I've long avoided talking about Detroit, because I've never really been there. I passed through once, changing buses, and again on my way back from the same trip, but it was at night and I never left the bus station. But all this pointless chatter about bankruptcies and vacant lots misses an essential point, one that's true of most urban areas.
The problem with all these stories is that Detroit is not a city. Sure, it's a municipal corporation chartered by the State of Michigan. But it's not a coherent urban system, just as New York City and the City of Los Angeles and the City of Chicago are not really cities. Greater New York, including everything from Montauk to New Brunswick and from Asbury Park to Poughkeepsie, and more, is a city. Metro Detroit, including at least Oakland and Macomb counties in Michigan and Essex County in Ontario, is a city.
The city of Metro Detroit contains vibrant, well-maintained shopping areas full of white people, like this one in the administrative municipality of Birmingham.
If we look at Metro Detroit as a city, the picture looks a lot better. The median household income for the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area is $48,198 Eight of Michigan's top ten richest municipalities are in Metro Detroit, all with per capita incomes above $59,000. Windsor, Ontario, just across the river, had a median family income of $72,204 CAD in 2006.
Windsor also had no homicides for over two years. Metro Detroit contains places like Bloomfield Hills, with a world-class golf course and an art school featuring impressively manicured grounds and stunning architecture.
For many years Metro Detroit has been segregated, with black people living in the municipality of Detroit and white people living in the surrounding suburbs, although that has been changing lately with black people moving to some of the inner suburbs. The boundary between the municipality and the northern suburbs of Oakland County, 8 Mile Road, has long been an object of fascination of alienated white suburbanites, as highlighted by the musician Eminem and others.
These white suburbs are not all doing so well, but for years they prospered as the municipality declined. Some have argued that the city of Metro Detroit is now declining because it didn't take care of its center. I don't have the space or the expertise to comment on what caused the city to decline or what could save it, but I will point out, as a caller to the KunstlerCast observed years ago, that the city still has the same things going for it that led Henry Ford and other automakers to build their factories there: a key position on shipping routes. Essentially, you could argue that the suburbs have cut the city off by reconfiguring those shipping routes. I don't know what to do to reverse that, or at least to provide some justice and keep valuable riverside space from being wasted, but I hope somebody figures it out.
I've been happy to see that some people commenting on the bankruptcy have acknowledged that Detroit doesn't stop at the municipal boundary. Among them are Andrew Heath, Ariella Cohen, and the Planet Money team.
To someone who's observed regional issues unfolding in my own city of Greater New York and many others, this stuff is all pretty obvious. But for a lot of other people who talk about Detroit, the parts of the city across 8 Mile Road and across the river don't exist; they might as well be in Minnesota or Pennsylvania. I have a rule for reading news about the economic fortune of "Detroit": does it mention what's going on in Bloomfield Hills, or Grosse Pointe, or Windsor? If not, I close the tab immediately or skip to the next podcast. Because if they miss that part of the story, you have to wonder what else they're missing.