Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The Three Generations of Black Mayors in America by Pete Saunders

[ This week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, so I’ll be away and enjoying it for the rest of the week. As a holiday long read for you, I’m posting this very important piece about the three generations of black mayors in America and how the timing of the election of the first black mayor affected the trajectory of those cities, with implications even today. Pete is the best writer on urbanism and race that I know and you can read his writings about this and more on his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]


The Monument to Joe Louis, commonly known as “The Fist”, in downtown Detroit. For more than thirty years, the sculpture has been a controversial symbol of black power in Detroit.  Source: Pete Saunders

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community.  However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.

If the cities that elected black mayors during this tumultuous period are ever to move forward, to achieve their potential, they must be released from the purgatory they inhabit.

Just as many people have well-developed thoughts and opinions on the American Civil War but little understanding of the turbulent Reconstruction Era that followed, many are familiar with the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, yet are far less knowledgeable about the local social and political events that followed it.  The Black Power Movement supplanted much of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with an emphasis on turning social activism into political empowerment.  Several cities elected their first black mayors during that period.  Cleveland was the first with the selection of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967.  Gary, Indiana followed suit the same year with the election of Richard Hatcher, and the federal government appointed Walter Washington to become Washington, DC’s first black mayor as well.  Later, Newark (Kenneth Gibson), Dayton (James McGee) and Cincinnati (Ted Berry) followed suit by 1972, and culminated with the elections of Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta) and Coleman Young (Detroit) in 1973.  A new era of African-American political empowerment had begun.

Taking a long historical view, it’s clear that the people who became first African-American mayors beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing through today held different views, developed different paths to victory and methods of governance, and had differing perceptions of their skills among their constituents.  Mayors elected through about 1975 were often activists straight from the Civil Rights Movement, and were looking for ways to turn the movement into actual political power.  The group of black mayors that followed them, from about 1975 to 1990 or so, had more distance between them and the Civil Rights Movement and were less concerned about implementing movement politics; they were more concerned about developing the kind of coalition that could get them elected and help them win legislative victories once in office.  The third group of “first black mayors”, coming after about 1990 and continuing through today generally came to terms with a different demographic landscape in most major American cities.  Whereas first black mayors elected twenty years prior could dependably rely on a supermajority of black votes in their favor – and an equally large supermajority of white votes against them – the most recent group works in a more nuanced and less racially charged environment.  Younger white residents without the racial grievances of their parents or grandparents were returning to cities, and Hispanics were rapidly increasing in numbers.  Anyone who would attempt to become a “first black mayor” in that environment would have to develop an appeal that goes beyond racial boundaries.

And yes, the decade that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was as tumultuous as they come for America’s largest cities.  That period, well remembered by those who lived it as a time of particularly strong urban and social tensions, coincided with the downward slide in momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of the Black Power Movement.  Older adults likely remember the period well: urban riots, fights over school busing, Affirmative Action battles, efforts to eliminate long-entrenched policies like blockbusting and redlining.  Skyrocketing crime, heated debates on the inequity of public services, and the development of a new, rapidly expanding land called “suburbia” that was looking very appealing to a growing number of city residents.  Nearly all large cities developed scars during that period.  The question is whether they healed, and healed well.

“It’s Our Time”


Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.  Source: Detroit News

Coleman Young, elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, in many ways epitomizes the first group of black political leadership that emerged following the Civil Rights Movement.  One might call them the Black Power set.  Born in 1918, Young was part of a generation of African-Americans who stood tantalizingly closer to economic prosperity and social equality than any previous generation, yet were reminded that they could never achieve it.  After serving as a bombardier and navigator for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Young returned from his service disillusioned by the segregation he and his fellow troops suffered.  He went on to become a labor leader with the UAW and later built a political base as a state representative and state senator in the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit’s East Side.

Young became a vocal critic of local leadership after the 1967 riots, and targeted the heavy-handed efforts of Detroit police to reduce crime.  Young announced he was running for mayor in 1973 in large part to work to disband the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit.  The unit was often mentioned as the initiator of police brutality complaints, and was allegedly responsible for as many as 22 deaths of black residents over a 2 ½ year period.  Young ran against John Nichols, the city’s police commissioner and staunch supporter of the troubled unit.

Young won a narrow victory over Nichols in 1973 in a race that was almost entirely split along racial lines in the nearly 50/50 city.  In his inaugural address, Young famously told “all those pushers, (to) all rip-off artists, (to) all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”  Young maintained that his message was that criminals were not welcome in Detroit; the quote has often been interpreted by white former Detroit residents as a throwing down of the gauntlet, urging whites to leave the city for the suburbs.  Young went on to win four more terms in office.  He balanced budgets yet struggled to maintain services in a city with a rapidly declining tax base.  He remains one of the most controversial leaders in Detroit history.

Conversely, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes and Newark’s Kenneth Gibson may not have provoked similar passions in their respective cities, but they did not fare much better.  Stokes obtained his law degree in 1956, served three terms in the Ohio Legislature and narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1965.  His eventual win in 1967 garnered him plenty of national attention as he became the first African-American mayor of one of the nation’s ten largest cities.  He was successful enough to pursue and win a second two-year term in 1969, but his tenure in office was characterized by constant feuds with the Cleveland City Council and the Police Department.  Stokes left office at the end of his second term.  After studying civil engineering in college, Gibson worked for nearly two decades as a structural engineer with the New Jersey Highway Department, the Newark Housing Authority and the City of Newark.  He pursued the mayor’s office as a reformer wishing to restore honor to the office following the corruption scandals of incumbent Hugh Addonizio.  Gibson won in 1970 but perhaps his attachment to people like Newark poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who challenged Gibson to push the city’s corporate interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community, served as a lightning rod to the city’s remaining middle class element.  Gibson was elected to four terms, but Newark’s slide continued unabated.

Black National Political Convention

It’s probably fair to say that the political pinnacle of the Black Power era took place between the elections of Gibson and Young, with the advent of the Black National Political Convention in 1972.  Held in Gary, Indiana and hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, delegates from the entire spectrum of black leadership convened to establish a black political agenda for urban America.  More than 8,000 people attended the three-day convention, with 3,000 selected to be voting delegates.  Newly elected black officials attended, along with celebrated black nationalists and revolutionaries.  Delegates with more moderate position also attended.  However, whites were not invited.  No white speakers whose views were sympathetic to the movement; not even white reporters.  This exclusion caused groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to skip the event and be critical of the gathering.

Renee Ferguson, a former Chicago local news television reporter and currently the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), attended the convention as a 22-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis News.  In an interview with Chicago public radio station WBEZ remarking on the 40th anniversary of the convention in 2012, she spoke about the frenzied nature of the event.  “When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson said that the agenda of the convention was framed by a basic question, and was the source of great tension.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

In the end, black nationalists won the day.  The prevailing theme of the convention was that African-Americans would seek to create change outside of the system.  The agenda included platforms that had support from other liberal factions (elimination of capital punishment, national health insurance), but also included platforms that sought to consolidate political control with the growing number of leaders (community control of schools, busing for school integration).  Perhaps the biggest message of the convention, however, was that “White politics had failed Black people”.  And a new group of leaders set out to implement that vision.

