Urban Politics: Prospects for Metro Detroit

There is hope for equitable and resilient solutions in the complex metropolitan relationship but until then, addressing the honest root causes of the friction is the first step.

Metropolitan regions across the United States have undergone the tell tale stories of their rise and fall. Many today are beginning to share seeds of triumph as they begin to grow again. Suburbanization as we know it has contributed as the primary factor to the fragmented geography of the metropolis. Suburbanization is also not a monolith. It is not singular in its nature, rather it stems and overlaps across a nuance of deep and long-lasting historical, economic, and ideological conditions. These very conditions have gained momentum as depicted in current events and the nature of metropolitan regions. 

Historically speaking, it is important to note that the fragmentation of urban regions was intentional and purposeful. In order for conversations between the suburbs and central cities to be had, the truth needs to surface and be recognized for what it is because the disparity of power and money still exists. The strongest interpretation of how suburbs became segregated is via affordable housing opportunities offered to middle and upper class white people away from the central city. It provided an outlet to express the anti-urban and anti-black bias felt towards the threatening presence of minorities in cities.

“Even before the suburban movements of the twentieth century, people living in cities were sorting themselves out into different neighborhoods. Suburbanization accentuated this tendency in two respects: it increased the geographic distances between social and ethnic groups, and it gave the residents of the more privileged neighborhoods a set of tools for excluding racial and ethnic groups they considered undesirable.” (258 Judd and Swanstrom)  

metro detroit

Inevitably, the suburbs quickly found “incorporation,” or the formation of an independent local government, a useful tool in separating themselves from the city. Large-lot zoning, exclusionary zoning, and costly review processes all contribute to high property values in suburbs, for example. Challenges to zoning practices have largely failed, making it perfectly legitimate to use zoning as a way to craft the community in order to attract “superior” residents and exclude “inferior” ones. Fragmentation ultimately benefited the wealthiest of suburbs as older middle-class suburbs turned into lower-class suburbs and central cities fell into steep decline as they continually lost the competition between their more affluent counterparts.

City politics today display remnants of hope for an urban renaissance. In Detroit for example, the city has been aggressively rejuvenating its downtown and midtown areas whilst slowly working to improve the conditions of neighborhoods.  However, the deep economic gap between affluent suburbia and the urban core is deserving of honest attention and care.

“Although the underlying normative arguments rest on very different rationales, scholars with a wide range of doctrinal approaches appear to have formed a consensus that the current concentration of wealth and resources in metropolitan areas is unacceptable. Intergovernmental cooperative efforts fail to correct, and often exacerbate, the socioeconomic gap. Thus, the regionalist agenda must be reworked to take account of the negative impacts that many of the highly touted regional governance efforts actually produce in metropolitan areas.”  (78 Reynolds 2003)

We have witnessed this issue of the historical segregation and economic gap manifest itself in a few recent events: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the M-1 Rail, and the Regional Transit Authority millages.  The DIA millage passed in 2012 giving residents of the Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties free admission in exchange for a annual tax. “This election was a nail-biter in Macomb County because it generated a final tally of 63,270 yes votes (50.5%) and 61,930 no votes (49.5%).” (Lacy 2012) Generally, it was supported very well but faced a challenging crowd from Macomb county.

While poverty, unemployment levels, declining schools ensued- the urban renaissance has been more focused more on consumption via avenues such sports, venues, entertainment. The M-1 Rail is a perfect example of improving the city for tourists and downtown businesses and not for its own. “According to Progress Michigan’s Sean Tobin’s analysis, about 5 percent of the city is within a 15-minute walking distance of the M-1 Rail, and eight percent is within a 30-minute walk of the entire length of the rail.” Unfortunately, the truth is the rail system will serve corporations and not the people. When it comes to downtown and midtown and entertainment venues, suburbans in the region are more inclined to show approval or support.

On the not to surprising contrary, the regional transit authority master plan introduced in the 2016 November ballot was rejected by metro-Detroiters. There is no doubt that people in Macomb and Oakland counties were opposed to it because of a tax increase for services residents they already paid. The heart of the plan was to connect Detroit to the suburbs and vice versa, but it appeared that the idea did not sit well with them. This could have been opportunity for reconciliation between the two masses of people. “The plan was designed to address the kinds of structural problems inherent in the story of marathon commuter James Robertson, Detroit’s walking man. The plan would not merge the Detroit Department of Transportation and Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, but it would prevent communities from opting out as many do with SMART.” (Witsil Lawrence 2016) The accessibility of two very different places could have provided opportunity for conversation, economic growth, and collaboration.

From an ideological perspective, the cooperation of the region and the city is against America’s and Detroit’s historical precedent. In light of our 2017 presidential elections and local regional politics, the idea of regional cooperation baffles me. President-elect Donald Trump and the half of America that voted for him believe in his ideology.  As hate crimes are on the rise and we continue to do damage control organizing due to the repercussions of the administration’s policies. Both a curse and a blessing, cities like Detroit will continue to struggle as they find peace and power in their growth. There is hope for equitable and resilient solutions in the complex metropolitan relationship but until then, addressing the honest root causes of the friction is the first step.

-hayahya                                                                                                                                     the outsider


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