A recurring debate in the Michigan media centers on whether the Detroit comeback from bankruptcy and economic doldrums is real or if it focuses only on the downtown and Midtown areas of the Motor City.
Most Detroit media outlets publicize the impressive gains in the Woodward corridor, from Jefferson all the way toward the New Center area to the north. But two Michigan professors with expertise in urban issues, have written an online piece that thoroughly thrashes the idea that gains in a small section of the city represent gains for Motown overall.
Writing for a high-octane website, The Conversation, the academics point out that downtown and Midtown represent just seven square miles of Detroit, or 5 percent of the city’s geographic territory. This thriving area – populated by sports stadiums, office buildings, hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center – has a population of just 26,000.
The glass is half full.
In comparison, imagine if an economically devastated Macomb County promoted itself based solely on an economic revival in the city of Eastpointe. Or that Oakland County put the best face on many miles of devastated neighborhoods by emphasizing a flourishing Birmingham.
That propaganda certainly would not fly with Metro Detroiters, though a similar scenario plays out daily with the newfound perception of Detroit as a transformed city.
The two professors who leveled a heaping dose of reality on the Detroit evolution are Laura Reese, professor of political science and director of the Global Urban Studies Program at Michigan State University, and Gary Sands, professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University.
In their piece for The Conversation, Reese and Sands wrote that they examined Detroit trends in population, poverty, income disparities, business recovery, unemployment, residential sales prices and vacancies, and crime.
What they found is that the data suggests Detroit overall is worse off than it was in 2000 or even in the remaining depths of the national recession in 2010. Population, employment and incomes continue to decrease, while vacancies and poverty have increased.
Even within the cherished downtown/Midtown, the news is certainly not all good. While some newly renovated hotels and apartment buildings bring top dollar, Reese and Sands note that the Hudson-Webber Foundation’s 7.2 Square Miles report highlights the concentration of positive activities in that small area of the city. Although home values in Midtown have increased by 5 percent since 2008, this has not been sufficient to offset continued weakness in other neighborhood housing markets.
And Detroit’s school system — a failure by any measurement or viewpoint – obviously remains a devastating roadblock to long-term citywide prosperity.
The Detroit newspapers, especially the Free Press, maintain a cheerleading role regarding Motown’s inner-core progress. Obviously, it should be noted that the downtown/Midtown revival is due almost exclusively to aggressive investments by two billionaires, Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert and the late Mike Ilitch (and family). City of Detroit policies and procedures certainly did not produce the renaissance within the Woodward corridor.
Meanwhile, smaller media outlets increasingly worry about “hipster” gentrification in the city’s core, led by white Millennials – mostly singles and young couples without children.
Reese and Sands found that, even in Midtown, poverty remains high and most new jobs are going to suburbanites. According to research by the University of British Columbia, increasing income inequality in downtown/Midtown is sparked by class-based gentrification.
While the article by Reese and Sands, published two weeks ago, may have received marginal notice, it was picked up today by the City Lab website, an outgrowth of Atlantic Magazine, which will certainly broaden its exposure.
To be fair, the piece seems off-the-mark, for those of us who have spent their lifetime in the Detroit area, by suggesting there is a deep divide within the city based on rich whites and poor blacks.
“Detroit is two very different cities – one white and privileged, the other black and deprived,” the professors asserted.
As Metro Detroiters know, very few white privileged families live within the city limits. The most desirable neighborhoods largely have maintained their allure through the diligence of middle-class and upper middle-class black homeowners.
The piece also seems naïve in its pontificating about reviving the city’s neighborhood businesses. Anyone who has witnessed the vacant homes, waist-high weeds, debris in the streets, and boarded up shops in the city’s worst neighborhoods on the East Side and West Side knows that nothing short of an urban transformation on a major scale will create new employers and jobs in those areas.
Yet, the professors offer this: “Perhaps the most important short-term strategy is increasing employment levels among Detroit neighborhood residents. A healthy, sustainable local economy would require the number of Detroiters with jobs to grow by as many as 100,000.”
Still, the most disturbing aspect of the Reese and Sands outlook may be data that shows the Detroit revival has mostly benefited suburbanites, not Detroiters. And that’s an understatement.
Since 2007, jobs in Detroit for those living in the suburbs — who are mostly white — have gone up 16.6 percent. Meanwhile, jobs for city residents are down 35.5 percent.