Photo of Detroit by  Michael Patterson

Photo of Detroit by Michael Patterson

There was a time in the history of my blog when I had an antagonist who spent much of his time submitting adversarial comments.  I’d wake in the morning to find six new comments.  Urbanism was about creating neighborhoods for illegal immigrants.  Climate change was a government fraud to take away our cars.  Someday we’d all be marched downtown at gunpoint to live in bare concrete boxes.  Agenda 21 was about promoting communism.  Name your favorite conspiracy theory and it was part of his gospel.

I generally tried to respond to his comments, not because I thought he was educable, but so that other readers wouldn’t see his rancor go unanswered.  But some of his outbursts were so incoherent that all I could do was reply that I had no idea what he meant.

I mention my old foe because one of his favorite themes was Detroit.  How the fall of Detroit was proof that urbanism didn’t work.  How all big cities would follow the same path.  How the folks remaining in Detroit were incapable of re-establishing a working city.  Yes, he often veered close to racism, although that never seemed to concern him.

My adversary loved it when a few members of the United Nations made a brief show of investigating Detroit, the argument being that cutting off water service for non-payment of bills was a civil rights violation.  (It’s an interesting argument which might have merit, but responding to it would require changes in water utility rules across the world, not just in Detroit.) My foe had disappeared from my world by the time the Flint water story became public.  I can’t guess how he would have spun that story.

I mention my old antagonist because I’ll soon be traveling to Detroit.  The annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, CNU 24, will be in the Motor City this year.

Considering the fall of Detroit as one of the more compelling stories in urbanism, still wanting to find the right responses to my old foe, and soon having the opportunity to nose around Detroit for a few days, I undertook a reading program to prepare myself.  My goals was to read what others saw in the fall of Detroit, a subject on which there is a broad range of opinions, and then to begin assembling my own thoughts into coherent hypotheses, which I could test during my time in Detroit.

It was an aggressive goal, which I won’t achieve.  My reading program remains incomplete.  I’ll still be reading on the plane. But I’ve read enough, along with sneaking a few peaks ahead, to have some thoughts I want to check during my time in Detroit.  Some of those thoughts differ, to a greater or lesser extent, from the conventional wisdom.  My four key arguments follow.

Detroit, circa 1920 (Photo from  Wikimedia )

Detroit, circa 1920 (Photo from Wikimedia)

First, it’s commonly stated that the fall of Detroit was the result of the fall of the auto industry.  It’s an accurate statement as far as it goes, but misses a couple of key points. It wasn’t just the failure of the auto industry, but the fact that too much of the Detroit economy was tied to the auto industry, all the way down to glass and ball bearing manufacturers.  If there had been more industries in Detroit that hadn’t been tied to the business cycles and eventual decline of a single industry, Detroit would have survived in better condition.

This is a lesson that should be remembered by all who pursue large and closely related industries for the near-term economic vitality.  Twenty years ago, Petaluma thrived with a major enclave of telecomm businesses.  When telecomm slowed and was consolidated elsewhere, the decline was felt throughout the community. An element of urbanism is the argument for a diverse economy.

Second, most believe that white flight, triggered by racism, was much of the cause of Detroit’s collapse.  It’s a valid hypothesis, but over-simplified.  I find much evidence of white families who were content to have their neighborhoods integrated, but feared that their property values would plummet as their neighbors left and as the pool of potential buyers shrunk.

In essence, even if people weren’t racists, they feared that the racist beliefs of others would undermine the savings that were tied up in their homes. I suspect that white flight in many communities has a similar story.

Furthermore, an aggressive program of freeway construction, consistent with the car focus of Detroit, had caused the disintegration of otherwise stable downtown neighborhoods, feeding the dislocations that evolved into white flight.  So much of what became white flight wasn’t inevitable, but the predictable result of infrastructure decisions.

Third, many argue that those who remained in Detroit were incapable of electing good governments, triggering a recurring cycle of corruption.  I think the correct argument is more subtle than that. As housing prices plunged, property tax revenues to maintain government services also disappeared.  Although most of us interpret the Strong Towns warning about excessive infrastructure as applying to growth at the urban fringe, Detroit is an example of an urban core that suddenly had more infrastructure than it could maintain.

Faced with this government failing, voters desperately looked for hope, often falling for populist solutions based more on rhetoric than logic.  (I can see echoes of Detroit in the 2016 presidential election.)  We can criticize the voting decisions of the residents or we can recognize the despair that caused them to grasp at straws.

It also remains important to remember that some of the most financially thriving counties in the country are those surrounding Detroit, building on the wealth that was sucked from Detroit by freeways and white flight, and to wonder what Detroit would be had the wealth not escaped.

Fourth and last, many argue that Detroit will never recover, but will remain a perpetual basket case.  I’m not convinced.  Detroit once rose because it was a place with resources and transportation routes.  Those realities remain.  The car industry will never again drive Detroit, which is probably a good thing, but there are good reasons why Detroit can again rise, once it gets a foot or two firmly placed on the ladder.

Bringing some of the wealth of the suburbs back into Detroit from where it sprang would be a good start. If I was thirty, I’d be looking for Detroit real estate in which to invest.

I’m eager to see Detroit, to test my hypotheses above, and to report back on what I find.  Now, if only my old antagonist was still reading.  (But not commenting.)

Check out Dave's Detroit reading list.

(Top photo by Geoff Llorena)

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