Coalition Builders


Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the day after winning the election in 1983.  Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Almost immediately after the convening of the convention, a group of rising black political figures who rejected the premise of the Black Power era leaders sought to ascend through coalition building.  Rather than work exclusively outside of the system, and alienating those who disagreed with them, this group stressed their ability to work within the existing power and political framework.

As a state representative at the time representing Illinois’ 26th legislative district, Harold Washington would’ve been eligible to serve as a delegate to the Black National Political Convention.  Whether he attended is uncertain.  But it is clear that he adopted a coalition-building style that served him well as he ascended to the office of Mayor in Chicago.

Born in 1922 and just four years younger than Detroit’s Coleman Young, Harold Washington nevertheless followed a different path to mayor of Chicago.  Washington also served in the Army during World War II, building runways for long-range bombers in the North Pacific.  Upon his return from service he graduated from Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1949, and from Northwestern University Law School in 1952.  Washington immediately became immersed in local Chicago politics after law school, working for 3rd Ward Alderman and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe.  While working with Metcalfe Washington became intimately familiar with Chicago’s brand of Machine politics – a spoils system, patronage, and a personal approach to bringing out the vote on Election Day.

Contrary to Young’s experience in Detroit, African-Americans in Chicago experienced a fair amount of political enfranchisement.  In many respects, African-Americans were just one part of the ethnic milieu that made up Chicago’s political landscape, like the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish.  The foundation of Chicago’s political machine was its ability to meet the specific needs of those who could be convinced to depend on them, and convincing as many people to depend on them as they could.  The Machine’s success meant that it could not ignore or exclude potential votes, wherever they came from, and that included the African-American community.  The Machine’s strength was derived from its network of precinct captains, committeemen and elected officials that would convene regularly to discuss its political platform, slate of candidates vote targets and distribution of benefits.    Washington received a sound political education in coalition building through his work in Chicago’s Machine.

Washington was elected into the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965 and to the U.S. Congress in 1980.  Over the years, he developed a reputation of independence from the Chicago Democratic Party leadership, often becoming an unreliable member of the Machine’s state legislative contingent.  As a State Senator Washington was one of a group of independent black Democrats who partnered with white liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans to push forward the Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980.  His ascension to Congress later that year, defeating Machine loyalist Bennett Stewart, further alienated him from the Machine.

This effort afforded Washington a unique political perspective.  He enjoyed strong independent support from his African-American base, largely developed apart from the Machine.  He had strong connections with members of Chicago’s “lakefront progressive” community, which had a fairly large contingent in the city’s Hyde Park community, where Washington also lived.  It was likely evident to Washington and others that this pairing provided him a wider base than other black elected officials who rose through the ranks and focused solely on serving the needs of their African-American constituents.  Furthermore, Washington likely realized that the Hyde Park progressive community’s networks with other progressives, particularly on the North Side, opened up opportunities for offices beyond Congress.

Washington rode the wave of his unique coalition into mayoral politics in 1983.  Bolstered by support from his African-American base and reform-minded white progressives, Washington won against Republican Bernard Epton that November.  Once elected, however, he was confronted with a solid bloc of 29 aldermen (out of 50) firmly wedded to the “Democratic Organization” structure that had survived for so long in Chicago.  The bloc led a four-year period of legislative gridlock in Chicago known as Council Wars – the bloc assumed control of all Council committees, allowing it to set the legislative agenda; the bloc voted down virtually all of the mayor’s appointments; the bloc fought bitterly with Washington’s supporters on budget and appropriations.

Despite the challenges, however, Washington’s coalition held firm.  Federal lawsuits led by Washington allies challenged Chicago’s ward redistricting following the 1980 Census.  At the time, Chicago’s population included approximately 40 percent white and black residents, and 15 percent with an Hispanic background.  However, Washington supporters argued that wards were gerrymandered to maximize the number of white aldermen in the racially polarized city – at the time of Washington’s election as mayor there were 33 white, 16 black and one Hispanic aldermen.  Federal courts ruled in favor of Washington’s supporters in 1986, causing a redrawing of seven wards and special elections.  Washington supporters won four elections, creating a 25-25 split in the City Council and effectively giving the mayor control of the Council through his ability to cast a deciding vote.  Unfortunately, Washington’s control was short-lived.  He died of a massive heart attack on November 25, 1987, just months after his defeat of the obstructionist bloc.

Whereas Harold Washington’s political acumen made him a coalition builder, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stellar athletic and academic pedigree, wonky sensibility and personable nature drew coalitions toward him.

Schmoke attended the prestigious Baltimore City College for high school, where he excelled in football and lacrosse.  He entered Yale University in 1967, where he played quarterback for the freshman team and developed into an undergraduate student leader.  After graduating from Yale with a degree in history in 1971, Schmoke studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976.

Schmoke’s first electoral victory was as Baltimore State’s Attorney in 1982.  He defeated William Swisher in a surprise landslide, running a race-neutral campaign against the law-and-order, and (according to some) racially insensitive incumbent.  Schmoke was technically not Baltimore’s first black mayor; that title goes to Clarence “Du” Burns, who was elevated to mayor after the election of the previous mayor, William Donald Schaefer, as Maryland’s governor.  But Schmoke inherited much of Schaefer’s progressive and business establishment, as they saw him as the one who could articulate their agenda in a largely black city.  Schmoke challenged Burns in 1987 and won narrowly.  Recalling Schmoke’s victory for an article in Baltimore’s City Paper, City Council member Bill Cunningham said it was a “new-day-is-dawning thing.”  In the same article, the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church said, “We were looking for someone to encompass our hopes for the future, someone who would validate our own journey.  He went into office with all that on him. He was the new savior. He was the one who would fulfill our dreams.”

In the end, however, despite being twice re-elected, Schmoke’s analytical approach to leadership alienated coalitions who thought they were getting something else.  He developed a reputation for establishing bold policy goals that were difficult to build consensus around – improving adult literacy, drug decriminalization – and put in place department heads who brought the same policy wonk approach to their work that he did.  The business establishment and African-American community alike thought they were electing a dynamic “mover and shaker” who could energize them as they pushed toward new heights.  But Schmoke was perhaps more manager and caretaker than mover.  As a result he left office in 1999, deciding not to seek a fourth term, with a frayed coalition: a business community slightly betrayed, and an African-American community slightly disillusioned.

Trans-Racial Appealists

With the start of the 1990’s a new type of black political figure began to emerge.  Gains made through increased access to education and job opportunities were putting more African-Americans in previously unattainable positions, and allowing them to pursue previously unattainable avenues.  Wellington Webb, the first black mayor of Denver, fits this bill.

Webb was born in 1941 in Chicago and arrived in the Mile High City at age 11.  In his autobiography, he chronicles a difficult childhood; his mother had a drinking problem and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, and he had academic difficulties at Denver’s Manual High School.  But Webb fought through his family problems and personal demons.  He attended and graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Colorado in 1960, and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College in 1964.  He was introduced to politics by his grandmother, who was a Democratic Party district committeewoman in Denver.  Webb wanted to become a teacher, but found it difficult to obtain a position in Denver’s public schools, and thought local political involvement in some of the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the late 1960’s might help.  He transitioned from working in a potato chip factory to working in city government, and later obtained a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1971.

Webb developed a reputation as a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk in city government, and was pulled into politics rather than pushed into it by any sense of bitterness.  He was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1972 and represented the Northeast Denver neighborhood he grew up in.  In 1977 he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1981 he was appointed by Colorado Governor Richard Lamm to be executive director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.  Webb held that position until 1987, when he ran and won in the election to become Denver’s city auditor.

Webb’s political ascendance through the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly put him on a path to consider pursuing citywide and even statewide positions, but it was unclear whether an African-American in a city with a small minority population, in a state with a small minority population, could be competitive.  He did not start with a built-in large political base like Young or Washington; nor did he have to ability to strengthen a base through coalition building the way Washington did.  His only strategy, should he pursue another office, was to make a trans-racial appeal that would highlight his experience, skills and vision.

Webb entered the campaign in late 1990.  Three leading candidates emerged: Webb, Denver District Attorney Norm Early (also African-American), and Republican lawyer Don Bain.  Webb carried out his “Sneaker Campaign”, going door-to-door in virtually all of Denver’s neighborhoods while preaching a message of competency.  He surprised everyone by forcing a runoff with Early in the May 1991 primary, finishing with 30 percent of all votes to Early’s 40 percent.  Webb was able to consolidate the support from other candidates with a law-and-order platform prior to the general election against Early in June 1991.  Webb won with 57 percent of the vote.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Source: gbmnews.com

Perhaps a better version of a first black mayor who won with a broad trans-racial appeal would be Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.  Johnson was born in Sacramento, where he was a standout student and athlete.  He excelled in basketball and baseball, and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley.  From there he went on to a storied college basketball career and a long professional career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Even during his playing days Johnson maintained strong roots with his native Sacramento.  He established the Kevin Johnson Corporation, which focused on real estate development and business acquisitions, and the St. HOPE nonprofit organization as an after-school program in the Oak Park neighborhood he grew up in.  After his retirement from basketball in 2000, he broadened St. HOPE to include charter schools and nonprofit development in Sacramento.  Today, St. HOPE is a network of four charter schools in Sacramento, and a development company with more than a dozen new construction and renovation projects in Sacramento.

Johnson had intimated his political ambitions for years, but finally announced his run for mayor in 2008.  Race was hardly a factor in the race; indeed, Johnson was viewed as a decorated favorite son of California’s capital city.  Johnson received numerous endorsements from Sacramento’s business and political establishment, and was the highest vote getter in the nonpartisan election that June.  He forced a runoff against two-time incumbent mayor Heather Fargo, and soundly defeated her in November.

Johnson has parlayed his athletic, corporate and nonprofit success well in the government sector.  He has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, along with his wife Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools.  He was actively involved in keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings basketball team from fleeing the city, orchestrating the team’s sale to a group of local investors.  He easily won reelection in 2012, and in April 2014 was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

There are other black mayors who fit the trans-racial appeal profile, but are not the first black mayors of their respective cities.  Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Cory Booker of Newark each brought impressive academic credentials, strong corporate backgrounds and youthful passion to their positions as mayor, distinguishing them from their predecessors.    Reed interned for U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II before earning his juris doctorate from Howard University, and became a partner at a law firm prior to entering politics.  Nutter earned a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Booker earned his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, and earned his juris doctorate from Yale.

Because of their academic and corporate credentials, Reed, Nutter and Booker are as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as they are in churches or community centers.  Each has forged partnerships with political opponents, and adopted a pragmatic bipartisan approach to governing cities.  Each has focused on effective service delivery rather than empowerment or redistributive policies.  Booker’s success as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city propelled him to his current position as New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator through special election in 2013.

The Power of Perception

Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Sacramento occupy different positions on the success spectrum of American cities.  Of these five Chicago would certainly occupy the highest perch.  Chicago clearly is a global city – a world financial center, the home of a dozen Fortune 500 companies and the critical link in the nation’s rail and air transportation network.  The Windy City has extensive economic connections throughout the world.  Indeed, world-class architecture firms based in Chicago are designing the gleaming skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in China’s large cities.  Denver would rest in a position not far behind Chicago.  Denver has become the capital of the Great Plains and Mountain West, a mid-continent transportation hub that built its wealth on its access to mineral resources in the Rocky Mountains.  Sacramento would likely occupy a position behind Denver.  Sacramento’s growth has been more recent than the others, and it still sits in the shadows of much larger California metropolises.  But as the capital of our nation’s largest and most influential state, it has heft.

Baltimore, Cleveland and Newark would occupy another place on the spectrum.  All are well known for enduring the storm of industrial decline, and in Cleveland’s case, fiscal insolvency.  They’re slowly recovering from a nadir reached perhaps a decade or two ago and have made small steps toward improvement.  They’ve worked hard to revitalize their cores – Newark has leaned on its financial services sector to turn the tide, while Baltimore and Cleveland have relied on their assets in education, health care services, and biomedical and biotech research.  However, all are far from being complete success stories.

Then there is Detroit.

Each city has had African-Americans serve in the city’s highest office.  Chicago’s Harold Washington endured tough times as mayor of Chicago, but he built a lasting coalition that allowed him to prevail.  Denver’s Wellington Webb learned to adapt in a pluralistic environment and raised the profile of a Western city.  Cleveland, Newark and Detroit each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.  Cleveland and Newark began their turnaround some years ago; perhaps Detroit’s, with its recent bankruptcy filing, has just begun.

If anyone doubts the impact of electing an African-American mayor during the racially tumultuous late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, examine the general perceptions that formed of the cities during that period and have endured ever since.  Newark and Detroit, already tainted by the aftermath of urban riots, were effectively shunned by white residents after the elections of their first black mayors.  Cleveland may have been headed down the same path after the election of Carl Stokes in 1967.  But Stokes chose not to run for a third two-year term as mayor, leaving a wide open field.  Stokes was followed by three consecutive white mayors — Ralph J. Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich – before the election of the city’s second black mayor, Michael White, in 1990.  Atlanta touted itself as the “City too busy to hate” in the ‘70s, but Maynard Jackson’s 1973 election coincided with rapid white flight out of the city, at the same time that Sun Belt migration from the north was strengthening the suburban base.  In Washington, DC, black political empowerment there was often wrapped up in the controversy of federal political representation for the District.  Mayors in the District were federally appointed until Walter Washington was elected mayor in 1975.

Perhaps the best way to view perceptions of cities that elected “first black mayors” during the Black Power Era is to examine the fortunes of Detroit and Philadelphia during and after this period.  Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.

Cities that elected their first black mayors during the Black Power Era deeply suffered in national perception because of the gamut of social challenges they had at the time, and found it difficult to stabilize poor economies or for revitalization to gain traction.  But they suffered far worse than other cities because they were in effect shunned.  They suffered from the greatest increases in crime.  They experienced the largest declines in school quality and performance.  They witnessed the steepest drops in property values.  They had the widest divides between police and community.  They had the highest numbers of white middle-class residents departing for the suburbs.  Newark was shunned.  Gary was shunned.  Detroit was shunned.  Maybe Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati, or Dayton did not suffer the same fate because African-American populations there did not approach parity with whites, who were eventually able to “reclaim” the city’s highest office.  In the end, however, select cities paid a price for the election of black mayors during this time, a price not paid by cities that elected black mayors after them, or not at all.

