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.