Sixteen months after becoming the largest-ever US municipality to enter bankruptcy, Detroit has a court-approved plan to move forward, and is poised to move ahead with several billion dollars less debt, plus new aid commitments from the state and federal governments. But nothing has been done to fix the underlying problem: that the “City of Detroit” is a legal fiction – an anachronism with no bearing whatsoever on the region’s physical and economic facts.
Detroit’s history follows both the rise of the automobile industry and the use of the automobile itself. Detroit grew from a modest-sized town in 1900 to become the 5th largest city in the US in 1950. But then the course of the city and the auto industry diverged. While the industry continued to expand, new plants were built in Detroit’s suburbs. Workers took advantage of cheap cars and better roads to head to the suburbs too.
The depopulation of midwestern cities is not unique to Detroit. Almost every midwestern city has lost between twenty and sixty percent of its population since 1950. The larger metropolitan areas have kept right on growing – it’s only the cities that have shrunk. While the city of Detroit today has about one-third the population it had in the early 50s, the larger Detroit region is now forty percent more populous.
The difference is the automobile and the US highway system. Before the age of cheap transport, economic realities forced people to live in town, close to work and needed services: schools, shops, family, etc. Since the 50s, people have had the option to live away from town, relying on cars and a modern road network to get where they need to go.
Newer American cities in the west have established their city limits in accordance with this new reality. The major cities of Texas are a good example. Austin and El Paso each have nearly the same area as New York City. Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio are all geographically larger than New York City, and Houston is twice New York’s size. But those six Texas cities combined have fewer people than New York City. Unlike older cities in the east and midwest, Texas cities were were built around the automobile, and their sprawling incorporated limits reflect that.
The urban sprawl of cities like Detroit is, today, no less extensive – however most midwestern cities have literally left their incorporated limits unchanged since the days of the horse-drawn carriage. Detroit is about one-half the size of New York City, and has been for more than a century.
The people leaving midwestern cities since the 50s have been disproportionately affluent, because they can more readily afford cars and new houses in the suburbs. The people left behind are disproportionately poor. And because of the disparity between black and white incomes, and discriminatory business and banking practices, the net result is relatively white, affluent suburbs and relatively black, poor cities. This demographic trend is common to many major metropolitan areas across the midwest, including Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
In and of itself, this would not have been a problem if the larger metropolitan area were united within a single municipality. However suburbanites were able to escape the tax base of the city, while still using numerous city resources, from hospitals to roads to water supply and other elements of the city’s infrastructure. Detroit spent billions of dollars providing health, education and other services to people who would ultimately leave to become productive members of society elsewhere.
The real cure for cities like Detroit is the annexation of its suburbs – to bring political realities (the lines on the map) into accord with the social and economic reality: that city and suburb is a single entity, united by a common infrastructure and commerce. Detroit today is little more than the least desirable neighborhood in a much larger economic zone, of which it comprises less than 20% of the total population, and an even smaller fraction of the total land area.
Leaving the old municipal lines intact effects a ghetto, within which medical care and education are far inferior, predictably producing children who will lack the skills to be productive in a modern economy. The obstacles to incorporation of the suburbs are political, but they have been overcome in places such as Kansas City and Louisville. Detroit’s latest plan will get it out of bankruptcy, and improve things a little bit in the short term. But over the long haul it will only perpetuate an unjust and unproductive status quo.
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