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.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.