The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 7

The Spirit of Detroit bronze statue, in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit.  Source:
The series to date:

Origin Post
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Before we start, I think it’s important to acknowledge how far Detroit has come since I first started writing about it 2 1/2 years ago.  Last Friday, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan, allowing it to shed more than $7 billion in debt and establish a credible plan going forward that would allow the city to repair and reinvest in its infrastructure, its systems, its housing, its people.

The Detroit Free Press just published a fascinating series entitled “How Detroit Was Reborn” in the wake of the bankruptcy approval, and it is a fitting complement to the Free Press’s equally fascinating series, “How Detroit Went Broke” published a little more than a year ago.  The report takes the approach of viewing the bankruptcy as the city’s ultimate existential crisis, in a city where many others could have qualified as such, and offers exquisite details on the things that happened that drove the process to completion in just 16 months.  The city, the state, the residents and pensioners, even the creditors, deserve acknowledgment for the expedited process, and setting the table for the city’s return.

These are indeed heady days for Detroit.  The Big 3 are doing well (even if the city’s over-reliance on them hasn’t significantly changed), and the economy is doing better as a result.  Downtown development has accelerated.  Detroit is indeed turning the corner, but Detroit is indeed coming from a place no other city has been.  This is just beginning.

Because of that, all is not rosy.  In addition to publishing its series on the city’s bankruptcy, the Free Press also published a story that highlights the skepticism that many residents feel, summed up in one quote from Detroit native, former GM worker and current cab driver Charles Richardson:

“You can see the city’s changing, and people are investing, but they’re not working with the neighborhoods,” he said. “Don’t forget the neighborhoods.”

Detroit’s neighborhoods have long been forgotten in part because of a unique governance system for a city so large — a city council all elected at-large for nearly 100 years, in sharp contrast with the district or ward approach in most large cities.  This, I believe, contributed to the stunted growth of Detroit neighborhoods, and contributed to the lack of advocacy at the neighborhood level that allowed the neighborhoods to physically and socially collapse.

Here’s what I said earlier on this:

“In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots. 

This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit.  While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government.  I believe this led to two significant impacts.  First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities.  They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.”

Political reform had long and deep roots in Detroit in the late 19th and early 20th century, and starts with Republican mayor and reformer Hazen Pingree.  Pingree was a four-term mayor who ran Detroit from 1889-1897 who came to office on a platform to wipe away the kind of ethnic-based, machine-oriented corruption that characterized many cities of the time.  Being a businessman, he brought a businessman’s sensibility to the office and sought to root out inefficiencies, but he was sensitive to the conditions that ordinary Detroiters endured.  So while business had a higher profile in local government, Pingree also instituted an expansive public works program that paved streets, and launched crusades against privately-owned services and utilities like streetcar systems, and gas, electric and telephone companies.  Pingree left the mayor’s office to become governor of Michigan in 1897 and served one term, through 1901, choosing not to seek re-election.  He died just six months after leaving office.

Pingree and the progressive community from which he emerged left an indelible mark on Detroit.  Pingree and business leaders tilted early Detroit’s corrupt tendencies toward more efficient and accountable local government.  By the mid-1910s, Progressive Movement reformers were pushing for a new city charter that would codify many of the changes they wanted.  What did they want?  At the time there were four primary policies that Progressives wanted:

  • Civil Service Commissions to oversee the hiring of qualified city workers and put an end to political hiring.
  • The ability to establish an initiative and referendum process to create policy at the grassroots level.
  • Non-partisan elections for all city elected offices.
  • At-large representation for local leaders.
In 1918, Detroit, with about one million residents, became the nation’s largest city to institute Progressive Movement reforms.  This action effectively ended the kind of ethnic-driven machine politics in Detroit that would continue in other cities for another half-century.
At first glance this seems laudable.  Elected leaders would have to consider all parts of the city when making decisions, and not become consumed with competing with other districts to dole out the best or most benefits.  But in practice, different outcomes emerged.  Elected leaders had the ability to look at the city more abstractly, but city residents did not live in an abstract city.  Detroit, as did other cities in the middle of the 20th century, became a turbulent and tumultuous place for its residents, at the micro-local level.  The city’s residents were in need of local advocates, not distant actors who would be unfamiliar with their conditions and concerns.  
This is especially true because Progressive Movement reformers could not have anticipated the impact of the Great Migration that brought millions of black residents up from the South to work in Northern factories, nor the Northern response to their migration — restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting, among others — that rapidly transformed communities.  For decades, there were white ethnic communities that sought protection.  For decades, there were black communities that craved representation.  Neither got what they wanted.
To understand this, let’s compare Detroit with Chicago and Cleveland, two nearby cities that had the same industrial and migration legacy as the Motor City.  Chicago and Cleveland have maintained their ward or district electoral systems to this day.  In both cities, one could argue that the discriminatory policies of the mid-20th century wounded the cities by creating sharp divides between white ethnic and black wards of each.  In Chicago, that divide split the white ethnic north, northwest and southwest sides of the city apart from the largely black south and west sides.  In Cleveland, the split was between the white ethnic west side and the largely black east side.  Again, both cities were wounded by the policies of the time, but there was also a dual positive outcome — blacks gained local political representation early on in Chicago and Cleveland, and white ethnics were able to “hold on” in parts of the city for longer periods because they had local advocates within City Hall.  This was not the case in Detroit.  This becomes apparent when you consider the date when the first black City Council member in each city came to office.  In Chicago Oscar de Priest was elected alderman in 1915.  In Cleveland Thomas Fleming was elected to the City Council in 1916.  Detroit’s first black City Council member was William Patrick, elected in 1958.
Because of the lack of local districts in the city, black Detroiters took a different route to elected leadership.  Rather than pursue the impossible dream of citywide elections, those seeking office pursued seats in the Michigan Legislature and later, Congress.  Charles Diggs, Sr. became the first black elected to the Michigan Senate in 1937.  Black political leadership continued to grow at the state level in Michigan, until the numbers of black voters could support local victories, starting in the 1960s.  Of course, that likely in part created the sense among the city’s white residents that they were now the ones who would not enjoy local representation, which factored into their future housing decisions.
This is as good a place as any to put this graph, which has popped up on this blog on occasion:
It’s also worth noting that Detroit is the only one on this list of Rust Belt peer cities that elected its City Council members on an at-large basis, at any time.
In early 2013, the city’s new charter went into effect allowing the election of council members in one of seven districts, as well as two at-large seats.  The district map looks like this:
The first election held along district lines took place one year ago, in November 2013.  There were previous officeholders who opted not to run under the new system, but many new potential leaders who saw this as a new opportunity.  Raquel Castaneda-Lopez ran and won in District 6 on the city’s largely Latino southwest side, becoming the first Latina member of the City Council.  It’s a little early to judge the performance of this iteration of the Council, but early returns suggests that there’s far less of the grandstanding and posturing that characterized the Council before the new charter went into effect.  And it’s getting closer to representing the people it serves.  

2 Responses to “The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 7”

  1. BCollinsSignMan

    I enjoyed this posting. Being from Cincinnati, I wanted to share some more background with you about this issue of election systems in major Midwestern cities. Here is the link that I wanted to share: link is to the text of my op-ed published in 2008 by Cincinnati Herald (the weekly newspaper here focused on the black community). Long story short, the op-ed explains how a City Council election system used here and in other major cities from the 1920s through the 1950s called \”Choice Voting\” or \”Proportional Representation\” or the \”Single-Transferable Vote\” was historically much better for black-white relations than either the at-large system used for so long in Detroit and better than single-member district systems. [This is the same system still used today to elect the City Council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and elect the Irish national Parliament.]In this piece, it reports on how Theodore M. \”Ted\” Berry, who later began Cincinnati's first black mayor, was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1949. It reports on how at that time (again 1949) there were two blacks on Cincinnati's 9-member City council, at a time where there were zero (0) African Americas on the Detroit City Council. In Cincinnati, this Choice Voting system which was implemented in 1925 as part of the Charter Reform movement resulted in the election of Cincinnati's first African American Council Member, Republican Jess Locker, taking office in 1931 at a time whe Cincinnati's popuaation was less than 10% black. – – – Many years later, when this system was repealed in 1957, blacks were set back politically for a couple of generations here. In fact, at the time of repeal in mid-September 1957 — in the middle of the school-desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas — Mr. Ted Berry was widely expected to be the highest vote-getter in the November 1957 election. If Berry had turned out to the the top voter-getter that year, the protocol at that time would have resulted in his being chosen as Mayor, and he would have become mayor eight (8) years before Carl Stokes became mayor in Cleveland as the USA's first black big-city mayor. Instead, the Choice Voting system was repealed in September 1957 and two months later in November, under the new at-large system, Cincinnati elected its first all-white City Council in 26 years. – – – -In Detroit, the historic problem with the at-large City Council elections system, as I see it, was that it caused the white community to be over-represented through the 1960s when Detroit was predominantly white, and then later starting in the 1970s it caused the black community to be over-represented when Detroit became predominantly black. Neither is healthy in a US City. As I see it, in Detroit this quick switch from white domination of local government to black domination of local government fueled even more polarization. Predictably, I would argue, this led to the Detroit black community being marginalized in terms of police protection in the \”old\” days and then led to Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor, to make some key missteps with the police department (as this blog has reported) when he became mayor in 1974. We can dialogue about this more. But there's one last point I'd like to make : this same system was used to elect the City Councils in NYC in Cleveland. In NYC, it was the system used when Adam Clayton Powell became the first black man elected to the NYC City Council in 1941. See,_Jr. In NYC, as in Cincinnati, this fair system of elections led to the establishment of a true multi-party system — four parties in NYC and three in Cincinnati. Because this system is DESIGNED to bring minorities — racial, ethnic and partisan – into elected office, I would argue that this system is ideal for today's diverse U.S. urban electorates.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: