Speaking to about 50 people at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work Tuesday night, Kildee and Gallagher discussed civic revitalization efforts in a lecture, titled “How Place Matters: Perspectives on the Future of Urban Development in Detroit and Flint.” The talk focused on “shrinking cities,” metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest that were once industrial hubs but now suffer from population loss and economic decline.
“In the Michigan of the past, you turn 18, you walk down the street to the factory and you have a job for life,” Gallagher said. “That’s been gone for a long time. There’s no one solution like there used to be, where the automotive industry solves all our problems. Now you need better education, better public transit, better policy.”
Kildee, a Flint native who represents Michigan’s 5th congressional district, recently founded The Future of America’s Cities and Towns, an initiative aimed at tackling issues facing older, industrial communities. He said it will call for a national strategy to address those issues.
“When I first got to Congress, I thought if I really worked hard, I would get maybe to be one of the many voices working on behalf of cities,” he said. “I got there and I realized I was at the front of the line. It really was not a subject that was being discussed much. That’s part of the problem generally.”
Flint used to be known as the birthplace of General Motors, and boomed into a company town where nearly everyone was in some way connected to the automotive industry. In its heyday, Flint was known as a hub for secure, good paying jobs.
But after General Motors moved plants and jobs overseas, the city’s tax base fell. Many blame GM for the city’s poverty — poverty that has opened the doors to issues like the Flint water crisis. Kildee said Flint is now forced to act as though it is bankrupt.
Nearly three years after lead contamination was discovered in Flint’s water supply in 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would award a $100 million emergency grant to the state to fund infrastructure repairs. When Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013, philanthropic donations saved the city-owned art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts while a $195 million legislative package from Lansing helped minimize pension cuts for retirees. Kildee believes state and federal government should play a more proactive role when it comes to maintaining shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.
“Flint is the ultimate case study,” Kildee said. “Here’s a frightening thought: there are dozens — if not more — cities that are one mistake, one miscalculation, one error away from going to the same place Flint was in with the water crisis. They’re just barely hanging on. We can’t let those places get there.”
Kildee and Gallagher emphasized the importance of public policy in ensuring a successful future for aging industrial centers.
“The narrative that you hear that cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Leipzig and Turin are coming back, that is to some extent true, but we are in the very early stages of this,” Gallagher said. “We need to provide some better political balance, so that cities are not left out on their own.”
Gallagher pointed to limited public services, an increasingly poor population and holes in the social safety net as symptoms of Detroit and Flint’s difficulties coping with the boom and bust of the automotive industry. He also acknowledged the value of community development groups like Midtown Detroit Inc. and the Southwest Detroit Business Association, with the stipulation that these organizations need more help from city hall.
Gallagher also discussed Detroit’s downtown area. While it is currently being lauded for its recent growth, the downtown area alone doesn’t paint a full economic picture. He said in reality, there are two different Detroits.
“Downtown is doing great and the neighborhoods are doing terribly,” Gallagher said. “There are still two-thirds of the city who are still awaiting any kind of good stuff.”
These portions of the city require major help, and luckily, he said through community development groups and philanthropy, some of this help is being offered. From the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Eastern Market to the Cobo Center, he said taking things from the city government’s hands and into the hands of non-profit management.
“I think philanthropy has played a huge role in Detroit … Entrepreneurship is beginning to play a role.”
But for all of the help being offered, Gallagher said an eye must be kept on gentrification. While modernization and aesthetics have been important to the growth of the downtown area, he said policymakers must be wary of kicking out the citizens who have “stuck it out” through economic hardship. He said the best way to do this is through inclusion of affordable housing.
“In the large scope, we really hope for new interest in investment … But we need to work against that new investment pushing out the people who were left behind and who tend to be more poor.”
When Kildee served as Genesee County Treasurer, he helped establish Michigan’s first land bank, a public authority for acquiring and repurposing vacant and distressed properties. He said the consequences of such dilapidation hit the people who live there hardest.
“It’s not just about the aesthetic of the community kids grow up in,” Kildee said. “Their lives are forever changed growing up in a poor place like that, and that’s a result of policy choices that we’ve made. This idea that somehow it’s OK that there’s 50 American cities that have lost half of their population in the last few decades and are really struggling to just stay above water, that that’s OK is a morally bankrupt thought.”
The School of Social Work’s Learning Community on Poverty and Inequality presented the talk, which also constituted the first class session of the minicourse Poverty and Place: Case Studies of Detroit and Flint. Social Work student Lindsay Hall, who was in the audience, noted that intersecting factors like location, available resources and demographics can influence urban development, but said funding is particularly important.
“Ultimately it really goes back to the money, where the money is and who the money goes to,” she said. “Public policy really defines those terms. Policies that pay attention to the nuances of a city and level the playing field for cities like Flint and Detroit and put them on an even starting block with the more affluent suburbs can make a real difference.”
Erica Davenport, who works in a southwest Detroit school and also attended the talk, said though she’s only lived in Detroit for a year, she has amounted large frustrations towards the way money is allocated. Still, she said Kildee’s knowledge gave her important perspective.
“I get pretty skeptical about things,” Davenport said. “His perspective from Flint gave behind the scenes reality to how we can make change in schools.”
Throughout the talk, Kildee repeatedly highlighted the imperative to maintain older metropolitan communities.
“Cities matter,” Kildee said. “Cities are more important. Creativity, innovation and ingenuity happen where people live and work in proximity to one another. One of the essential functions of government is to sustain those places in the ebb and flow of economic changes because we know those places are going to be important to us again. Right now we don’t believe that. These are throw away places.”