Another Transition


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on election night in 2013.  Source: wikipedia.org

On January 1, Michael Duggan assumed the difficult and unenviable responsibility of becoming the 75th mayor of Detroit, Michigan.  Given the most recent difficult period that Detroit has endured, and the continued difficult times ahead, Mayor Duggan’s inauguration was a subdued affair.  There was no inaugural ball or celebration.  The new mayor was simply sworn in with a short ceremony in his new 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new mayor said he would focus on operations – removing blight, snowplowing streets, repairing lights, making sure buses run safely and on time.  The mayor suggested he would move into Manoogian Mansion, the palatial mayoral residence on the Detroit River that was deeded to the city in the 1960’s.  As far as the focus on operations goes, he really has little choice in the matter.  The State of Michigan-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, brought in with exceptionally broad powers to resolve the city’s financial mess and currently leading the Motor City’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, has a lock on policy decisions right now.  Mayor Duggan says his focus is to “return the city to elected leadership on October 1,” the day that Orr’s 18-month appointment from the state ends.

And with that, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit since 1973, mayor of a city with a population that is 83% African-American.  This most recent election, most observers believe, is a venture into the unknown, and is as much an experiment as Detroit’s bankruptcy itself.  An era of African-American political leadership has ended in Detroit, but no one is certain of what the next era might be.

Perhaps the bankruptcy, the election of a white mayor and the growing urban pioneer spirit that is visible in parts of the city means that the shunning of Detroit has ended.

This post originally appeared on August 10th, 2014 in Corner Side Yard.

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

How Detroit Streamlined Its Fight Against Blight

The PBS News Hour show did a segment yesterday about the efforts to remove blight (vacant homes) in Detroit via streamlined demolitions and incentives for investment. If the embedded video doesn’t display for you, click over to You Tube.

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Cities: Detroit

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Detroit Water City

Detroit’s bankruptcy judge just ruled that he can’t halt water shutoffs in the city. I make the argument that Detroit should continue with its shutoff program in my latest piece at City Journal called “Detroit Water City.”

To be sure the process was bungled out of the gate. The city first should have started with commercial accounts, for example. But in a country where we have food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 and a slew of other poverty programs up to an including so-called “Obama phones,” does anyone really believe we never thought that poor people needed water? Of course those with bona fide hardships should get a repayment plan option and assistance where necessary. But those complaining don’t seem interested in validating actual need. The Detroit Water Project, for example, which allows donors to pay overdue water bills on behalf of Detroit residents, doesn’t even ask about whether or not the recipient is in need. It specifically boasts, with emphasis, that there’s “no paperwork required.”

As I put it in the piece:

What Detroit’s citizens need most from their government is well-functioning public services. A water utility with 50 percent delinquencies is a reflection of a city that has failed its basic responsibilities. Fixing DWSD is but one of the many changes necessary to restore Detroit—but if city officials don’t have the stomach to collect long-overdue water bills, how will they undertake tougher reforms?

Click through to read the whole thing.

Also at City Journal, Steve Eide has an article sounding a note of optimism about Detroit, reminding us of the state of the South Bronx in the 1970s. It’s called “Lessons From a Catastrophe.” Here’s an excerpt:

The most important lesson that Detroit can derive from the South Bronx’s experience is that things can get better. Many despaired over the South Bronx’s future during the 1970s out of conviction that New York City was ungovernable. How could a city incapable of preventing 14-year-olds from defacing subway cars be expected to revive a neighborhood resembling post-World War II Berlin? But the skeptics were wrong, as more effective government—as opposed to simply less or more—proved central to New York’s epic crime decline and many other municipal improvements. As encouraging as the news is about its downtown, we’ll know Detroit has turned a corner when local government has shed its reputation for dysfunction in the eyes of independent observers and, even more importantly, local taxpayers.

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

The Uniqueness of Detroit’s Housing Stock by Pete Saunders

[ I’ve posted a number of pieces by Pete Saunders here in the past. He’s not just a great analyst generally, he’s particularly great on Detroit. His post laying out nine reasons why Detroit failed has more page views than any other article in Urbanophile history. (The top four posts are all about Detroit, showing the powerful hold that city has on the public consciousness). In his blog, Corner Side Yard, he’s bee revisiting that post to go in depth on each of his nine points. Today I’m pleased to be able to repost his analysis of Detroit’s housing stock, along with that of many other Midwest cities – Aaron. ]


A scene from the Grixdale neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side.  Source: Google Earth.

Last week, as part of my series on planning reasons behind Detroit’s decline, part 2 of the nine-part series was about the city’s poor housing stock.  I started to play with some numbers to see if there was any validity to my opinions about the city’s housing, and I found some very intriguing things.  Detroit’s housing stock is definitely unique among its Midwestern and Rust Belt peer cities, and perhaps among cities nationwide.  Let’s examine.

Grouping the cities by population figures from the 2013 U.S. Census population estimates, and housing data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, I looked at housing age and single family detached housing data for 15 Midwest/Rust Belt cities with populations above 250,000.  One city I typically include in an analysis like this, Louisville, was not included due to a lack of ACS data.  Data for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were aggregated into one (sorry, Minneapolis and St. Paul) because they jointly function as the core city for their region.  Here’s the big table with all the data:

That’s a lot to digest, so I’ll take the data piece by piece.  First, let’s look at the cities ranked by their percentage of housing units built in 1969 or earlier:

You’ll see here that, perhaps following the general national perception of Detroit housing, the Motor City has an older housing stock.  Only Buffalo has a higher percentage of older housing. Generally speaking, the cities at the top half of this list have older housing because they lack redevelopment activity that replaces older housing, while cities at the bottom half consists of cities with decent levels of redevelopment activity, or more recently built housing that’s been annexed into the city in recent decades.  Here, Detroit does seem to fit the pattern.

But does it really?  If you look at the Census’ earliest category for age of structure, 1939 or earlier, Detroit drops considerably on the list:

Instead of ranking second as in the earlier table, Detroit falls to tenth.  The rest generally hold the same spots they occupied from the previous table as well. The only ones ranking lower than Detroit here are smaller cities (Omaha, Ft. Wayne) and the cities that annexed large amounts of land post 1970 (Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus).

Next, let’s look at how the cities rank in terms of their concentrations of single family detached homes:

Detroit shows up here with the second highest percentage of single family detached homes, comprising nearly two-thirds of the city’s housing stock.  Once again, the only comparable cities are the smaller cities and the big annexers.

Clearly, most observers believe Detroit has more in common with Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh than with Ft. Wayne, Kansas City and Indianapolis.  What happened to Detroit’s housing stock that gave it such an odd profile?

To understand, let’s pull out a specific category on the age of structure table, the 1950-1959 category:

Here, we find that Detroit has, by far, the highest concentration of housing units built between 1950-59 of all its peer cities.  Nearly one in four homes in Detroit were built during this period.  In fact, Detroit, along with Milwaukee and Toledo, occupies a strange space among Midwestern/Rust Belt cities.  (Side note: the more I study Detroit against other Midwestern cities, the more I find that Detroit and Milwaukee are virtually the same city.  And it doesn’t surprise me that Toledo, just 75 miles from Detroit, would share its characteristics as well).  Detroit, Milwaukee and Toledo all added their greatest numbers of housing at the outset of the modern suburban development period, what I’ve called the Levittown Period in my so-called Big Theory of American Urban Development.  This supports my thinking that if anyone was ever interested in establishing a Levittown-style national historic district, Detroit would be a good candidate.  The Motor City has perhaps more small Cape Cod-style, three-bedroom, one-bath single family homes than any city in the nation.

