The jobless recovery: Why fixing Detroit means improving schools

Detroit has seen better days. Image: Getty.

After decades of demographic and economic decline, culminating in America’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013, many observers were ready to proclaim that the city of Detroit was dead. But over the past few years, following successful resolution of the bankruptcy and the emergence of new municipal leadership, views have changed.

Now academics and the popular press are documenting Detroit’s recovery and resilience. But does this positive image of Detroit reflect reality? Will the recovery culminate in a new Detroit that will provide all residents with a quality of life that is sustainable in the decades to come?

These rosy descriptions were not consistent with the reality of what we continued to see in many Detroit neighborhoods. To provide perspective on Detroit’s comeback story, we examined trends in a variety of indicators including population, poverty, income disparities, business recovery, unemployment, residential sales prices and vacancies, and crime.

Two major conclusions emerged from our data. First, by a number of measures Detroit continues to decline, and even when positive change has occurred, growth has been much less robust than many narratives would suggest. Second, within the city recovery has been highly uneven, resulting in increasing inequality.

Growing downtown, struggling beyond it

Overall, citywide data suggest Detroit is continuing to experience decline that makes it worse off than it was in 2000 or even 2010 in the depths of the national recession. Population, employment and incomes continue to decrease, while vacancies and poverty have increased.

Real progress has occurred in recent years in the Downtown/Midtown core, which runs along Woodward Avenue for almost four miles and covers an area of just over seven square miles. In addition to corporate and government offices, it includes the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University, sports and entertainment venues, and the city’s major cultural institutions. Recent developments include restaurants, specialty retail and multifamily housing.

The Detroit metropolitan areas covers 140 square miles. Image: Andrew Jameson/Wikipedia/creative commons.

Downtown/Midtown covers only 5 percent of Detroit’s 140 square miles, and its population of 26,000 is a tiny fraction of the 3.6m residents of the metro area, 80 percent of whom live in the suburbs. Improvements in Downtown/Midtown have been insufficient to offset continued citywide negative trends. Less than half a mile from the GM Renaissance Center, the most visible marker of Detroit’s downtown (motto: “Reflecting a new Detroit”), empty lots, weeds and dilapidated buildings prevail.

The Hudson-Webber Foundation’s 7.2 Square Miles report highlights the concentration of positive activities in the Downtown and Midtown areas of the city. Although home values in Midtown have increased by 5 percent since 2008, this has not been sufficient to offset continued weakness in other neighborhood housing markets.

Even in Midtown, poverty remains high and most new jobs are going to suburbanites. Increasing income inequality in Downtown/Midtown suggests that concerns raised by University of British Columbia geographer Jamie Peck about creative class-led gentrification are real. The pace at which revitalisation is spreading to adjacent areas is far too slow to eliminate divisions between downtown and neighborhood, city and suburb (read: black and white), or rich and poor in the city.

One important data point is the share of jobs in the city actually held by Detroiters. At each geographic level, the number of jobs held by residents has dropped over time, while employment of non-Detroiters has increased. Recent increases in jobs in the city appear to have benefited workers living in the suburbs, many of whom are white.

Invest in people, not just buildings

Growing inequality and polarization are captured in the metropolitan landscape. Detroit is two very different cities – one white and privileged, the other black and deprived. Large-scale purchases, refurbishments and upgrades in Downtown/Midtown by developer and Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert contrast sharply with the decay that continues to dominate post-apocalyptic neighborhood landscapes, inhabited by long-time Detroit residents who are not sharing in the city’s growing but highly limited prosperity.

The complex problems of Detroit’s neighborhoods require comprehensive, multifaceted revitalisation strategies. Brookings Institution scholars Alan Mallach and Bruce Katz have outlined holistic approaches to revitalising legacy cities. In addition to maintaining economic growth strategies in Downtown/Midtown, current neighborhood policies need to be continued and expanded. Policies to increase human capital throughout the city, including improving public education and expanding employment and entrepreneur training, must also be adopted.

Perhaps the most important short-term strategy is increasing employment levels among Detroit neighborhood residents. A healthy, sustainable local economy would require the number of Detroiters with jobs to grow by as many as 100,000. Even if these jobs paid just $10 an hour, they would add more than $2bn annually to the local economy, an amount equal to approximately half of the total payroll for all private sector jobs in the neighborhoods in 2014. This new purchasing power would generate additional demand for retail and commercial services, and strengthen the effective demand for affordable rental and owner-occupied housing.

Houses in Detroit’s State Fair neighborhood, 2012. Image: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office/Flickr/creative commons.

Multiple initiatives and considerable time will be needed to foster job growth on this scale. Detroit residents need better transportation to existing job opportunities in the city and suburbs, and job training for a variety of careers. Efforts to foster entrepreneurship must be matched with increased access to capital so that new businesses can thrive.

In the long run, a sustainable recovery will require significant public education improvements. For decades, under both local and state control, the Detroit public schools have been more successful at accumulating deficits than at educating students.

Students have left the district by the tens of thousands to seek a better education, either in charter schools – often no better than the schools they left – or in suburban districts. Detroit just seated its first locally elected school board in seven years, which could be the first step toward improved educational opportunities for all Detroit children.

Financing true recovery

Investing in public schools, improving public transportation, providing services to neighborhoods, and supporting development programs that provide start-up or revolving loans, entrepreneurship support, business incubators and job skill training will require substantial public resources. Detroit does not have those resources now.

One option to address the revenue shortfall would be to reevalute existing tax abatements, tax increment financing and neighborhood enterprise zones, which lower tax rates, often in higher-income areas. All of these programs tend to divert revenue out of the general fund and into the private sector.

Reducing or restricting such expenditures would help Detroit avoid forgoing revenue that it could be spending on services and programmes. Without a significant commitment to improving education and job skills throughout Detroit, the gap between the city’s core and its neighborhoods will continue to widen.The Conversation

Laura A. Reese is professor of political science and director of the Global Urban Studies Program at Michigan State University. Gary Sands is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Wayne State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.