Detroit Saved

In trying to figure out what went wrong in the Motor City, we reveal how little we know about cities and what makes them successful.
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A view of Detroit from Belle Isle Park. (PHOTO: MIKE RUSSELL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A view of Detroit from Belle Isle Park. (PHOTO: MIKE RUSSELL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

One hundred forty million dollars for three miles of streetcar won't save financially strapped Detroit. As the postmortems continue to stream in, urban fix-it gurus show off silver bullets. Detroit could be Chicago:

Chicago is also a city of immigrants: The foreign-born make up 21 percent of the city’s population, and 35.5 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Immigrants revitalized neighborhoods, not just in Chicago but also in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other urban centers. “The broader leadership of Chicago was global before global was cool, while Detroit was much more insular,” says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Adds Robert Sampson, social sciences professor at Harvard University: “Chicago has seen a healthy influx of immigrants for a long time. Detroit is a more home-grown town.”

Emphasis added. Indeed, Detroit is a former immigrant gateway. Chicago is a continuous one. But in suburban Detroit, the foreign-born legacy is apparent. Detroit is more of home-grown town in terms of domestic migration. Anyone who wants to be someone moves to Chicago:

The North Side of Chicago is such a refuge for young economic migrants from my home state that its nickname is “Michago.” In 2000, a quarter of Michigan State University graduates left the state. By 2010, half were leaving, and the city with the most recent graduates was not East Lansing or Detroit but Chicago. Michigan’s universities once educated auto executives, engineers, and governors. Now their main purpose is giving Michigan’s brightest young people the credentials they need to get the hell out of the state.

In South Chicago, where young cosmopolites fear to tread, you can find a home-grown town struggling like Detroit. The immigrant gateway doesn't seem to make much of a difference there. The above article also mentions Pittsburgh as a possible fix for Detroit. That revitalization tale doesn't have the foreign-born numbers to back it up.

Immigrant gateways such as Chicago do enjoy a population boost that gloss over horrendous domestic migration numbers. Using IRS data for 1996-2010, Chicago has lost twice as many people as Detroit to relocation. On net, more than 5,000 people left Detroit for Flint, Michigan, than moved to Chicago. That piece of demographic trivia surprised me, too. Does Flint already have a cool streetcar? Watch out, Portland.

In trying to figure out what went wrong in Detroit, we reveal how little we know about cities and what makes them successful. Chicago is dense with world class urban amenities and public transportation. It's also a perennial vote with your feet loser that makes Detroit look good by comparison.

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