How did Detroit get this way?  Housing demolition likely had some role in a city that lost so much.  Detroit likely lost older single family homes and multifamily buildings over the last few decades, leading to skewed numbers.  The same is also true of Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, cities that annexed large undeveloped areas after 1970 and built new housing there.  Keep in mind, though, that Milwaukee and Toledo, Detroit’s comparables, may not have had the same level of demolition loss that Detroit had, yet they still match the Motor City well.

That leads me to believe that a concentration of housing development at a unique time is a crucial piece in understanding Detroit’s housing stock.

Here’s another way of looking at this.  I grouped the cities by age and single family home concentration and came up with interesting groupings:

Here it becomes clearer that Detroit and Toledo stand alone as locations for old or moderately old structures that are largely single family.  Also, Milwaukee’s greater mix of single family and multifamily units begins to set it apart from Detroit and Toledo, even when it has a similar concentration of Levittown-style housing.

Finally, let’s consider housing adaptability as part of the housing stock analysis.  Chicago, the region’s largest city and lone “global city” member of the group, comfortably rests in the middle of all tables except for the single family detached table, where it shows the lowest concentration of single family homes.  My guess is that Chicago’s continued desirability means more newer housing has been built, and that its lower single family housing numbers mean that other housing types (lofts, condos and the ubiquitous 2-flat and 3-flat) created a more flexible and adaptable housing development landscape.

Assuming that younger structures are more often suitable to renovation for adaptability, moderately old structures require more intense rehabs, and older types are more often subject to demolition and rebuilding, I reorganized the previous table in terms of housing adaptability:

And if I put in the cities next to this adaptability scale, it’s easy to see the magnitude of Detroit’s housing challenges:

Detroit is such a unique city in so many ways.  The Motor City needs more research and analysis that highlights its uniqueness and adds to our understanding of the what led to its downfall, and less of our ire and contempt.

The more I study Detroit, the more I see the seeds of a similar downfall in other cities nationwide.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 6, 2014.

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Detroit: A Chip Off the Old Bulb by Eric McAfee

[ As some of you may remember from my post on the streetlights of Chicago, I’m a streetlight buff. Detroit’s street lights are famously old. A chunk of them date back to at least the 1920s. In this piece Eric McAfee take a closer look – Aaron. ]

Seven months after the announcement, it still seems like the largest municipal bankruptcy filing (at least up to this point) is the stuff of legend—the culminating event, after successive blunders.  The apex.  Or the nadir. No doubt those of us living here are guilty of a degree of chauvinism as we experience how it plays out firsthand, but it’s easy for anyone with even moderate media curiosity to see how much the city has hogged the headlines.  It may be for all the wrong reasons, but Detroit is prominent once again.

Yet it was only weeks—if not days—after the declaration made international news that, in order to convey to the world the magnitude of the city’s financial woes, journalists honed in on more mundane failures—failures that, by virtue of their banality, were all the more shocking.  Locals have known about them for ages.  A portfolio of abandoned public school real estate larger than many cities’ functional school systems.  An absence of snowplows, even after heavy storms.  A stonewall of silenced civil servants, hogtied from effectively carrying out duties by daily uncertainty about the security of those same jobs.  The virtual absence of any emergency response, resulting in two-hour waits for an ambulance or a police call.

But the one that crowds out the rest, no doubt at least partially due to its ubiquity and ordinariness, is the persistent non-functionality of those streetlights.  One of the editorialists for the Free Press has branded it “the city’s deepest embarrassment”.  By most estimates, up to 40% are out on any given night.  Anyone passing through can tell when crossing into the city limits for this exact reason: even huge stretches of the interstates are black, although they’re state or federal highways.  It’s hard to determine if these shadowy streets originate from a cash-strapped DPW’s inability to replace the bulbs—which obviously require periodic maintenance—or an oversight that far precedes the checkered Kilpatrick administration, when the city’s fiscal woes first garnered national attention.  All it takes is a trip down Mack Avenue on the city’s east side to postulate that the problem is a half-century in the making.

Silhouettes of streetlights punctuate the dusky penumbra, but even at a distance, the shape of these lights seems odd.  Antiquated?  Probably.  And a closer view confirms it.

To be frank, I can’t recall seeing lights like this before anywhere else in the country, and I’m well-traveled across some of the more economically deprived pockets.  From the baroque iron filigree work of the stanchion to the acorn shape of the light itself, my guess is this streetlight comes from an inventory that most cities had fully retired over three decades ago.  And there’s probably good reason for that: this one is broken.

And so is another one half a block away.

About half of the lights along this stretch of Mack use this design, and most are cracked.  A big distended bulb offers more surface area encased in glass—more space for something to wrong.  Whether hit by flying debris hit or (my suspicion) deliberately smashed by a passer-by, this streetlight is almost definitely non-operational.  And the visible hardware is only half the problem: inside that quaint, clunky bulb (your grandmother’s streetlight) is—or was—a mercury vapor lamp. Detroit is one of the few cities that still depends heavily on this less efficient, increasingly obsolete method of illumination; most other large cities have replaced their inventory with superior metal halide lamps.   USA Today also noted that Detroit and Milwaukee share the dubious distinction of being the only large cities that still deploy series circuits for much of the streetlight network, meaning that if one transformer box breaks down, the whole strip of lights goes dark, like an old string of Christmas tree lights.  While the Mack Avenue streetlight featured above remains attached to a wood, other lights in the city append to metal poles, presumably the same age as the lights themselves, characterized by rust, peeling paint, and sometimes even open cavities at the base.  The whole contraption has seen better days.

But viewing these cracked eggs through a cultural lens can help temper some of the scorn.  They might not work well as modern lamps and they’re much easier to vandalize, but they’re relics—they’re curiosity items.  And they’re particularly eye-catching along Mack Avenue because there are so many of them, yet they’re still interspersed with more contemporary designs.  This cool pic doesn’t win awards for clarity, but it still shows the juxtaposition of old and new streetlights, through their silhouettes.

Or on opposite sides of the street.

And on a depopulated residential street not so far from Mack, a different kind of lighting style emerges—perhaps not as old-fashioned but still an oddity.

Perhaps a style and technology that never caught on?

The irony of the 1950s-era (or maybe even 1940s) lighting that lingers on in Detroit is that, in a broader spatial context, it exemplifies technological advancements playfully defying shifts in taste culture for a particular design.  On Mack Avenue, ancient streetlights bespeak a broke, ineffective government.  And yet, elsewhere in the metro, they convey something else.

Forgiving the quality of the photo, it’s still easy to see a similar style of lighting to the ones on Mack Avenue, but this time they’re impeccable.

But this is the comfy suburb of Livonia, presumably part of a streetscape improvement along a thoroughly auto-oriented corridor of strip malls and big boxes.  And they no doubt were a deliberate choice from the Public Works Department because they look good—providing a vintage, old-timey feel.  Apparently they don’t worry in Livonia about ne’er-do-well pedestrians throwing rocks at these distended bulbs.  Maybe it’s because Livonia has few ne’er-do-wells….and even fewer pedestrians.  But even some of the economically healthier neighborhoods within Detroit have caught the bug, replacing older streetlights with a newly vintage design, like these twin lamps in Midtown, near Woodward Avenue.

This inversion of taste cultures pervades streetscapes across the country, where everything old is new again, in order to exploit nostalgia among a generation that never really experienced a normative walkable environment—a landscape that was still the standard during the era when city crew first installed those acorn mercury vapor lamps.  We’re seduced by nostalgia and novelty; a hybrid of the two is doubly sweet.  Just go to the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a city equally negligent in modernizing its utilities now capitalizes on this same inertia—the flickery gas lanterns that once were a backwater embarrassment are now ambiance.  Detroit isn’t yet so lucky to take similar advantage of its obsolete lighting (and the fact that most streets like Mack are a hodgepodge of styles doesn’t help), but that doesn’t mean that an emergent cultural voice won’t someday call those lights “genuine retro”, and the preached-upon choir will be listening.

The periodic “freshening” of basic urban infrastructure is only partly due to necessity, as it may very well be in Detroit.  But a great deal simply has to do with keeping up with the joneses, resulting in often needlessly costly capital investments.  For example, the standard for pedestrian signals at intersections now typically involves a “countdown” timer, telling pedestrians exactly how many seconds they have left to cross.  While useful, are these timer boxes essential?  Regardless, public works departments are rapidly phasing out the single-box approach for these new timer-boxes, with little evidence of public advocacy one way or another (despite the fact that the public inevitably is paying for most of these replacement costs).  From decorative viaducts to Day-Glo yellow road caution signs, jurisdictions hell-bent on an infrastructural one-upmanship should look to Detroit as an inverse exemplar—what might happen when profligacy goes perpetually unchecked.  Unless, of course, these granny-and-gramps streetlights become hip and cool again, in which case the Motor City might have the last laugh.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on February 27, 2014.

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

On Being Priced Out of Downtown Detroit by Daniel Hertz

[ After my recent post on people saying they were priced out of downtown Detroit, Daniel Hertz followed up with some thoughts of his own over at this excellent City Notes blog on that and other topics. He graciously allowed me to share them here. Also, I’d like to clarify one thing which is that in my original post I was referring to people in Detroit wanting more construction in their preferred neighborhoods, not Daniel personally. I included that bit from Pete’s post to help make Pete’s point in context – Aaron. ]

Okay, on to the funner stuff. Attempting to keep this organized:

1. Jim’s post: I don’t actually really disagree with anything here. My objection to his previous post was mostly about this line:

What a superstar metro doesn’t mean is strong population growth and demand for housing outstripping supply.

Maybe I misunderstood, or maybe he changed his emphasis, but whatever the reason, the latest post makes clear that both supply restrictions and increasing demand are playing a role in exacerbating housing prices. I think that’s exactly right.

2. Aaron’s post: Responding to an article about rising home prices and displacement in downtown Detroit, Aaron basically picks out three dynamics that are important. The first is short-term:

Now, what about supply? Is the city of Detroit telling people they can’t build downtown?… What we would appear to have here instead is a lag issue. Real estate development isn’t like ramping production up or down in a factory. It takes time to do.

Right. Given that it can take a year or two for projects to be conceived, engineered, financed, and built, it’s pretty common for areas where demand increases very quickly to suffer a temporary shortage of supply as a result of this kind of lag. It makes sense that this would be the case in downtown Detroit.


Dan Gilbert imagines all the light-skinned people who will use his new toys.

The second problem is longer-term, but quite specific to places like downtown Detroit where there have been very few residential buildings at all, prior to the increase in demand:

Additionally, with higher income demand in the market, new units are going to be built to serve that market, not lower income people. If you own land and have a market that gives you the choice of either building a higher profit building or a lower profit building, which one will you choose?

I would actually make this even stronger. Given construction costs, very few new homes are built for low-income people without some sort of subsidy: it’s just not profitable to do. This is why even people like Ed Glaeser, a free market-oriented economist and champion of increasing housing supply to lower prices, say that housing subsidies will be needed no matter what we do: at the moment, the cost of building new housing requires sales prices that are too high for low-income people to afford.

In established low-income residential neighborhoods that experience gentrification, this can be less of an issue. If building new homes is difficult, then landlords of older buildings can make a lot of money by renovating their apartments and renting them at much higher prices to the wealthy newcomers, displacing the existing residents. But if building is easy, then lots of the newcomers will move to fancier, newly built homes, and the old landlords won’t face nearly the incentive to renovate and raise rents. In that case, the older, more affordable housing stock can be preserved.

But if there is no older, more affordable housing stock – as in places like downtown Detroit – then the only housing is the new, expensive stuff, and you’ll get a pretty economically homogeneous neighborhood no matter how much you build. (At least, that is, until that new housing stock becomes old enough to lose value.)

The last problem is the peculiar geography of demand.

Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of high demand in Downtown/Midtown Detroit vs. the low or no demand in most of the rest of the city. Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas?

The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically.

This, I think, is the thorniest and most interesting issue: it’s obviously the case that in a place like Detroit – to a much greater extent even than Chicago – there is a “supply problem” only in very geographically limited areas. And that geography, as Aaron, Jim, and Pete Saunders have pointed out, is defined by where the people driving demand actually want to live: in this case, downtown, Midtown, and almost nowhere else.

Where I think Aaron and Pete are wrong, though, is in glossing over the reasons that demand is shaped this way. Their focus, as I understand it, is on status and yuppie comfort: where the hip neighborhoods, the hip bars, and so on, are. And, correctly, they argue that no one is entitled to live in the hippest part of a city.

But although status certainly plays a large role in determining where people want to live, you’re missing a lot if that’s all you’re thinking about. I would divide the reasons that people limit their housing searches to downtown and Midtown Detroit – or the North Side in Chicago, or (fill in the blank) in your city – into basically two categories:

1. Economic factors. This is economics broadly construed, and basically covers all of the concrete advantages or disadvantages to a particular place: not just access to jobs, but the quality of the local schools; access to amenities, from essentials like grocery stores to luxuries like cafes; the likelihood that you will be a victim of serious crime; and so on.

2. Social factors. This includes both conscious and semi-conscious concerns about status – I want to live in Lincoln Park, because the kind of person I want to be would live in Lincoln Park – but also the more invisible issues of social networks, or the extent to which you are aware of different neighborhoods. What my professors would call a “choice set” – what is the menu of options you’re consciously choosing from?

I guess my argument is that Aaron and Pete are focused on a subset of Category 2, but that in fact there’s a lot more going on.

More than that, I would suggest that, to a large extent, social factors are mostly secondary: that is, when you consider where to live, you first narrow down the options with economic factors – where can I get to my job, send my kid to okay schools, and not be afraid to walk home at night – and then you make your final choice using social factors.

In other words, you don’t need to use some status argument to explain why middle-class gentrifiers in Detroit refuse to move to most neighborhoods in that city: you just need to know that most of Detroit has terrible public transit (and therefore terrible access to jobs for people who don’t want to drive every day), high crime, and few essential amenities like grocery stores. Avoiding those sorts of disadvantages is a pretty obvious move.

Now, that said, I think Pete’s important insight is that sometimes, social factors are so powerful that they override economic factors, and neighborhoods that meet the basic economic qualifications are eliminated from consideration anyway. One of the main ways that happens is racist heuristics: black neighborhoods, no matter what their attractions, are just not in the “choice set” for white people (and, depending on the city, for Asian-American or Hispanic people, too). Thus Pete’s (and my) frustration that the middle-class black neighborhoods in Detroit, or places like Chatham or South Shore in Chicago, get no attention from the non-black middle class, while it flocks to working-class white or Latino neighborhoods.


Chatham: It’s pretty.

There’s some evidence that that’s partly because of ignorance – white folks in Chicago literally are not aware that Chatham or South Shore exist as relatively pleasant, attractive neighborhoods. There’s also a good amount of evidence that white people, and other non-blacks, just aren’t very comfortable with the idea of living in a majority-black neighborhood. My suspicion is that the latter factor is pretty powerful, which makes me pretty pessimistic about the prospects for large-scale integration in the next decade or two. But I could be wrong.


Evanston, IL, used to allow apartment buildings like this, which allowed people of moderate incomes to live in an affluent suburb with great access to jobs, other amenities, and good schools. But since the 1970s, that hasn’t been the case, and Evanston’s population hasn’t grown since.

But I also think that this whole conversation, by focusing on the choices of financially comfortable people choosing whether to live in downtown Detroit or some other comfortable neighborhood, is missing what the housing supply argument is really about: people who are currently stuck in neighborhoods that would fail any middle-class household’s economic test, and who can’t afford to move to one that would pass. Those are the people who suffer the most under our current housing system, and who would stand to gain the most if supply restrictions were lifted.

There’s a lot more to say about this; it’ll come next week.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 31, 2014.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Priced Out of Downtown Detroit

A recent article called “I’ve Been Priced Out of Downtown Detroit” shows us an interesting microcosm of the urban housing problem. Per the piece:

Five-year resident Andrew Kopietz moved out of his one-bedroom in the downtown Lafayette Park neighborhood late last year after his rent was hiked to $1,100 from $840 a month.

“I work downtown and have never loved living somewhere as much as I do here,” said Kopietz, a design director for D:Hive, which provides information about living in Detroit. But, “it seemed unfair to be forced to pay more.”

For those who haven’t been following it, there’s been a bit of a debate between Jim Russell and Daniel Hertz about the cause of rising urban housing prices the resulting unaffordability.

Hertz, like Matt Yglesias, Ryan Avent, and most other urbanists these days, puts the blame squarely on inelastic supply. Demand has gone up, but building restrictions make it difficult if not impossible to build more units, ergo housing prices go up.

Russell doesn’t discount that supply constraints affect price, but he zeros in on demand. He notes that many places have restricted supply but only some of them feature skyrocketing prices because demand is uneven and heavily concentrated in places with a large global workforce. He believes more attention should be paid to the demand side of the equation in explaining housing prices.

Detroit is an interesting lab to show this at work. This is a city that simultaneously has a tight housing market with rising prices in Downtown at Midtown at the same time the city is proposing to spend almost $2 billion dollars to demolish about a quarter of its housing stock. There would appear to be ample housing and land available for almost free in Detroit, even in urban Detroit, but the differences in the markets are stark. Why is this?

In 2009 I wrote a piece called “Migration: Geographies in Conflict” in which I explore this issue. In the age of globalization there are really two types of labor markets, global and local. People who work in global labor markets can command significant wage premiums over those in local ones. The modern globalized economy is been very good to those with top level global skills, while more traditionally local markets have been exposed to new, low-wage from offshore and crushed.

The problem is that those two economic and labor market geographies can exist in the same physical geography. In those cases, the global market workers are able to outbid local market workers for housing and other goods and services, leading to rising prices and displacement. Read the whole piece as I talk about this in much more depth, especially with regards to California.

Now Detroit doesn’t really have a large workforce in global labor markets. But what we see is several thousand people who work for Dan Gilbert’s business empire and other downtown businesses who are being handed a $20,000 check if they move downtown. This, along with their general status as corporate white collar employees, simulates a global worker wage premium. Per the article:

One program, called Live Downtown, has attracted as many as 15,000 new residents to the downtown area, according to the mayor’s office.

Under the program, local companies, including Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield, give employees $20,000 loans that will be completely forgiven if they buy and stay in a home downtown for five years. Renters there receive $2,500 their first year and $1,000 the second.

I strongly doubt there are 15,000 new residents in downtown Detroit. Nevertheless, this shows that putting two separate groups with a structural wage differential in a small physical geography can result in rising prices and displacement.

Now, what about supply? Is the city of Detroit telling people they can’t build downtown? Is there a governmentally imposed supply constraint in any meaningful sense? Not that I’m aware of. I’m sure Detroit has planning and zoning laws and that they are baroque, but that’s true everywhere, including places that are building a lot of new supply.

What we would appear to have here instead is a lag issue. Real estate development isn’t like ramping production up or down in a factory. It takes time to do. This creates inevitable lags, and given the history of various overbuilding scenarios, developers will clearly want to make sure downtown Detroit demand is sustainable before committing capital to a project.

Additionally, with higher income demand in the market, new units are going to be built to serve that market, not lower income people. If you own land and have a market that gives you the choice of either building a higher profit building or a lower profit building, which one will you choose? It’s obvious what developers are choosing in Detroit:

In February, a couple dozen artists were evicted from their loft spaces in a building on Griswold Street after it had been bought by Bedrock Real Estate Services. The original plan was to keep the tenants in the building, according to Aaron Emerson, a spokesman for Quicken Loans, Bedrock’s parent company. But, he said, the building was deemed unsafe by the fire inspector and needed major renovations, necessitating the evictions.

A couple of months ago, another building on Griswold was emptied of its mostly low-income senior residents. The residents had received notices a year earlier notifying them that their Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers were going to expire and the building was going to be renovated. Donna Fontana, a spokeswoman for developer Broder & Sachse, said residents were found new places to live, with their relocation costs covered.

Keep in mind that if the existing tenants are retained, either the investments to upgrade the units won’t get made, or those tenants will receive a windfall benefit of higher end units they are paying below market prices for. They will have won the lottery, in effect.

But what’s more, even if every existing resident got a new, upgraded unit with no rent increase and zero displacement, improvements to downtown Detroit resulting from the newer, higher income residents (for example, nicer retail) will create intrinsic attractiveness that will make it desirable to people who don’t currently live there today but who can’t afford the rents for new development. Perhaps a recent Millennial college grad who is underemployed and burdened with student loan debt, let’s say.

Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of high demand in Downtown/Midtown Detroit vs. the low or no demand in most of the rest of the city. Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas?

The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically. They may in fact choose another location, but they will grouse about it.

Pete Saunders nailed the mentality in his post “The Millennial Housing Shortage Fallacy“:

Blogger Daniel Kay Hertz sheds some light on the thought process behind the growing meme: “Why are there no apartment buildings in your standard affluent single-family-home neighborhood, common in metro areas from Chicago to Kansas City to New York to Memphis? Not because people don’t want to live in them. Not because you couldn’t make money by building them. They don’t exist because they’re illegal.”

