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A New Direction Needed For Detroit

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Detroit-the-city and Detroit-the-auto-industry too often are conflated in media commentary, thought of as the same entity, when they are not.

Where the City of Detroit faces financial crisis, is unable to maintain basic services, and is filing for bankruptcy, the auto industry is posting strong profits. For one thing, the bulk of auto-industry jobs are actually not in the City of Detroit, they are in the suburbs. Ford and Chrysler headquarters are located in suburban municipalities -- Dearborn and Auburn Hills respectively. As well, research, technology, and supply operations related to the automobile industry are largely located in Detroit's suburbs.

This is the culmination of a trend that started in the 1950s, with people and employers moving out of the City of Detroit to the suburbs -- pursuing cheaper land, following the construction of freeways -- which dissected urban neighbourhoods -- and the advent of the personal automobile enabled travel over longer distances. There was also a strong racial element to this move to the suburbs -- with whites leaving an increasingly African-American city. African-Americans remaining in Detroit were barred by discrimination from moving to the suburbs and were isolated from employment opportunities, all of which created self-reinforcing cycles of poverty in the city (in more recent years, middle-class African-Americans -- an emerging group -- have also been leaving the city for the suburbs).

The city of Detroit has seen its population fall from a high of 1.8 million in 1950 to roughly 700,000 today. Empty lots and abandoned buildings are a prominent sight around the city. Poverty and unemployment rates in the city of Detroit are well above the rates for the state of Michigan -- 36.2% of Detroit residents lived below the poverty line from 2007 to 2011 versus 15.7% for the state as a whole; unemployment in the city was 16% versus 8.4% state-wide.

Another key element distinguishing Detroit-the-city from Detroit-the-auto-industry is that while the Obama administration was quick to spend money to bail out the automobile industry, it has not been forthcoming for the city. In an interview with ABC's "This Week", U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Detroit would have to deal with its creditors, that there would not be financial assistance from the federal government.

Michigan's Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, echoed similar sentiments speaking to GOP supporters in a suburban municipality, stating that, "I've handled the questions several times from national media [asking] are you going to bail out Detroit? And my answer has been 'No.'"

In addition to an unwillingness of state and federal governments to provide financial assistance, the city of Detroit also faces unwillingness from the suburban municipalities surrounding the city. Political tradition in the United States -- especially in the state of Michigan -- is one of decentralization, local control, and autonomy, where the integrity of municipal units is valued and protected. In Michigan, changes to municipal boundaries are local initiatives, subject to referendum.

This makes local government reforms such as regional amalgamation (a common option in many Canadian provinces) or centralization and reorganization (along the lines of the Equal Opportunity reforms in New Brunswick) difficult, if not impossible. However, despite these challenges, the discussion on local government reform in Michigan needs to be opened up, especially in light of Detroit's declaration of bankruptcy.

Detroit's Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) -- a demarcation of metropolitan regions employed by the Office of Management and Budget -- includes 207 units of local government, including overlapping levels of government such as counties and townships. Where the City of Detroit, as per the 2010 US Census, had 713,777 people, the MSA had 4,296,250.

Where Detroit lacks a tax base to raise revenues to maintain basic services, many of Detroit's suburban municipalities are doing well revenue-wise. Where in Detroit schools are lacking, police and fire services inadequate, public transit falling short, and infrastructure crumbling (40% of Detroit's streetlights don't work), suburban municipalities are able to maintain high quality services without an excessive tax burden.

The disparities are clear on the ground. Charlevoix Street crosses both the City of Detroit and the suburban municipality of Grosse Pointe Park, with the Alter Road intersection marking the boundary between the two municipalities. East of Alter Road in Grosse Pointe Park, roads and streetlights are well-maintained, buildings are occupied and looked after. West of Alter Road in Detroit, quality of roads and streetlights is lower, buildings are in disrepair, and lots are empty.

Geographically, suburban municipalities such as Dearborn and the Grosse Pointe municipalities look literally carved out of Detroit, with (comparatively) more affluent tax-bases segmented off the city.

Where dense and mixed-use urban centres are increasingly draws for economic development, attractions for young professionals and entrepreneurs (urban San Francisco, for example, exceeds suburban Silicon Valley in venture capital), the Detroit metropolitan region is neglecting its urban core. There has been some success in Detroit's downtown with Quicken Loans offices set up there, and in Midtown with cultural facilities such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University. However, poor quality services and infrastructure and a negative reputation curtail the potential for further growth and development.

A strong core would benefit the metropolitan region overall. Unfortunately, federal, state, and suburban municipal governments do not seem to realize this. Where Detroit-the-auto-industry is recovering, Detroit-the-city languishes. Political, social class, and racial divisions continue to persist, with suburban municipalities jealously guarding their autonomy.

This is a dire situation, not only for the city of Detroit, but for the economy and reputation of the metropolitan region as a whole.