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.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL