Is Detroit becoming a suburb?
That's the question at the heart of this provocative piece in the Detroit News, written by Karen Dumas, former press secretary for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. She writes:
On one hand, you see a "new" Detroit. Young, white, educated and employed are the characteristics of those who are taking a chance on the city.
They stand in stark contrast to native Detroiters — most of whom are African-Americans and many who are undereducated and unemployed — who have stayed and stuck it out over the years, through challenge and controversy. The native Detroiters, tired of the struggle and lack of change, see problems, while the new Detroiters — armed with energy and excitement — see possibilities.
There are also lifestyle changes: Bike lanes and racks at bus stops; community gardens on main thoroughfares, and pedestrians walking, running, skateboarding or pushing baby strollers well after dusk are becoming common sights. Sidewalk cafes are the red carpets to welcome new residential developments and a Whole Foods, the ultimate suburban stamp.
Urban assets — from abandoned buildings to graffiti laden walls — breed inquisitiveness and intrigue among the new Detroiters, while the same are seen as eyesores or urban decay by those who have lived in its midst and watched the city decline over the years.
It's not just a Detroit issue. These are some of the big question facing virtually all cities as they become more sought after places to live and work, attracting newer, more skilled and affluent people.
The old distinctions between "city" and "suburb" do seem to be blurring. Urban neighborhoods are improving safety, upgrading schools, adding parks and bike lanes to their existing urban fabric, while suburban ones are adding density, walkability and mixed-use districts to their existing safe streets and good schools.
This was driven home to me at a recent dinner in Toronto, where my presence spurred a heated exchange between two couples from greater New York — one from "suburban" Fairfield County, the other from an "urban" neighborhood in the city — on which was the better place to live. As they made their impassioned cases, I began to realize that despite some obvious physical differences in terms of density, building heights, and car use, the broader way of life they experienced in these two once very different communities had become increasingly similar. They shopped at similar stores, ate in similar restaurants, wore similar clothes, enjoyed similar amenities, even sent their kids to similar schools.
The socio-economic distance between Detroit's urban neighborhoods and its suburbs is certainly more pronounced. But, interestingly enough, research by Brookings scholar and Atlantic Cities contributor Chris Leinberger finds that some of the very best examples of walkable suburbs — communities like Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham — are located in metro Detroit, or just outside it, like Ann Arbor. This new breed of "urban-burbs" have mixed-used downtowns with abundant restaurants, shops, green spaces and parks, and movie theaters.
The old labels of "urban" and "suburban" no longer seem to capture the distinctions they once did. The most sought after neighborhoods of both types - in Detroit and elsewhere across the country - not only look and feel eerily similar, they are home to the same types of people.
As our population has sorted by skill, eduction and affluence, a new geography of class has emerged, one which we are still struggling to understand and to name.