Metropolis

The Democrats Are in Detroit. It’s Time for Them to Finally Talk About Cities.

Fox Theatre in Detroit with the marquee advertising the debates.
Near Fox Theatre in Detroit, where the debates will be held this week, there’s a new hockey arena and upscale retail. But just a few miles north, you see the places the revival has missed
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In September 2015, then–Vice President Joe Biden addressed the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to see Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. “The idea that we’re not going to do everything in our power to bring back, not just a great city, but an iconic city was unthinkable,” Biden said. The city had exited bankruptcy proceedings the previous winter but remained in some ways dysfunctional. Authorities had boasted, for example, of cutting 911 response times to 15 minutes from more than 30 a few years earlier. They did so by telling police to reduce the priority of responding to holdups or homicide reports. Still, optimism was in the air. “Detroit is like its people,” Biden went on. “It’s resilient.”

This week, along with 19 other Democrats, Biden is back in a Detroit that seems to bear out his words. The candidates will debate each other at the Fox Theatre (already a symbol of the city’s resilience), next door to a new hockey arena, alongside a new streetcar line. Walk a few blocks toward the river and you will find Lululemon and John Varvatos. H&M is on the way. It is easier to buy merch with slogans like “Detroit Hustles Harder” than toothpaste, illustrating the peculiar economy of downtown Detroit, but there’s no denying the remarkable transformation of the past decade.

Drive a couple miles north on Gratiot Avenue, however, and you see the places the revival has missed. There’s a shop called Graham’s Printing at Gratiot and Burns. The brick façade is sharply painted in orange and black, and three items get top billing: “Memorial Pictures,” “RIP T-shirts,” “Casket Panels.” The murder rate in Detroit remains one of the highest in the nation, as do the unemployment and the poverty rates. Detroiters will tell you there have been 10 square miles of recovery in a city that sprawls across more than 140. (Mayor Mike Duggan, who has presided over the resurgence and announced his support for Biden last week, did not respond to a request for comment.)

As American cities go, Detroit is an extreme case. But no one believes its problems are unique. In fact, some people here think that with its chic, consumer-oriented downtown, suffering semipermanent underclass, and enormous infrastructural burden (pipes, streets, homes, schools with a debilitating upkeep cost), the city may represent something closer to the future of the American city than its past. With the Democrats in town, vying for what may be crucial voters in a state Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 by 10,000 votes, Detroiters would like to know: What are the Dems going to do about it?

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With the party’s voter base increasingly aligned with the nation’s metro areas, there are signs this could be the election the Democratic Party finally turns its attention to America’s cities. Several candidates, for example, have rolled out housing plans to address the metropolitan affordability crisis. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a proposal for Washington to finance local land banks that would help residents reclaim abandoned properties. (Detroit has about 80,000 of those.) President Donald Trump, meanwhile, who turned his racist vitriol toward Baltimore this week, has evidently left the ball in Democrats’ court.

Whether the candidates will make more than a cursory mention of their host city is anyone’s guess. But there are some things locals would like to hear. Anika Goss, the executive director of the Detroit Future City think tank, which works on long-term strategic planning, pointed to some Detroit-specific challenges where she thinks federal policy could help: investment in small-business growth, workforce training to better prepare Detroiters for available jobs, and environmental remediation (she mentioned the city’s 2014 flooding, which caused $1 billion in damage to more than 100,000 properties). “There is no market-rate anything in Detroit,” she said. “Anything new has some level of subsidy, so the question is where does that come from?” (The city has used public financing to build the hockey arena, for example.)

To some extent, says Rayman Mohamed, the chairman of Wayne State University’s urban studies program, Detroit needs what most big U.S. cities need from Washington: criminal justice reform and money for public transit, lead abatement, and housing aid. The problems in Detroit are different in degree from peer cities but not in kind. Over the past half-century, the federal government has vastly reduced its role in all American cities. Some places have picked up the burden more effectively than others, but low-income urbanites have struggled across the nation. Housing in Detroit might seem cheap to outsiders, but for the median tenant household, the rent consumes 48 percent of income. It is exactly the kind of situation where the perennially underfunded Department of Housing and Urban Development is supposed to provide support, but doesn’t.

Or take public transit. Until the Woodward Avenue streetcar was completed in 2017, Detroit was the largest American metropolis with no fixed-guideway transit.* Many bus routes serve city or suburbs but not both, isolating Detroiters from regional job centers. Voters in the four-county Detroit area rejected a ballot referendum in 2016 to construct a regional transit system. This is not because everyone in Detroit drives a car and always has: In 1950, the city had the largest municipal streetcar network in the country. Now the region spends less on transit per capita than any of its peers, despite the city having the eighth-highest share of carless households.

That trickles into other policy arenas, says Mason Herson-Hord, an organizer with the Motor City Freedom Riders, a group that advocates for better transit. “Young people go farther than ever before to get to school [because of charters]. Kids show up late because the bus didn’t come,” he explained. “On the metro scale, we see a similar problem, where the failure to provide effective mass transit denies Detroiters access to the employment, education, and medical care that has shifted out to the suburbs in the past few decades.” Indeed, among major U.S. cities, Detroit has the worst job sprawl.

One precedent for an involved federal government is the Obama administration, which dispatched Gene Sperling to head up a Detroit task force and directed hundreds of millions of federal dollars into the city. (You can read more about the Obama administration’s efforts in a back-patting report it published in 2016.)

That the Obama administration’s loan of technical expertise appears to represent the apogee of federal interest in Detroit is a sign of the times. David Fasenfest, a sociologist and author of a recent book about the city, was critical of the administration’s response. “There was no urban policy under Obama. There is no urban policy, and there is no urban agenda,” he said. “Detroit of late has been called a renaissance city and has this cluster of high-tech jobs, but 85 percent of the city doesn’t have a good education, has been unemployed for generations, and is too poor to leave. I’d like to hear someone talking about what it would take to reinvigorate cities.”

There are some people dreaming bigger than tax credits and dedicated bus lanes. Various grassroots groups in Detroit, for example, have proposed making the city a centerpiece of the Green New Deal (an idea that has the support of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, whose district overlaps with the city). In addition to addressing the city’s infrastructural woes (lead, flooding, potholed roads), that proposal has a neat symmetry, since Detroit’s most famous export has done so much to melt the polar ice caps.

A more ambitious idea, proposed by the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America, is to create a Great Lakes Authority (modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority) to address issues like lead pipes, outdated infrastructure, and blight that are plaguing so-called legacy cities from Buffalo, New York, to Duluth, Minnesota.

Some of those issues are shared, national urban issues now. Others seem like Detroit problems now, Fasenfest suggested, but—like industrial flight—they will one day come for suburbs and newer cities too. Democrats may lately be consumed with winning over the suburban, Sun Belt voters who rushed into their column in 2018, but they shouldn’t forget Detroit. An Obama-level turnout here in 2016 would have won them the state of Michigan.

July 31, 2019: This sentence has been updated to clarify that Detroit was the largest American metro area with no fixed-guideway transit.