The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroiters — Still Not Heeding the Lessons Before Them

Detroiters have missed out on the lesson of an extremely important moment.
A few days ago, the Detroit Free Press reported an update on “Walking Man” James Robertson, a Detroit resident who walked 21 miles a day round trip for his factory job in suburban Rochester Hills.  His story was initially reported earlier this winter, and provoked tremendous outpouring from Detroiters.  More than $360,000 was raised on Robertson’s behalf through a GoFundMe campaign, and a car dealership donated a 2015 Ford Taurus so he would never have to walk or take public transportation again.
What a typical Detroit response.
The most recent update highlights events since Robertson’s story came to light.  After word of the money and car got out, Robertson was hounded by friends and neighbors who wanted to take part in his windfall.  He was quickly and quietly moved out of his previous home in Detroit by Detroit police; they did so because they were quite aware of a recent murder of an 86-year-old Detroiter who was killed because he was a $20,000 lottery winner.  They certainly wanted Robertson to avoid a similar fate.
Today, Robertson lives in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in suburban Troy, Michigan.  He continues to work at his $10.55/hour, plastic-molding operator job, and now lives about 20 minutes away.  He loves the much shorter commute.  His windfall is managed by a team of financial advisors who donate their time.  From the Free Press article:
“(T)he soft-spoken plastic-molding operator left no forwarding address with anyone in his old neighborhood,  near Woodward and Grand Boulevard. 
“I may have been born there, but God knows I don’t belong there anymore, “ he said…
There are few reminders of his 56 years of living in Detroit, except for a Spirit of Detroit proclamation he received that sits prominently on a shelf in his living room.”
So is that it?  End of story?  “Walking Man” James Robertson moves to the suburbs, and lives happily ever after?
If that’s the feel-good message of the story, then I’m extremely saddened for Detroit’s future.
When Robertson’s story emerged in February, it was used as a starting point for many of Detroit’s ills, as identified by the Free Press and commenters: the region’s ridiculously inefficient mass transit system;  the lack of middle-class wages for factory jobs; even the need for auto insurance reform that would ease the burden on Detroiters wishing to purchase cars.  I weighed in on this and said that people were overlooking a severe job-housing imbalance in the Detroit metro area, with the city having far fewer jobs than it should, relative to its entire region.  Here’s what I said earlier:
Detroit has only one job for every 2.95 residents in the city, by far the highest of the twenty cities examined here.  The next highest are Philadelphia (2.43) and Los Angeles (2.36).  Only four of the twenty cities (Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Milwaukee) have fewer city jobs per resident than the corresponding figure at the metro level.  Washington, DC was the only city to show more jobs than residents, resulting in a residents per job figure less than one (0.97).  With an average of 1.72 residents per job in the core cities, Detroit’s high figure, and corresponding lack of jobs, is disturbing. 
If you want to visualize how that difference looks, see the chart at the top of this post.
This was an opportunity for Detroit, city and suburbs, to face the issues that hamper its overall growth and development.  And what did it do? 
It doubled down on the Suburban Experiment and continued its decades-long turning of its back to the city.  Get a car, move to the burbs, and your problems go away.
I did not expect that Detroit would address all of its urban policy challenges because of one man’s story.  However, I did believe that the cumulative impact of so much that’s gone wrong in Detroit – the economic deprivation, the political corruption, the crime, and the bankruptcy – would cause some introspection and reflection among Detroiters and policymakers.  At what point does the city say to itself, “how exactly did we get here?  And where do we want to go?”
I even explored this further in a follow-up post on Detroit’s jobs-housing imbalance.  In essence, I believe that the suburbanization mindset is so strong in metro Detroit, so engrained, that policymakers and business leaders facilitated the withdrawal of jobs from the city to create suburban job centers that are stronger than similar suburban job centers throughout the nation.  The development of job centers in suburban Southfield and Troy has effectively eviscerated Detroit, without adding to the economic strength of the region.  To make matters worse, at least for the city, suburban job centers have allowed suburban downtowns and commercial centers to emerge as walkable mixed-use districts (see Birmingham, Royal Oak and Ferndale) – further negating one advantage inner cities traditionally have over their suburban counterparts.
You know, on a personal level, this story does have a happy ending for James Robertson.  He’s no longer living in a dangerous environment.  He’s no longer commuting miles and miles by foot to a low-paying job.  He has a car.  He has a nice place in the suburbs.  I’m happy for him.  He has a demonstrably better life now than he did before that story came out some six weeks ago.
But did those people who ponied up their hard-earned money because of his story believe that his story was unique?  There are thousands of Detroiters working low-wage jobs in the suburbs because those are the only jobs available.  There are thousands of Detroiters who have public transit challenges because of the crazy regional transit system.  There are many Detroiters who can’t afford cars because of the high cost of auto insurance (Detroit has the highest auto insurance cost of any city in the nation).  And there are many Detroiters who are not working at all because 1) jobs pay too little to pay for 2) an inefficient transit system that 3) also can’t cover the cost of auto insurance.
Are people prepared to cough up $360,000 for every Detroiter walking in James Robertson’s shoes? 
Trust me, there are cheaper and more durable alternatives. 
If Detroit would simply go about the business of rebuilding a city, rather than running from it, then many of these issues would be addressed.  And by that I mean all of metro Detroit – city and suburbs. 
Sometimes it seems so much energy has been spent moving away from the city that, even when the opportunity presents itself to consider making changes that would make the city better, residents and policymakers simply can’t fathom any alternatives.  They’ve become too invested in the city’s decline to care about its rebirth.

There are people who honestly feel James Robertson’s story has a successful conclusion.  If so, then Detroit still has much further to fall before recapturing, if ever, any part of its former glory.

2 Responses to “Detroiters — Still Not Heeding the Lessons Before Them”

  1. Linnaeus

    Was just saying this to some friends who live in metro Detroit. What worked for Robertson isn't going to work for the region as a whole.



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