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A Tale of Three Cities

Detroit is something of a mystery, even to those of us who live here. Some days it is hard to get your head around nearly 140-square miles of what seems like nothing but misery, missteps and misunderstandings.

Then, I spent an afternoon with John Mogk – and his theory about Detroit put my head on straight. To him, Detroit is actually three separate cities – totally indiscriminately referred to as one.

* The First Detroit consists of the downtown, Riverfront and Midtown. Mogk refers to it as Detroit's Sweet Spot: a 10-mile area that includes most of the city's natural assets, entertainment venues and educational facilities. This is where the city will see continued improvement in the short term. This is where all the investments have been and will be made and where few of its problems exist. It is the destination point for tourists and suburbanites. In other words, it's Detroit's face to the world.

* The Second Detroit is the rest of the city proper, largely unseen by outsiders. This remaining 130-square miles makes up most of the city and its what Mogk calls the city's heartland.   It is what made Detroit great – note the past tense. In its heyday, this part of the city had the world's leading industrial base, high homeownership and residents with extremely high income. Today, “that's the area where Detroit's problems lie,” Mogk says. It is in a freefall with high crime, poor schools, widespread foreclosures and abandonment, unemployment, poverty, drug addiction and homelessness. This is the area where 50 square miles of vacant buildings and land need to be consolidated, in his estimation. This is where struggling residents are on the front line for fending off urban decline and collapse.

* The Third Detroit is the area outside of the city – the region most people call Southeast Michigan. This area, which generally encompasses Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties and contains nearly half of the state's population and most of Detroit's remaining industrial base, has never been in a significant decline. It is now experiencing a dip because of the automotive industry, but it will enjoy growth – albeit slow growth – in the near term, Mogk says. It does not need to reverse trends; rather, it just needs to revive itself.

Suddenly, I feel like I understand my city like never before.

Who is this Mogk character? To get his whole story, check out his bio here. In brief, Mogk is a Wayne State University law professor, former Detroit school board member and chair of the Michigan Council on Labor and Economic Growth. Mogk graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1964. He joined the Wayne law faculty four years later to focus on Detroit and other distressed urban communities. He focuses mostly on urban law and policy.

Trust me – he knows his stuff.

Oh, yes, you Blog regulars. He considers the region a part of Detroit. (So do I.) Those three counties are key to the city; they cannot survive without one another. Mogk argues that Oakland County is now the real center of economic activity and power, not Detroit. And, as he said in his fantastic essay about downsizing Detroit from The Detroit News, “every year Detroit becomes more detached from the region's economic hub.”

The rest of our conversation went something like this…The Three Cities are very, very, VERY separate entities. There is no regional economic plan, Mogk says. They are all pitted against one another for the most part. (Some hints at a reunion are brewing now that Detroit has elected Dave Bing; event Oakland County's L. Brooks Patterson seems to be coming around.)

Detroit is at a massive disadvantage mostly because it has a lot of vacant land in its enormous decaying heartland but no large developable sites, Mogk argues. Back in the day, the auto plants were small beasties that went up, not out. All of the houses developed around them. So when the car companies wanted to go one story and spread out across kingdom come, they moved out to the suburbs. That was the beginning of the current Detroit as we now know it.

Downsizing is possible. New lots of sellable land are possible. But it will take a long time to pull those sites together. Sadly, Mogk believes Detroit's land and buildings remain geared for an early 20th century economy versus a 21st Century one. The city also needs a viable, paying middle class versus a subsidized one to support its remaining merchants and tax base – and to draw people back into living there.

Can the Three Cities be pulled together? That's the question of a lifetime.

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  • 1

    Wow! What an interesting article and what an impressive resume. Mr. Mogk has credentials enough for 10 people. But despite all of his knowledge, experience, and connections, Detroit is still in the dumps. I'm not suggesting that Mr. Mogk can fix Detroit single handedly but all of his knowledge is not being put to practical use. Detroit has many others with similar qualifications - don't they talk to each other? Can't they get together and develop a practical and feasible plan and more importantly, make it happen?

    I have read of so many grand ideas to fix Detroit and of brilliant Detroiters such as Mr. Mogk, but nothing ever seems to get done. What's missing?

    • 1.1

      What's missing is a functional government in the City of Detroit. There's no reason why Detroit couldn't be repopulated except for the fallout (especially crime and school issues) it has experienced from its political and resultant financial issues.
      I don't like what seems to be the overwhelming attitude that Detroit needs to concentrate wholly on commercial redevelopment. Development needs to be integrated commercial and residential in order for cities to thrive. It wasn't merely the auto plants moving out of the City that caused decline because similat decline, albeit on smaller scale, has occurred in other urban areas, too. The real culprit nationwide was the post-War boom of suburbia based on Levittown thinking and marketing. Many of Detroit's inner ring suburbs were developed then and the sprawl was on. When my dad was growing up 'out in the sticks' just north of Ferndale in the 1930s Woodward wasn't paved past Ten Mile and Oak Park was still all peat fields. The one story slab house construction so characteristic of Oak Park is from its 1950s rapid development. (My grandparents bought their house in 1924 for $8,100. My grandmother wrote that they relocated because Highland Park was hostile toward renters with children.)

  • 2

    Well anounceo, just hours ago, Dave Bing and Detroit's face-lifted city council took the oath of office. Perhaps the functional government, that you say has been missing, has now been restored. I have great confidence that it has. Despite my faith in Dave Bing and the new council, it's going to take a great deal more than a functional government to pull Detroit out of this mess. It's going to take functional citizens, functional families, and the realization and acceptance that we are all in this together. No more Oakland County, Macomb County, Wayne County and Detroit. It now has to be Metro Detroit.

  • 3

    Not trying to be smug but the description of the "...three Detroit's" is well known here.
    Downtown, Detroit proper, and the Suburbs.
    Most other major cities probably have only two.
    My hope is that Detroit Proper thrives again, and regains it's muscle.

  • 4

    I wonder how many Chicagos there are. I wonder if that city's southsiders and westsiders experience a different reality than, say, its downtowners and Lakeviewers (Wrigley Fielders). I wonder if one could make the case that Chicago is actually made of dozens of little ethnic and race-based cities. Arguably, Detroit is less divided. Topographically, there are fewer dividing lines within Detroit proper. Geographical borders defined by race and class within the city obviously were transcended by many years ago thanks to the city's embrace of the automobile. Detroiters have always been defined by their mobility. Ninety percent of the Detroiters I know own a car and traverse the city as desire and need arise, which is on a regular basis. Such mobility is power and the very reason why Detroiters are not to be defined by the misery and limitations that the commentary so far suggests.

  • 5

    Since I am a Dickens, and an Architect with some planning and Urban Design background I get to have a say, and my say is that it's more than 3 Cities.

    Jack has developed a great reputation and yes his resume is wonderful. If he carried the school flag at commencement then we stood on the podium together where I read the Great Society Speech over LBJ's shoulder. Hmmm... let me see, didn't the War on Poverty turn into the War on the Poor? And what about the middle class? It looks to me like the contract on the middle class is playing out very well.

    Seeing the picture of Jack surprised me since he looks so much like Gordon Buehrig, one of the Detroit Auto Greats. Looks like it's the genes and obviously time has treated him far better than me.

    Jack was in school with my close friend Robert V. Seymour who got Tom Monahagn going.

    I have never met Jack but heard him highly spoken of for many years. And my background goes through the day that the Detroit Medical Center was formally established and signed, the Oakland County Planning Commission, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority where I established the position of Chief Architect, hired the chief estimator, established a logic diagram of the procedures and controlled the development of the MSHDA logo which has recently been horribly bowdlerized not to mention that it's intent has been gutted.

    The fact is this: the brainchild of Detroit has risen to become the enfant terrible and ironically the curse of the City. But this is true of Cities all over the world unless they had a well-established downtown built before the advent of the Automobile.

    Mobility has given us the current situation along with the advances in computerized Robotics and manufacturing. The evolution of technology is the kernel.

    There really are three types of living styles and each has its attendant automotive style. There are those who live within the City and they drive cars, those in the suburbs and they drive large cars, minivans and suv's and the boondockers who live in rural areas rapidly filling up and they drive pickup trucks and large SUV's

    Cities grow like tree trunks with rings of development through the years. it is fun to slice through the city and see all the periods of tight and loose money, careful governed approaches and crazy abandon and their attendant architectural styles. If you know how to read architecture you can tell when a building or house was built and something about the period.

    And like tree trunks the center can become pithy if you allow it to happen. And we have and we are strangling it.

    So it really is more than a tale of 3 Cities... 4 and more.

    Downtown, First Ring, Second Ring, New Center,Third Ring, Fourth Ring, Suburbia and the beautiful rolling wooded boon docks that Brooksie has been hard at work ruining by leveling them with hideous office parks and light manufacturing.

    A City is a lot like a party. Either you put it on, make it happen and enjoy it or you walk away. Now that we have our automobiles, we drive away.

    Downtowns never really can develop if you are not committed to them. And the first flash that people might abandon them is the New Center. Billy Durant selected some outlying property and got going with
    literally trying to create a new center. Now mind you it was wonderful what they did...the World's largest Office Building, The Fisher Building, far more lavish and interesting than the Empire State yet ignored by skyscraper afficianados.

    So your really have to give young Bill Ford tremendous Credit for telling his Dad that the Silverdome didn't really do it and that there should be a recommitment to the Downtown Proper.

    Seeing the Cities of Beijing, Shijiazhuang, and Shanghai with the King Band is a real eye-opener.
    Detroit is a pipsqueak and residences are smeared all over everywhere.

    Frank Lloyd Wright did not think much of Detroit and said so. But ironically the old balloon framed houses that now must be torn down since they are of such unacceptable construction can set up the situation for what Frank proposed with his Broadacre City concept.

    And someone needs desperately to resuscitate the MSHDA because it went nowhere but the boondocks under Jennifer.

    So did Jack in addressing the Council mention that we need an enlightened group of city fathers? Did he say that we really need a Creative, ingenious, and tasteful Architect Planner for the city who does not think that demolition is the only answer? Did he say that the University of Michigan should set up a campus Downtown by securing some of the wonderful early skyscrapers that we have?

    If he didn't then I'd have to say that he might be a member of that Janus Profession and that inside group that supported nonintegrous candidates, and that can and has really screwed things up with their supercilious hubris and demolition mantra. Keep it up and nothing will be left but a story about a City that created the 20th Century and the Twilight Limited will have real meaning.


  • 6

    [...] local professor estimates that the city proper has 50 square miles of vacant land or abandoned properties - and while [...]

  • 7

    [...] big kudos to blog friend John Mogk for sending this one my [...]

  • 8

    [...] population decline has left many Detroit neighborhoods dramatically underpopulated–50 square miles of vacant buildings and land. A 2009 survey showed just how much of the city has residential vacancy rates of 12-60%. Abandoned [...]

  • 9

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    A Tale of Three Cities - The Detroit Blog -

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