The emphasis is added because it highlights the salient point, which can be reduced to this: “why isn’t there more housing where I want it?” Because there are plenty of apartment buildings with plenty of vacancies in other parts of the city. Let’s fill those up, and then talk.

If young urbanists are serious about moving back to the city, maybe they ought to consider more of the city to live in. For every highly desirable attractive urban neighborhood, even in the most in-demand metro areas, there are just as many languishing neighborhoods that aren’t even part of the conversation. For every Lincoln Park or Lakeview in Chicago that lacks affordable housing, there is a Garfield Park or Woodlawn with tons of it.

In other words, the real complaint is that the market isn’t producing the type of housing I want, in the place I want it, at the price I can afford to pay. It’s special pleading.

I’m all in favor of Daniel Hertz’s plan to make it easier to build. Supply restrictions are a serious problem in cities like San Francisco and New York. But this isn’t the whole story. My takeaway points:

1. The two tier labor market needs to be examined as a piece of the puzzle. This is not straightahead inequality as generally talked about. The word inequality suggests unfairness because people within the same labor market get vastly different outcomes. Or it makes us think of the uber-rich. But in effect what we have is two separate labor markets. There’s a structural problem here that’s separate from the insane money accumulated by the 0.01% that is usually the focus.

2. Political and regulatory supply constraints do affect the market and need to be addressed, but there are other supply factors affecting affordability.

3. People are not entitled to a cheap apartment in the exact neighborhood they want with the exact amenities they want.

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Detroit Emergency Manager Seeks to Unleash an Infero of Moral Hazard

One of lesser followed aspects of Detroit’s bankruptcy is a lawsuit filed by emergency manager Kevyn Orr to repudiate $1.4 billion in debt by claiming it was illegally issued. This appears to be mostly a negotiating tactic, but if the judge ends up agreeing with this, it will unleash an inferno of municipal moral hazard that will no doubt be exploited by politicians around the country.

Michigan, like many states, limits the amount of indebtedness cities can incur. To top off pensions, former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick borrowed $1.4 billion. To circumvent debt limits, he created special purpose entities to do the borrowing. Orr now claims these were sham entities, and so the debt issue was illegal, so the city is entitled to pocket the $1.4 billion and not pay it back.

Keep in mind that creating special purpose corporations of various types for this sort of purpose is widespread municipally and in the corporate world. Also keep in mind that Kwame Kilpatrick was a crook who’s going to spend the next 28 years in prison for corruption. It’s an interesting claim that an outright criminal who borrows money can claim that because his scheme is crooked he doesn’t have to pay the money back (Both Kilpatrick and Orr were both speaking ex-cathedra as municipal CEO). What kind of logic is this?

If Detroit successfully repudiates this debt, municipal leaders elsewhere would almost have to be idiots not to take advantage of the same trick. Elect a crooked mayor or merely one with few scruples. Borrow an insane amount of money by skating on the edge of the law. Then sue yourself claiming you couldn’t possibly have legally done the deal, so don’t have to pay the money back. Rinse, repeat.

The feds should drop the hammer on this hard on this. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for big banks. On the other hand, when someone takes out the municipal equivalent of a “lair’s loan”, they shouldn’t be allowed to profit from being a crook.

In large municipal bankruptcies, it’s pretty common to claim that the indebtedness is all the fault of those greedy bankers who deceived the poor servants of the public. I believe similar claims were made and generated quite a bit of municipal recovery in Orange County and Jefferson County, Alabama. But look closely and I think where you find a shady banker operating, you’ll often find a shady client as well.

Why do people keep electing crooks like Kilpatrick to office? Well, if it turns out those guys are able to fleece out of town bankers to the tune of $1.4 billion, why wouldn’t you? Looks like he might have cut a pretty savvy deal after all. This sort of behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. You can be sure shady municipal borrowing will only be on the increase if the courts allow the Detroit to play a heads we win, tails you lose game with the banks. Think about that the next time your city engages in legal contortions to dig itself even deeper into debt.

Speaking of Detroit, the free market Manhattan Institute will be doing a one hour live streamed event this Monday the 24th with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr. It’s at 1pm ET and is called “Detroit: The Next American City of Opportunity.” You can access the event at: http://www.publicsectorinc.org/2014/02/detroit/. If you want to submit questions, tweet them to @ManhattanInst with the hash tag #SaveOurCities.

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

City-Specific Immigration Visas Would Be a Modern Day Indentured Servitude

An idea that’s been kicked around by many is to help turn around struggling cities like Detroit by offering geographically limited immigrations visas. That is, to allow foreigners get their green card if they agree to live in a particular city for a certain number of years.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has now officially endorsed the concept, calling for Detroit to be awarded 50,000 city-specific immigration visas for skilled workers over five years. As the NYT put it:

Under the plan, which is expected to be formally submitted to federal authorities soon, immigrants would be required to live and work in Detroit, a city that has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s.

“Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” said Mr. Snyder, a Republican, who last year authorized the state’s largest city to seek bankruptcy protection and recently announced plans to open a state office focused on new Americans.

Later, he added, “Think about the power and the size of this program, what it could do to bring back Detroit, even faster and better.”

The appeal of the idea is obvious. I’ve probably said positive things about it myself in the past. But examine it more closely and it’s clear this is an idea that’s fatally flawed. By requiring immigrants to live and work in the city of Detroit for a period of time, this program would effectively bring back indentured servitude, only instead of having to work for the people who paid for their trip to America, these immigrants would have to work for Detroit.

I’ve got to believe that the courts would look skeptically at such a scheme that so radically restricts geographic mobility and opportunity. What’s more, I think it’s plain wrong to invite people into our country with the idea that they are de facto restricted to one municipality.

L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of wealthy Oakland County in suburban Detroit, took huge heat again this week when he was quoted in the New Yorker saying “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn.’” Yet isn’t this idea of city specific visas almost literally treating Detroit like a reservation, only for immigrants instead of Indians?

Some have likened this to programs to entice doctors to rural areas by paying for medical school. I’m not sure how all of those are structured, but they may have questionable elements as well. But more importantly, my understanding is that they are purely financial, where medical school loans are paid off in return for a certain number of years of service. If a doctor elects to leave the program, they are in no worse shape than someone who didn’t sign up would be. They are still licensed to practice medicine and have to repay their loans just like every other doctor.

I don’t think Gov. Snyder is motivated by any ill will in this. I think he’s genuinely looking for creative solutions to the formidable problems Detroit faces. He’s taken huge heat for finally facing up to the legacy of problems there, and hasn’t shied way from making tough calls. He’s even willing to call for some bailout money, which many in his own party don’t like. But this idea is a bad one. He should withdraw it, and the federal government should by no means open to the door to these types of arrangements.

Immigrants remain a great way to pursue a civic turnaround, however. Detroit just needs to lure them on the open market the same way Dayton, Ohio and others are trying to do.

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Urban Skiing in Detroit

This week a video of some urban adventure types in Detroit that’s been making the rounds. But instead of scrapping or whatever it is people do in Detroit’s abandoned skiing, they decided on an urban ski adventure. There’s some pretty cool tricks in there. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Barrel~dEM

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Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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