part of a single metropolitan region, proposals that many experts say would have radically altered Detroit’s trajectory from then to now.

In Part 3, we will probe the obstacles to achieving regional cooperation, obstacles driven in significant measure by the narrow perspectives held both by city officials and advocates as well by their suburban counterparts.

Finally, in Part 4, we will examine the nature and plausibility of the solutions — at the local, regional, state, and federal levels— that would need to be put in place if anyone were serious about trying to help Detroit thrive at any time soon.


For this reason, many experts believe that any solution to Detroit’s structural problems will require a strong regional component. “Detroit simply does not have the tools necessary to address this problem on its own,” said Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League. “The region is much too fragmented and divided, and there are too many obstacles to growth. Any holistic solution has to address the suburbs as well as Detroit.”

All of the short-term proposals currently offered by city and state officials fail to do this. There was a time, though, when policy makers and advocates were considering broader approaches. In the late 1960s and 1970s, when Detroit’s problems were becoming more and more apparent, several regional solutions were proposed. Had they been put in place at that time, experts say, those solutions could have substantially mitigated Detroit’s decline and may even have prevented it.

Largely due to long-standing antipathy between the city and its suburbs, however, all of these opportunities were squandered. The result: the Detroit metropolitan area has remained one of the most polarized, fragmented, and segregated regions in the country, and many of the drivers of Detroit’s decline continue unabated.


The Option Process and the Local Cooperation Act

As the City of Detroit shrank and the Detroit metro area grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, it became apparent that there was no effective planning happening at the regional level and little coordination between the municipalities.

“You had all these little towns competing with each other and with the city,” said John Mogk, a professor of law and an expert in urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. “Everybody was worrying about themselves without thinking about how their decisions would affect the region as a whole.”

In the mid-1970s, two significant proposals attempted to remedy the situation. In 1972, the federal government commissioned a local committee to study the problems facing the region and report back with suggested solutions. This commission was called The Option Process (TOP) Task Force, and included officials from various levels of government, as well as representatives from business and labor. Mogk served as the chairman.

In its final report,published in early 1973, the Task Force made a number of recommendations to then-Governor William Milliken, including several proposed revisions to state and federal law. The changes focused on the allocation of housing, transportation, health, and education funding.

In addition, the Task Force recommended that the power of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) — then, as now, a voluntary membership organization with a limited role — be greatly increased and that its system of representation, which favored the suburbs over Detroit, be changed.

From boom to bust

The story of Detroit’s decline combines deindustrialization with a history of racial tension and segregation in the region. During and immediately following World War II, Detroit seemed to offer limitless opportunity for blue-collar workers, who streamed into the city to work in the booming automotive and defense industries. Many of these workers were African Americans who were fleeing rural poverty and Jim Crow laws in the south.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, said Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, the automotive industry began rapidly decentralizing, closing plants in the city and moving to the suburbs and to other states in the south and west. “African Americans were moving to Detroit in large numbers in the post-war years, just at the moment when the industry [was] leaving the city and jobs disappeared,” Sugrue said.

As more African Americans moved into Detroit, and as automotive and other manufacturing plants left the central city, white families began moving in large numbers to suburban communities outside of the city, where several plants had relocated. Due to a complex mixture of private sector practices and housing policies at the local, state, and federal levels, Sugrue said, most African Americans were excluded from new housing and employment opportunities in the suburbs.

These factors set off a vicious cycle of disinvestment: as more white families and, much later, wealthier black families left the city to pursue jobs in the suburbs, Detroit became more and more impoverished and isolated from the rest of the region, leading to further disinvestment and further flight. At the same time, Sugrue explained, many of Detroit’s suburbs were booming, taking advantage of business growth and cheap land.  While Detroit’s population has fallen more than 60 percent from a high of 1.85 million people in 1950 to 713,777 today (a post-war low), the Detroit-Warren-Livonia Metropolitan Statistical Area — which includes the City of Detroit as well as several dozen suburban communities in six counties — has increased by more than 40 percent, and currently has a population of 4.35 million people.

Dozens of small, suburban towns competed with the city and each other for residents, businesses, and state and federal funding, creating a sprawling web of towns and depriving the city of the investment and tax base that it desperately needed. Meanwhile, nearly impenetrable segregation confined most African Americans to the city and solidified the suburbs as a “refuge” for whites.

In the mid-1970s, these primary problems — the erosion of Detroit’s population and tax base, the segregated nature of the region, and the lack of effective planning and coordination between the many municipalities in the region — had already become clear. “At that time, Detroit was already extremely balkanized,” Sugrue said.

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