The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives, Con’t.

L. Brooks Patterson, County Executive for Oakland County, Michigan.  Source:

Last week when I wrote this piece about competing narratives that drive perceptions of Rust Belt cities, I knew there was another narrative to include but was missing from the picture.

I wrote about two narratives.  The first was the story of Drew Philp, a young white man who details his experience of establishing roots on Detroit’s largely abandoned East Side.  The second story was by Tenicka Boyd, a young black female Milwaukee expat living in Brooklyn who goes on to say that her Milwaukee experience was fraught with bad memories, and her recent visit over the holidays only confirmed her decision to move away.  I always knew there was at least one other dominant narrative, but at the time of last week’s writing I couldn’t find a source to articulate it.

Enter L. Brooks Patterson.

Silly me, he should have been the first source that came to mind.  Patterson is the long-time County Executive of Oakland County, Michigan, the second most populous county (after Detroit’s Wayne County) in the state of Michigan.  Oakland County sits north of vaunted 8 Mile Road, and along with Macomb County to its east, it developed as one of the earliest suburban counterparts to Detroit.  Oakland is the flip side to Detroit’s story — it is one of the most affluent counties in the nation, it has a long and proud history of fiscal prudence, and it has escaped notoriety for corruption.  Patterson has been County Executive since 1992, and spent 16 years prior to that as the County Prosecutor, and has arguably become the most powerful local politician in the state.  But he’s also based his career on comments like this:

“Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough shit.”

“I used to say to my kids, ‘First of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit. We’ve got restaurants out here.’ They don’t even have movie theatres in Detroit—not one.” He went on, “I can’t imagine finding something in Detroit that we don’t have in spades here. Except for live sports. We don’t have baseball, football. For that, fine—get in and get out. But park right next to the venue—spend the extra twenty or thirty bucks. And, before you go to Detroit, you get your gas out here. You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.”

 “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re going to 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 corn.’ ”

Those are three quotes from Patterson that come from a New Yorker interview of him in its most recent magazine edition.  The article’s title: “Drop Dead, Detroit!  The Suburban Kingpin Who is Thriving Off the City’s Decline” is telling.  I understand there’s a lot more, but it’s only available to subscribers at this time.

I can’t wait to see the rest.

Patterson has made a career of building the county as the anti-Detroit, in the most positive and most negative ways.  He’s been a big proponent of sprawl, famously saying, “let me state unequivocally: I love sprawl.  I need it.  I promote it.  Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”  While Patterson has been a leader on regional issues where it serves his purposes first (the Automation Alley maunfacturing complex, the Cobo Convention Center Authority), he rarely has missed a chance to draw a sharp distinction between his county and the troubled city to the south.

And that gets at the heart of the narrative problem for Rust Belt cities.

Patterson represents a large number of metro Detroiters who have contempt for the city and would never again step foot in it if they didn’t have to.  It’s unfortunate because it is the city that defines the region, and this kind of negativism is a barrier to the city’s resurgence.  This is slowly changing,  but I think this kind of thinking defines and impacts almost all Rust Belt cities to some degree.

4 Responses to “Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives, Con’t.”

  1. Linnaeus

    I grew up in Oakland County, and Patterson was a significant presence for virtually all of my time there. I'll give him credit for being a competent administrator, but his vision for the county is outdated and impoverished. The engines of Oakland County's growth over the last 30-40 years have run their course. He can't rely on white flight and the auto industry anymore.


  2. Pete Saunders

    @Linnaeus, I think you raise a very interesting point. Patterson perfectly situated Oakland County to grow at the expense of Detroit's demise. I've seen a few articles since his New Yorker piece came out that Patterson believes he's in zero-sum battle with Detroit — if he wins, Detroit loses, and vice-versa. The fact is, if Detroit wins, the whole region wins. The entire Detroit metro area is viewed negatively because of the collapse of the city, irrespective of how affluent Oakland County is. I think more and more suburbanites are starting to realize that and Patterson's days may be numbered as a result.


  3. Anonymous

    If there's one thing I can't stand, it's the people who live in some outlying metropolitan country and brag about how they never go into the city unless they have to, and pretend that the quality of life they have would be anywhere near as high as it is if there wasn't a major city next door. Quite frankly, it's ignorant. Kendall County, IL would still be farmland if not for Chicago nearby. Butler County, PA would be just another dying rural western Pennsylvania county if not for Pittsburgh nearby. Cobb County, GA owes its vitality to Atlanta.


  4. Pete Saunders

    @DBR96A, there's a saying that fits what you describe above — standing on third base and thinking you hit a triple. Oakland County is a little different, though. It's probably more akin to the Chicago area's DuPage County; adjacent to the urban core county and having a fair bit of urban-scale development. Plus, as Detroit emptied out Oakland has served as a de facto acceptable metro area core as the city spiraled downward. It is a little unique in that way.But even Oakland hasn't been able to overcome its biggest obstacle. Even in polarized metro Detroit, many are starting to realize the value of the city's economy on the entire metro area's economy — and its general perception. The L. Brooks Pattersons of the world won't be running the show for much longer.



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