Segregation and racial politics long the death knell for regionalism in Detroit area
“There are two parts in segregation”
The majority of resistance to regional policy has historically come from the suburbs, but the City of Detroit has also, at times, refused to cooperate with its neighbors, Sugrue said. While suburban resistance was primarily based on racial antagonism and the impression that the city was attempting to “steal” tax revenue, resistance in Detroit was based on the view that regional cooperation required the city to give up some measure of political power.
“When Coleman Young was elected, the perception was that now that an African American was mayor, the city could get about the business of rebuilding itself in furtherance of the needs and requirements of the majority of residents in Detroit,” said John Mogk, a professor of law at Wayne State University. “There was no reason to cooperate with the suburbs. It was just a matter of getting things done.”
Darden agreed, and pointed out that city officials have historically opposed every effort to create a system of regional governance in the Detroit metro area, believing that their political power would be diluted.
“For the first time, you had black representation of a black city,” he said. “People were not very interested in giving up some of their legislative and administrative power to a suburban entity where blacks would again be the minority.”
This attitude was typified by an op-ed by Detroit City Councilmember Erma Henderson printed in the Ann Arbor Sun in December of 1975. Henderson was writing in response to a proposed bill that had been introduced in the State Legislature to create a regional governance body to facilitate regional planning and coordination.
The bill, she wrote:
…would, in effect, set up a new layer of government for the residents of Detroit: a regional government with broad powers to make decisions on land and planning. It is a bill that you need to be informed about, because if you have ever had trouble ‘telling it to City Hall,’ how can your concerns be addressed in a government that would take in six counties and diminish the functions of city government?
Despite the fight for resources between the urban (city) and the suburban communities, by keeping our present governmental structure, we can bargain for our fair share through a position of relative strength in political power. This is what blacks, other minorities and poor people were able to attain in the city election in 1973.
According to Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, the mutual resistance to cooperation is typical of highly segregated regions. “There are always two partners in segregation,” he said. “In the case of Detroit, you have political leaders that view power as being more important than success.”
“No one saw how they might gain”
“In the suburbs, they were saying ‘I’m going to lose my money,’ and in the city, they were saying, ‘I’m going to lose my political power,’” Darden said. “No one saw how they might gain.”
In retrospect, Mogk said, it is clear that Detroit would have gained from the regional measures that its leaders either failed to advocate for or opposed. “If there’s anybody in the city who wouldn’t want to go back in time and put some kind of regional tax base sharing into place back then, they would be crazy,” he said. “There is no doubt that that would have benefited Detroit immensely.”
In the case of tax base sharing, that means that the suburbs would, indeed, have lost revenue, at least in the short-term. But according to Mogk, there is no reason to believe that the loss of revenue would have had a large effect. “It’s not as if these towns would have gone bankrupt,” he said. Because tax base sharing systems generally only pool revenue from new growth, it may have limited the rapid growth of some suburban towns, he said, but it would probably not have imposed much of a financial burden on the existing towns.
And according to Orfield, there is reason to believe that the suburbs might actually have gained from tax base sharing and other regional proposals.
A large body of academic literature, beginning in the mid-1970s, provides evidence that central cities and their suburbs are interdependent. In a landmark paper, University of Louisville professor H.V. Savitch found that changes in per capita income in cities tend to be mirrored to some degree in their suburbs. In another paper, Savitch found that those metropolitan areas with greater disparities between suburbs and central cities tend to have lower overall growth than metros with less disparity.
Orfield himself has conducted several more recent studies along similar lines. In one study, he found that metro areas where there exists a substantial amount of regional cooperation — such as the Minneapolis-St. Paul or Portland, Ore. — have consistently outperformed more fragmented metro areas — such as Detroit — in terms of both income growth and overall economic growth.