Return From Detroit

07-08-2004

Interboro just returned from a field trip to Detroit and its environs. Officially, it was there to do some research for “The New Suburbanism,” but as with all field trips it takes, official business is but an excuse to take time to do what it loves: explore America’s fine urban centers, troubled as they may be. Was Detroit as troubled as it is thought to be? Depends what you mean by “Detroit.” Like most American cities, Detroit is a core of poverty surrounded by relative affluence. True, Detroit’s physical “ruins” are more startiling than those of any other city, but beyond this, it’s actually not much of an abberation. In fact, we discovered some statistics that seemed hopeful, not the least of which is the fact that Detroit has gone from having the highest poverty level of any city in the US in 1990 to the 16th in 2002, behind Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

Interboro began its trip with a visit to Dearborn, which is often touted as a classic “ethnic suburb.” In certain respects, it was one of the most vital places we saw all trip. In the first photograph is the “Golden Bakery” where Interboro enjoyed stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh, and some of the best bread it had ever had.

Interboro’s next stop was to Livonia, an inner-ring suburb on Detroit’s western border. Interboro went because it was intriguied by a Detroit News story that refered to Livonia as a prosperous place “with the potential for decline that many older, inner-ring suburbs face.” Interestingly, Livonia also has the highest percentage of whites in any suburb in the metro area, which is saying a lot. Another interesting fact about Livonia is the fact that school enrollment has dwindled to 17,000 from a peak of 38,000 in the 1970s, a fact that encouraged the town to spend $30 million on a new rec center that’s right out of Superstudio.

Of course, such a place is very interesting to Interboro, as there are many others just like it around the country: older, inner ring suburbs that are losing population to newer, even more sprawling suburbs on the rural fringe. The problem with inner-ring suburbs is that they are, in the words of a ULI report, “halfway to everywhere.” That is, they miss out on downtown reinvestment, but neither do they attract affluent families looking for a new home in the burbs.

One suburb that Livonia is losing population to is Lyon Township, which Interboro also visited. What was it like?

It was, well, newer. As Interboro drove around Livonia and Lyon, surveying their respective houses, schools, parks, and shopping centers, it was hard not to see the two towns as two very different products. Livonia, with its 1,000 sf houses on gridded, 30′ x 70′ plots, regional shopping malls and light industrial facilities was to the 1970s what Lyon’s sprawling, (manmade) lakefront mansions, faux horsebarns, and “lifestyle center” shopping plazas are to today. If you’re a young family with $350,000 to drop on a house, you’ll probably go contemporary.

And indeed, according to a Detroit News article, Lyon Township’s population is expected to climb to 40,000 residents by 2030, a pretty significant increase from the 11,041 residents there in 2000. Remember too how un-dense the development is: new developments average roughly one dwelling unit per acre.

So what’s to become of inner-ring suburbs like Livonia? Interboro is looking forward to exploring the question in the future, especially because, as Myron Orfield argues in Metropolitics, older communities like Livonia not only generally provide their fair share of affordable housing, but pay a disproportionate share of the property tax burden. This while newer communities such as Lyon Township get all the benefits and do none of the work.

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