I lost a bet (again!) a few weeks ago when the Chicago White Sox beat the Chicago Cubs (again!) to clinch the season series. The stakes of that bet are being served right now as you read this. I had to change my tagline from my usual trite phrase to what you see there now. It’s not true at all. I loathe the Pale Hoes.

Louie Meizlish

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report on the state of city populations across the country. Surprise, surprise, Detroit has lost more people since 2000 than any other major city in the country. Motown, which exactly 50 years ago boasted a population near 2.3 million, is now home to 925,000.

Apparently the excitement generated by the 2006 Super Bowl, Compuware and riverfront developments, isn’t bringing permanent residents to the city. Or maybe they’re on their way. Maybe 925,000 is as low as the city will go. Hard to say. The point is, it’s 2003 and people are still abandoning the 20th century’s great cities.

Detroit was not the only loser. Cincinnati, St. Louis and Cleveland all lost sizable chunks of their populations. Even San Francisco – California’s St. Joseph to Oakland’s Benton Harbor – lost residents. Mostly, though, the hardest hit cities can be found in the Rust Belt and the Deep South, which means, of course, that the place to be these days is Gilbert, AZ.

Yup, Gilbert, AZ, which along with Nevada’s North Las Vegas and Henderson, rounded out the top three. I’ve never been to any of these cities, but I bet I know what they’re like: Orange County, West Bloomfield, wherever.

What does it all mean? Well, for one, it seems a lot of people are really into that dry heat thing. It also means that that most ubiquitous of dreams – the American one – has changed very little since post-WWII federal policy allowed it to become synonymous with cul de sacs and picket fences.

Accompanying this news are recently released unemployment figures that put the national rate at 6.4 percent. In cities like Detroit the unemployment rate is much higher – into double digits – further evidence that most of the jobs to be had are no longer in our crumbling center cities. The New York Times reported last week that blacks are being disproportionately affected by the latest layoffs.

So, the connection: As people continue to flood out of cities, they increasingly leave behind them the poorest blacks and failing infrastructure. And as they move farther out, they bring with them sprawling development and new, tax-funded infrastructure that very few people actually use. Jobs follow. New industry, business and residents further harm the environment.

Americans have followed this wasteful pattern for years now. And – no question about it – the suburbs have been the winners and cities the losers.

But it was not somehow foreordained that the suburbs would have better schools, less crime, more resources, et cetera. There is no Grand Blueprint that demarcates the good life from the bad life with interstates and Rustling Pines Estates signs. This pattern emerged from specific and deliberate decisions. And it will continue, sprawling and merely semi-conscionable, unless we directly attack it.

There are many, I suspect, who would argue passionately in defense of suburban life. But the issue here is not our own individual quality of life. It is the quality of life of the entire nation – all of us – and our children’s children, et al. I will stop short of saying living in the suburbs is selfish, but that thought should give us pause.

There are some positive signs, especially around Washington and a handful of Sunbelt cities, that Americans are slowly integrating themselves. But we should not hold our breath. Population trends are difficult to identify as they occur. Politicians, for example, often point to a burgeoning black middle class and increased black presence in the suburbs as evidence that America is belatedly moving along a natural course of integration.

But it is quickly becoming clear that those cities – without specific plans to uphold their newfound racial integrity – eventually reach a tipping point when enough black folks move there (often near 20 percent), and they rapidly become mostly black/minority enclaves.

This is not how we should desire to live. Everyone should be able to enjoy what suburbanites do. But in order for that to happen we have to make it so. Passivity will only lead us down roads we’ve already laid.


Honkala can be reached at jhonkala@umich.edu.

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