Fallacy: if suburbs or a big city gain people, the other necessarily has to lose

The history of American metropolitan areas suggests that if a big city loses people, the suburbs gain people and vice versa. Yet, I argue this is an inadequate view of metropolitan regions. Consider a recent story on how the revival of downtown Detroit could harm its suburbs:

The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.

“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”

Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”

Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”

This is a common approach to population changes: cities and suburbs are locked in a zero-sum mortal combat for residents. Suburbs have won this battle over time with over 50% of Americans living around major cities. (Hence, the countless stories in recent decades about a population migration to cities which will come at the expense of suburbs. I believe the data overall is limited regarding a major shift in American preferences for city life.)

I would suggest this view contains some truth – communities do compete with each other for prestige, jobs, their tax base, and residents – but also ignores the larger reality of how cities and suburbs work in today’s world. The metropolitan region is a connected unit and the communities and agents work together. The differences between suburbs and city are ultimately smaller than the differences with other metropolitan regions. If Detroit’s core attracts new businesses and residents, this can only be good in the long run. If Detroit is only able to attract businesses and residents from the suburbs, this is not real growth – it simply shuffling actors around within the region. When both Detroit’s suburbs and core bring in people from other regions, they can grow together and the metropolitan region (and all the people within it can thrive).

Of course, there are hurdles to coming to this perspective. Individual communities, city or suburbs, will not like if they lose assets and others around them gain. Racial and class differences lurk behind these current and historic differences. Money is tight. Ideally, suburban and urban leaders would come together to talk about how to proceed positively as a region. Going further, they could discuss how to share resources. (This is probably the toughest sell in American regions, particularly from wealthier communities who do not want to lose the resources they see as theirs.) But, working together for the greater Detroit area would pay off in the long run and help ensure a thriving region.

Debating whether Detroit is on an upward trend

There is some disagreement about whether Detroit is on the rebound:

Michigan State political scientist Laura Reese and Wayne State urban affairs expert Gary Sands have written an essay “Detroit’s recovery: The glass is half-full at best,” for Conversation, which was reprinted at CityLab as “Is Detroit Really Making a Comeback?” The article is based on a longer academic treatment of this subject by Reese, Sanders and co-authors, entitled “It’s safe to come, we’ve got lattes,” in the journal Cities.  (This is one of those rare cases where the mass media version of an article is more measured and less snarky than the title of the companion academic piece, but I digress.)

Reese and Sands set about the apparently obligatory task of offering a contrarian view to stories in the popular press suggesting that Detroit has somehow turned the corner on its economic troubles and is starting to come back. We, too, are wary of glib claims that everything is fine in Detroit. It isn’t. The city still bears the deep scars of decades of industrial decline coupled with dramatic failure of urban governance. The nascent rebound is evident only in a few places.

And the opposite position:

It’s going to be a long, hard road ahead for Detroit. And that road will lead to a different and smaller Detroit than existed in, say, the 1950s. That road is made even harder by critics who damn the first few candles for shedding too little light.

While the debate is about Detroit’s fate, it hits on important larger questions: at what point can experts know whether a city is on the decline or on the way up? Who gets to make such pronouncements and with what data? While we are in the moment, when is a trend clearly a trend? Even a consensus of experts may not be good enough; they can all be wrong.

The more complicated answer is that it takes time and lots of data to know for sure what is happening. This is not comforting if things are going bad; there is often a lot of post-hoc analysis of what could have been done in the moment but such moments are difficult to handle. (Think about the public discussions regarding the economic crisis of the late 2000s and what lessons should be drawn from the Great Depression and similar events.) And if the situation has been bad for a long time, people do want to find hope and build on good happenings.

For those of us looking on from a distance, perhaps the best we can do is wait and hope for positive change in Detroit which likely includes both new activities as well as difficult decisions about moving on from past arrangements.

Describing Detroit at its peak

In discussing Detroit’s decline, it is good to be reminded of the city’s peak:

As Maraniss’s book opens, Detroit appears to be a city on the verge of unimagined greatness. President John F. Kennedy campaigns in the Motor City in October 1962 in support of the off-year elections. Democrat Jerry Cavanaugh is mayor of the city, then the fifth largest in the country with a population of nearly 1.7 million. Cavanaugh is the mayoral version of JFK, a relatively young man with a big Catholic family, liberal, civil rights minded. George Romney is elected governor, a Republican who also champions civil rights. Vice President Lyndon Johnson visits the city in early 1963 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Motown, now well established, is conquering the Billboard charts. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” dislodges the Beatles from the number one spot in March of 1964. Following the best sales year in its history, Ford introduces the Mustang in the spring of ’64. The United Automobile Workers, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, has won an unprecedented standard of living for its members, setting the bar for workers across the country and building the foundation for the Affluent Society. Martin Luther King delivers the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd of 100,000 two months before the March on Washington in August 1963. The city nearly wins the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Of course, this is what helps make the Detroit case so interesting: the city was so large, so influential, so promising, and then the bottom dropped out over the next fifty years. Humans often make the mistake of romanticizing some sort of golden age where problems were few and life was good, but in this case there really does seem to have been a better era.

White population of Detroit increases 12,000 in recent years

The tide of white flight out of Detroit has reversed slightly in the last few years:

No other city may be as synonymous as Detroit with white flight, the exodus of whites from large cities that began in the middle of the last century. Detroit went from a thriving hub of industry with a population of 1.8 million in 1950 to a city of roughly 680,000 in 2014 that recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In those decades, the city’s population has gone from nearly 84 percent white to a little less than 13 percent white.In the three years after the 2010 U.S. Census, though, Detroit’s white population grew from just under 76,000 residents to more than 88,000, according to a census estimate. The cheap cost of living, opportunities for young entrepreneurs and push by city-based companies to persuade workers to live nearby have made a big difference, experts say…

Blacks appear to be weary of waiting for Detroit to turn things around and have been migrating to nearby suburbs in search of comfort, better schools and lower crime.

The city’s black population was nearly 776,000 in 1990. By 2013 it had dipped to an estimated 554,000.


The first paragraph cited above is key: the level of white flight in Detroit was so staggering that even an increase of 12,000 white residents in three years might just be seen as a major success. However, this pace would need to pick up and/or continue for a decade or two before there could be legitimate claims about a rebound. Of course, as the later paragraphs above note, even black residents have left in large numbers in recent decades. Would it be considered a success if the white population continued to grow but the black population continued to leave?

In other words, there is still a lot to be done here before we can qualify the changes as successful for the whole city.

Traditional neighborhoods vs. urban prairies: block by block in Detroit

National Geographic has quite a map showing Detroit with each block coded to be more or less less a traditional neighborhood or an urban prairie/naturescape. Here is the map:


The map clearly shows clusters of both kinds of places, which contradicts the idea (reinforced by numerous stories and images) of recent years of a monolithic empty Detroit. As the text at the bottom left notes, “Many neighborhoods along Detroit’s perimeter are as densely populated as the city’s wealthier suburbs.” So it isn’t that all of Detroit needs fixing; neighborhoods that suffered from similar issues including deindustrialization, the loss of white residents, the lack of capital both for businesses and residents/homeowners, and crime do need the attention.

Can a home be unassuming on the outside but a McMansion on the inside?

One Detroit house for sale looks unassuming on the outside but has a remodeled interior that Curbed claims is a “McMansion on the inside”:

House hunting in Indian Village is usually an adventure. Covering a wide range of architectural styles, every house in the neighborhood has its own personality. Plus, it’s Detroit, so there’s always the chance of finding a hot mess of a mansion.

Perhaps that’s why 2741 Seminole is kind of a bummer. The four-bedroom house dates back to 1915, but a recent remod swiped its personality for that of the local Marriott. Beige tile, beige backsplash, beige granite, and beige carpeting a sad interior do make. There is hope in the living room, where you’ll find original wood floors and what looks like an old bar. Ask: $264K.

After looking at the pictures, it seems that McMansion is used here as shorthand for bland. As noted, the colors are not that exciting though it looks like much of the trim is still dark wood and at least one stained-glass window and built-in drawers feature was saved. The bland charge hints at a kind of mass production that one wouldn’t expect looking at the exterior of the home or the year it was built. If a buyer was looking for character in this interior, it has been glazed over with neutral colors and updated features. Perhaps there is a market for this kind of house: people who want the exterior to exude true gravitas (as opposed to the garishness of newer McMansions) but want the updated and neutral interior.

Another connotation of McMansion is of poor design or quality; it is hard to know from these pictures whether that is the case with the interior changes.

But, would critics of McMansions really be willing to brand this home a McMansion? Many such determinations are based on the exterior and the image the owner projects to the neighborhood. But, if the owner doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those who see it, is it really that bad?

Detroit’s art museum raises $800 million, saving its art and helping the city escape bankruptcy

The deal late last week to end Detroit’s bankruptcy also means the city’s art museum didn’t have to sell much of its famous art:

As many outlets are noting, the bankruptcy could have been far lengthier, and even more painful for retirees, had it not been for an unusual deal designed to save the Detroit Institute of Arts while minimizing cuts to pensions. The museum has been owned by the city since 1919, and its collection, appraised at $4.6 billion, includes works by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Matisse, as well as Bruegel the Elder’s masterful The Wedding Dance. In April 2013, the city’s governor-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, informed the DIA that it would have to contribute at least $500 million to paying off Detroit’s debts, even if meant selling off paintings at auction. Creditors also demanded a sale, because, you know, they’re creditors.

Instead, the museum essentially went on an ambitious fundraising drive, in which it managed to raise more than $800 million, including $330 million from nine different philanthropic foundations. Another $200 million came from the state of Michigan, which, despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s protestations that he wouldn’t bail out Detroit, did apparently feel compelled to preserve some of its cultural heritage.

In return for the money, the deal will essentially “ransom the museum from city ownership,” as the New York Times puts it, placing it in control of an independent charitable trust.

It sounds like foundations and others that gave money to the art museum not just helped preserve the museum’s finer pieces but also raised extra money for the museum. Given that many urban supporters these days laud the positive influence of arts on urban development, perhaps the museum can play a bigger role in helping to revive downtown Detroit with some of that extra money.

At the same time, it is interesting to consider some of the tradeoffs in Detroit leaving bankruptcy: is it better to preserve art (often something passed down from generation to generation) or to cut the pensions of employees and retirees? Save big culture or provide more money for people living in the community? Perhaps this is an overly simplified comparison but raising hundreds of millions for art could have very different outcomes than raising that money to help residents.

Spoiling a waterfront location with an ugly “mini McMansion”

Curbed National does not like a development of “mini McMansions” in Detroit:

We’ve been befuddled by the Shorepointe Village at Grayhaven development before. It has such a nice waterfront location and such terrible home exteriors. But this interior seems to be one of the better ones. This 3,000 square foot home previously asking $479K just sold for $440K. It feels very early aughts but who doesn’t enjoy a little throw back? It has a neighbor still for sale asking $420K.

Even looking at the earlier pictures of the development, I’m not sure why this particular project draws much attention. Sure, the houses have some exterior oddities. But, are they really much worse than the average McMansion, let alone some of the more extreme examples involving turrets, features of castles, multi-gabled roofs, and other garish architectural quirks? The development may be cookie-cutter so are a lot of single-family home developments.

Perhaps the key here is the waterfront location. Such desirable property that tends to prompt higher housing values often feature large houses but often not such bland design.

Just how much blight there is in Detroit

A recent report shows the patterns of blight in Detroit:

These numbers come from a report released this week by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force on the results of a manual survey of 377,602 property parcels in the city. Nearly one in three structures in Detroit needs some kind of intervention, according to the analysis. That covers 78,506 structures that the report has deemed “blighted” or showing indicators of blight, as well as 6,135 lots that have effectively become neglected dumping grounds…

“We need to recognize the volume of blighted structures did not happen overnight,” the report declares. “Detroit’s conditions are the physical result of dire economic and social forces that pulled the city apart over many decades.”…

The empty lots, vacant homes and shuttered industrial plants that attest to this exodus are not evenly spread across the city. And so Detroit — as New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina — will face difficult decisions about where to focus its efforts, prioritizing those places where investment will have the greatest impact on people who still live in the city. By Detroit’s reckoning, no city has ever addressed more than 7,000 blighted structures in a year. The task force is proposing to eradicate all blight in the city in the next five years, lest blight beget more blight, with the problem continuing to spread beyond the city’s ability to keep up…

Detroit Blight Removal Task Force

This could provide an interesting comparison to urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s in numerous major cities that many scholars and residents would see mostly as land grabs. Some of those projects were justified with blight as a cover to push people out. The situation today in Detroit is quite different as there is a large number of blighted properties that not too many people want and few would argue that blight is not a legitimate problem. Of course, as the article notes, these properties drain resources from a city that needs more resources. Yet, dealing with all the blight is not easy…

Why are so many car commercials set in the Los Angeles area?

I’ve noticed something about car commercials lately: many of them are shot in the Los Angeles area. Here are three common scenes:

1. Driving down a few blocks of downtown Los Angeles, possibly with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the background or in the parking garage that provides a nice overlook over the city. Even if you don’t know the concert hall by name, you may have seen this behind numerous cars:


It takes some work to block off urban streets but these few blocks of downtown get a lot of air time.

2. Driving on Highway 101 along the Pacific Coast. Think of scenes with cliffs on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other, a sunny day, and a beautiful car driving down a narrow road over curves and with sweeping vistas.

3. Driving along Mulholland Drive with the city in the background or along a similar road in the hills north of downtown Los Angeles. One of the commercials on the air right now ends with a shot of the new car winding its way toward the Griffiths Observatory. The observatory is a nice place to explore and there are good views:


Overall, I suspect there is some good reason for all of this. Perhaps it to simply take advantage of all of the power and tools of Hollywood. Perhaps LA is great because of its varied landscape. Perhaps there are some tax breaks involved. However, there are plenty of other cities where this filming could take place and LA is far away from Detroit, the traditional center of American cars. At the same time, this might provide more reasons why that Super Bowl commercial about being “Imported from Detroit” received so much attention.