I can’t help but focus on the glut of coverage about the City of Detroit going bankrupt last week. The spin machine is in full swing as everyone all over the political spectrum has been using the extremely sad news to score cheap political points. I will attempt to weigh in without cheapening this unfortunate event. Above all though, I hope that we think about Detroit’s story in the context of our own communities.
For me, long-time Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut’s old mantra, “you can’t be a suburb of nothing,” comes to mind when thinking about my own city. In fact, 71.2% of Americans live in “Urbanized Areas” making the relationship between city and suburb highly relevant to the vast majority of us. The terms urbanized areas or Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), which includes a city and its suburbs, are far more relevant often times than the somewhat arbitrary municipal boundary lines of many major cities.
The Detroit MSA is still quite large with just under 4.3 million people and a far more accurate number when talking about the impact of Detroit’s decline beyond the 700,000 or so people who still live within the central city’s municipal boundaries. From 2000-2010, Detroit MSA lost over 150,000 people and saw poverty and crime jump significantly in suburban areas. If there is a rotten trunk, soon the rest of the tree will die. Certainly that’s what Mayor Hudnut was concerned about and is what is happening in Detroit now.
There is a shocking lack of concern many suburbanites express for the health of their central city. When asked about Detroit’s bankruptcy, Birmingham, MI resident Cindy Boudreau said: “We would rather stay in the suburbs… we’ve got all we want here.” (See the rest of the fascinating article on Detroit’s suburbs here) The larger point is the nature of cities is changing and although Ms. Bourdreau is comfortable in her suburban enclave, many suburbanites are struggling. According to the Brookings Institution and CBS News, “the number of poor people living in suburbs grew 67 percent between 2000 and 2011,” making the problem of inner-city Detroit not so distant for many affluent Americans.
The American city is one of the great triumphs and tragedies of the 20th Century. Yet in 2013 it seems we are at a turning point in urban America. I’ll be fascinated to see if the bankruptcy procedure in Detroit leads to a renewed effort to revive the city or if more will simply employ a futile hope that the problem will never touch them.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis.