Do I Still Think Detroit is Dying?

By Peter Eisinger

Wandering through a museum exhibit some years ago on art from the cradle of civilization, I came upon a map of the ancient Middle East with the names of scores of cities that no longer exist, and I was suddenly struck that the world is indeed full of sites of once vibrant cities that died. Thinking about the phenomenon of urban death, it became clear that there are multiple causes—wartime destruction, desertification or jungle encroachment, natural disasters, and so on—but that the common factor in urban death, theoretically, is that for one reason or another the city is no longer able to fulfill its essential urban functions. I wondered if cities in a modern society like the United States could die, that is, if there came a point where they were no longer doing the things that cities do that make them cities. Detroit seemed like a good place to begin an exploration of that possibility.

Elsewhere I posit three fundamental urban functions, each so crucial to the sustainability of a city that the failure of any one of them may set a city on the path to death.1 These include governance (the management and financing of common public responsibilities), an economic function that I call the maintenance of the marketplace (the fostering of employment, investment, and trade), and cultural production and preservation. In “Is Detroit Dead?” I subject the city to an examination akin to that which a doctor conducts on an ailing patient and conclude that the city is no longer fulfilling either its governance or its economic functions and thus appears to be dying.

As that article was in the works and in the few years since publication, downtown Detroit (approximately 5 percent of the land area within the city’s boundaries and 5 percent of the total population) has experienced a $9 billion building boom of mostly repurposed and revitalized commercial property, 16,000 new jobs, and some 3000 new or renovated housing units. City boosters point to this as a sign of the city’s resurgence. Yes, but…. I would suggest that such a judgment is premature.

Detroit is still largely a city in despair, particularly for much of its black population. Little of the downtown activity has had discernible spillover benefits for the vast neighborhoods beyond the downtown. Population continues to decline (though the rate of loss slowed in the last year or two); the school system is in a perpetual state of grave crisis; poverty remains higher in Detroit than in any other big city in the U.S., with the rate for African Americans more than three times that for whites. Furthermore, the rate of concentrated poverty is higher in Detroit than in any other large metro area, and Detroit is the second most racially segregated city in the country. The median per capita income even in the apparently prosperous downtown is less than half the national average.

The city has steadily relinquished its governmental functions, greatly diminishing the scope of municipal capacity. Partly this a function of the formal reallocation of various functions—street lighting, social welfare programs, the convention center, water and sewer, the crown jewel of the public park system and so on– to other levels of government (special authorities, Wayne County, the state of Michigan). But the reduction of municipal capacity is also the product of the virtual abdication of development functions to the private sector, and in particular to just a few individuals, unaccountable to local government or the city’s citizens. Detroit is no longer a fully self-governing city within the context of American local government expectations and possibilities.

The city is also still falling short as a magnet of economic opportunity, one of the most central aspects of the so-called vital marketplace urban functions. There is a limited array of economic activities, most of which are not accessible to people with little education.  No other big city in the U.S. has so few foreign born immigrants. Although some college-educated young people have moved to the city in recent years—artists, entrepreneurs, tech specialists—the city is not a destination for small town domestic migrants nor high school graduates seeking work. Unemployment is still more than two and half times the national rate.

So is Detroit dead? Not yet, but I still think it is hovering on the verge.  There is a core with an aura of vibrancy—a Whole Foods grocery opened in the center a couple of years ago and is often touted as evidence of resurgence–that belies its vulnerability. But much of the rest of the city continues to be a dead zone, still with abandoned houses, empty fields, long-shuttered factories, and a public school system that has lost more than two-thirds of its students since 2002. Detroit still seems to me to be the American way of urban death.

Peter Eisinger is Professor Emeritus at the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City.

The original article, “Is Detroit Dead?” was published in Volume 36, Issue 1 (2014) of JUA, and is included in the May 2016 Virtual Issue on Global Urban Change. It can be accessed without a subscription for a limited time.

1. “Theorizing Urban Death,” in Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn, eds., Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource. 2015: 1–9..

Does Social Mixing Work? A JUA Blog Review of Integrating the Inner City

By David Varady

Robert J. Chaskin and Mark L. Joseph. Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Most previous American public housing research has concentrated either on the history of public housing or on the consequences of demolishing projects and relocating residents. Instead, Robert Chaskin and Mark Joseph focus Integrating the Inner City on how mixed-income public housing reform (HOPE VI) is actually playing out in three communities in Chicago.

Implementing HOPE VI has proven far more difficult to implement than expected. First, development teams at the three sites experienced substantial logistic, legal, and economic obstacles in recruiting low-income renters and middle-income homeowners. Although the CHA issued bold statements about its general screening policy including a work requirement, drug testing, criminal background checks, and credit checks, working groups at the three sites modified these requirements leading to the admission of “borderline” families with social problems. Second, “each of the efforts [to foster self-sufficiency] encountered substantial impediments in application and resident response, and most have fallen short of (often) modest expectations.” (p.123)  Finally there was little social interaction across incomes and tenures. In fact because of the imposition of strict behavioral rules (e.g. with regard to playing loud music on the street and in cars), mixing actually increased racial and class tensions.

I agree with the authors that it is unrealistic to assume that middle income owners can serve as role models for poor renters. I disagree, however, with their assertion that the CHA’s Public Housing Transformation Plan failed because managers imposed overly stringent rules on former public housing residents. If we want the poor to successfully participate in the market economy and to achieve self-sufficiency, I believe that it is reasonable to expect former public housing residents to learn to follow the same types of rules in subsidized mixed-income developments that apply in market-rate low-income rental housing.

The preceding raises the question: can public housing transformation occur without social mixing? Larry Vale says (2015) “Yes,” based on his research on the Commonwealth Development in Boston.  Commonwealth’s success, however, was due to a private management firm’s tight screening and their strict enforcement of behavioral rules, but it is questionable whether the Commonwealth model can be adopted and successfully replicated elsewhere.

Despite my differences with Chaskin and Josephs over their conclusions, I strongly endorse Integrating the Inner City. Six years of fieldwork have produced a stellar product.

A longer version of this book review appears in the Summer 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Reference:

Vale, Lawrence. 2015. “Myth #6 Mixed-income redevelopment is the only way to fix failed public housing.” Pp. 139-53 in Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality and Social Policy, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence Vale. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

David Varady is Professor of Planning in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. He is also Book Review Editor of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

 

 

 

 

Book Review Preview: Socioeconomic Segregation in European Capital Cities

By David Varady

Tiit Tammaru, Szymon Marcińczak, Maarten van Ham, and Sako Musterd (Editors). Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities: East Meets West. (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).

Socio-Economic Segregation in European Cities: East Meets West constitutes the first major comparative analysis of socio-economic segregation in European cities and is based on quantitative and qualitative data from 13 major European cities: Amsterdam, Budapest, Vienna, Stockholm, Oslo, London, Vilnius, Tallinn, Prague, Madrid, Milan, Athens, and Riga.

Not surprisingly, the 13 case studies show that “the spatial gap between the more extreme socio-economic categories, those that ‘have’ and those that ‘have not’ is pretty much widening in Europe.” (p.365) I was surprised however, to learn that the type of welfare state and the characteristics of housing provision—were not clearly linked to the level of segregation. “In some countries with strong public involvement in the housing sector we find both low levels of segregation (Prague) and high levels of segregation (Stockholm and Vienna).” (p.375)

The book does a great job in comparing levels of segregation across European capitals and in portraying the results geographically. However, as the editors acknowledge, it falls short in explaining  how and why families make particular segregative residential choices. Why, for example, 25 years after the fall of communism in Tallinn do Estonian managers live in separate neighborhoods from Russian speaking managers?

Unfortunately, the book largely overlooks the role of religion―in particular fundamentalist Islam—along with economic marginalization, and spatial separation―in threatening the future viability of European cities. The terms “Islam” and “Muslims” do not appear in the index and I do not think that they appear in the text either. Did you wonder, as I did in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks and the attack on the Brussels airport, why the Molenbeek municipality in Brussels became a no-go area for police, where gang violence remains rampant, where Islamic radicalism feeds on the neighborhood’s marginalization, and where some of the terrorists responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks were able to hide (Freytas-Tamura & Schreuer, 2015)? Unfortunately, you won’t find answers to these questions in this book. Sophisticated qualitative research is needed to answer these questions.

Despite these limitations, I learned a lot about segregation in European cities. However, the book’s high price of $170 prevents me from recommending it to JUA readers.  I do encourage you to order a PDF version of the Introduction and Conclusion, available from Open-Access at www.Tandfebooks.com.

An expanded version of this review will be published in Geography Research Forum.

Reference:

Freytas-Tamura, D., & Schreuer, M. (2015). Belgian minister says government lacks control over neighborhood linked to terror plots. New York Times.  November 15, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/live/paris-attacks-live-updates/belgium-doesnt-have-control-over-molenbeek-interior-minister-says/

 

David P. Varady is Professor of Planning at the University of Cincinnati and is Book Review Editor for the Journal of Urban Affairs. He is the author of numerous books and articles about low-income housing policy, segregation, and neighborhood development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Call for Papers: JUA Special Issue on Actioning the Progressive City

Guest Editors: Ronald K. Vogel and Meghan Joy
Submission Deadline: March 31, 2017

There is a serious gap between the problems faced by 21st century cities and their proposed solutions, which are often small-scale, siloed and unsustainable. Paradoxically, as cities face the pressures of poverty, unemployment, social and physical infrastructure degradation, and pollution, they are being lauded by other scales of government for their resilience and innovation in solving wicked problems.  Critical urban theory and study highlights the failures and inadequacies of current neoliberal urban policy and austerity programs. The tension between problems, solutions, and expectations in status quo urban policy making begs the question: is there a progressive alternative for cities that promotes equity, democracy, sustainability, and justice? It is now time for scholars to move beyond critiques of neoliberalism to offer a better future for those who live and work in the city.

In this special issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs, we welcome both conceptual and case-focused submissions that examine how to define, build, and action a progressive city in the 21st century. We recognize that the experience of cities in the global south as well as the north offer theoretical insights and practical policy solutions that may move a progressive city agenda forward. We welcome papers that focus on:
  • the values and principles that define a progressive city;
  • how to support progressive leadership, movements, and coalitions to become full-fledged political alternatives;
  • progressive policy visions, agendas, and action plans; and
  • the institutional arrangements required to anchor or nurture a progressive city.
To be considered for publication in this special issue, papers should be submitted to ron.vogel@politics.ryerson.ca.  All submissions will go through the regular journal review process.  Please follow the JUA Author Guidelines which can be found at: