Detroit’s woes can be eased, but region's officials avert their eyes

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Jan. 25, 2012 — What if success for Detroit were no longer defined as avoiding bankruptcy or a takeover by a state-appointed emergency manager? What if there were a way for Detroit to do better than, as one local official put it, “limp along for the next 10 or 20 years”? As it happens, there do appear to be approaches available that could yield a thriving city and region. But experts stress that those approaches would require policy makers at all levels of government to put aside rigid, one-dimensional narratives of causes for the city’s decline, and to reckon with sharing the huge cost of a reconstruction program done right.


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

In Part 2, we looked 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 probed 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.

Here, we examine the nature and plausibility of the solutions that would need to be put in place if anyone were serious about trying to help Detroit thrive at any time soon.


“We’re at a time when we need the leadership to step beyond their historic biases and help people to imagine a different kind of city,” said Betty Buss, a senior research associate at the Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan. “I have not seen that leadership so far.”


One-dimensional narratives

Historically, both Detroit and its suburbs have viewed efforts at regional cooperation with hostility: the suburbs have long been wary of regional tax policy proposals, because they see them as attempts to use suburban money to subsidize Detroit; the city, on the other hand, has tended to see proposals for regional governance as schemes aimed at diluting its political power.

Contributing to this impasse are two strikingly divergent narratives about what has caused Detroit’s decline. One narrative, espoused mainly by suburban officials, is that Detroit’s decline was caused purely by mismanagement of city officials.

L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland County, the wealthiest county in the state and Detroit’s neighbor to the north, subscribes to this view loudly and unapologetically. “Detroit has brought this completely upon itself,” Patterson told Remapping Debate. “Here is a city that is infamous for mismanagement and kicking the can down the road.”

On the other side, many officials and advocates in Detroit point to the systemic barriers that have been imposed on the city, and blame the city’s decline principally on suburban, state, and federal policies that have combined to “steal” the city’s assets. This narrative is born, in part, from a long-held suspicion that the mostly-white suburbs want to take autonomy and self-determination away from the mostly-black city.

Thus, when a proposal was made fund the Detroit Zoo regionally and have it run by a regional body with both city and suburban representation, Councilmember JoAnn Watson reportedly called for a boycott of the suburbs in protest. In another instance — a proposal to regionalize Cobo Hall, the city’s convention center — former Councilmember Barbara Rose-Collins compared the proposal to colonialism and charged the suburbs with trying to “steal” the convention center. And a 2010 proposal to create a regional entity to manage Detroit’s Water and Sewage department was greeted with a Detroit City Council resolution denouncing it as an effort to “end the city’s autonomy.”


Rejecting a more nuanced view

According to Buss, progress requires people to acknowledge that there is plenty of blame to go around. “It’s impossible to deny that there has been mismanagement in Detroit and that it has contributed to the city’s problems,” she said. “But policies coming from the suburban governments and the state also contributed, and it’s impossible to deny that racism and segregation has played a big role.”

“We’re at a time when we need the leadership to step beyond their historic biases and help people to imagine a different kind of city,” said Betty Buss, of the Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan. “I have not seen that leadership so far.”

Several experts cited Detroit’s failure to plan for the long-term as evidence of the city’s mismanagement — “For a long time there wasn’t even a land map of the city,” said Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota — and some pointed to initiatives, like the hugely expensive Renaissance Center and the Downtown People Mover train, as examples of wasted resources that could have been better spent.

And as Remapping Debate has reported, segregation played a large role in Detroit’s decline, as federal and state policies incentivized white flight from the city.

Nevertheless, when asked if he would acknowledge that state and federal policies favoring the suburbs over the city have contributed to Detroit’s problems, Patterson said, “There are people in Detroit who would like to blame the suburbs and the state for its decline. But they need to be pointing the finger back at themselves.”

Given the number of former city officials who have been removed from office for corruption, it is more difficult for current officials there to deny that Detroit has at times been mismanaged. Yet, in interviews with members of the City Council and a representative for the Mayor’s Office, officials were unwilling to reckon with the consequences of poor decisions made in the city’s history.

City Councilmember Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. was prepared to say, “Yes, there have been some mistakes,” But, he added, “focusing on those mistakes distracts from what we need to be doing now. It makes it harder for us to move forward.” 

Jennifer Bradley, co-director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative at the Brookings Institution, sees the failure to take mutual responsibility as thwarting the progress toward the regional cooperation that the Detroit Metro Area badly needs.

“You can squander a lot of opportunities by insisting that somebody else buy your story,” she said.

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