Friday, April 4, 2014


Grad school has eaten me alive, friends, thus the dearth of posts. But here we go... 

I grew up in the suburbs. You probably grew up in the suburbs. Almost everybody in all my classes grew up in the suburbs. The mainstream media is getting wind of the coming demise of the suburbs (hear the cheers of the urbanists!), but they're largely talking about the tumbleweed rolling along McMansion cul-de-sacs, so they're missing my biggest concerns.

Corn growing in the community garden near Claude Allison Park, Redford

I've written a lot about Redford Township, where I grew up. It's a pretty normal inner-ring, bedroom, demographically shifting and aging suburb. It has old infrastructure, few amenities or cultural assets, and a population mostly made up of older, white, middle-class hold-overs (e.g. my parents), and newer, black (and increasingly Latino) families with children, who are more likely to be renters. Its governing body no longer represents its population demographically. Many neighbors are wary of change and afraid of rising crime.

This is a very specific type of suburb that is in trouble. We can put it in a category with Dearborn, Garden City, some parts of Southfield and Westland, Madison Heights, Harper Woods, etc. These are the suburbs that desperately need our attention.

Detroit still needs attention, but don't ignore the suburbs

A non-profit leader from Southwest Detroit told me that Latino families are increasingly leaver the area for suburbs with cheap housing and somewhat better schools, police, and other services. The Southwest businesses are scrambling to replace them with upper-class white young folks, in order to maintain some sort of patronage. As young whites continue to flood into downtown, Midtown, New Center, Southwest, Corktown, and Woodbridge, it seems likely that more and more lower-to-middle class residents of Detroit will either be drawn to the inner-ring suburbs by quality of life factors, or pushed towards them by rising rents in the city.

There's nothing wrong with these groups heading to the suburbs. Everyone has a right to seek out safety and good education for their kids. But while Detroit takes in its neverending media attention and (much needed) philanthropic efforts, the older suburbs will increasingly shoulder the burden of poverty, without the infrastructure or the funding to address it properly. They are falling into an unnoticed crisis, because instead of supporting the families and individuals in poverty with better services and safety nets, we are simply shifting around the capital, and as Detroit and its hipsters rise, Redford and its rows of ranches are going to decline.

Redford neighborhood

Of course, people such as Myron Orfield have made this argument before, and I agree with the solution, admittedly wildly farfetched at this point, of regional tax-base sharing. In the meantime, though, can we just give the inner-ring some love? We need better social service organizations, grants focused on the fringe, and programs tackling racial tensions. We desperately need better public transit to serve the people living in places like Redford.

When my class group told my professor that we were going to do our project on a census tract on the border of Detroit in Redford, he seemed baffled. He couldn't understand why we would bother to study such a mundane place, and kept demanding justification. The other groups studying Boston and Detroit predictably did not receive such scrutiny. In the end, he made us state in our paper that we really only chose Redford because I used to live there.

View from the backyard

I know the suburbs are boring. I was there for eighteen years. But people live in them, and that means they are worth studying, worth improving, worth saving.

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