The Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade marks one of the few times each year when suburbanites head downtown in large numbers. It’s not a particularly rare occurrence, but neither is it commonplace. Whether it’s because Detroit is too scary, too dead or too painful to look at, we suburban-folk just don’t make it downtown too often.

Jess Cox

We know the grim statistics: Detroit is the poorest and the second-most dangerous city in the country. Its population has fallen by half since 1950. With the state in tough economic times and the recent re-election of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, its future is uncertain.

Drive just a few miles outside Detroit’s city limits, and you’re in a completely different world. Some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods lie along the same streets that spiral out from Detroit’s downtown. To residents in the very white, very rich suburbs, Detroit is a problem, but it’s not their problem.

Take my hometown of Livonia, the “whitest city in America,” located just a few miles west of Detroit. According to its city motto, Livonia is “where people come first” – provided they’re city residents. Livonia is where angry residents came out this fall to protest the construction of a new Wal-Mart, some claiming it would bring in Detroit residents and therefore “ghettoize” the city.

Livonia lies only a few miles from Detroit’s city limits and up until now has been a part of the regional SMART bus transit system. Although ridership is growing and roughly 1,000 Detroit residents take the bus to Livonia each day, residents voted to pull out of the system this November. In the eyes of Livonia’s predominately conservative taxpayers, the SMART bus is inefficient and underused, and it is unfair to ask residents to shell out $2.7 million each year for a system that only 1 percent of the city’s population uses.

It’s not too surprising that Livonia’s own residents don’t use the buses very often while Detroit’s do. The median family income in Livonia is $72,010; in Detroit, it’s less than half that. Unlike 40 percent of SMART bus riders, most Livonia residents have cars. Those who don’t – primarily the handful of elderly residents with fixed incomes and failing eyesight – will be able to use a community transit system that operates solely within the city. So much for regional transportation.

As for improving the system, cutting off the offending bus system is certainly biblical but hardly practical. Should other communities decide they don’t want to pay for Detroit residents to take the bus to their city as well – Farmington Hills is currently debating it – the dismantling of the SMART bus system will likely be the long-term consequence of Livonia’s pullout.

But that’s not the only consequence. Once Livonia cuts its SMART funding, hundreds of Detroit residents will have to find new jobs, and several Livonia businesses will have to find new employees. That seems like a lot of work just so elderly Livonia residents don’t have to share a seat with black people.

It’s not just the buses, and it’s not just Livonia. It’s the same story every time Detroit needs the suburbs to chip in for something that affects the entire region. Detroit’s wealthy, predominantly white suburbs have proven they would prefer their only interaction with Detroit to be the occasional jaunt downtown for the auto show, a concert or a museum trip. But even that only holds so long as they don’t have to pay for it. In 2002, Wayne and Oakland county residents showed their commitment to the region – by voting down an arts millage to fund museums and cultural organizations in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. We can already see the effects. The Belle Isle Aquarium closed last April, and Kilpatrick last summer suggested to the city’s zoo and museums that they find private donors because the city could no longer subsidize them.

Regional cooperation can be burdensome and difficult. To local leaders, it means being considerate of needs of other communities. To residents like those in Livonia, it means continuing to pay an average $60 a year so Detroit residents can come to the city to ring you up at Home Depot. Those are pretty tough sacrifices.

Even half-empty, Detroit is hardly the scary wasteland my mom always warned me to avoid, for fear I’d be shot. She wasn’t alone; there is a tendency to exaggerate the amount danger and decay in Detroit and consider it as a lost cause – a problem for all those poor, black people to handle. Cutting off the bus system and letting Detroit pay for its own arts reflects this suburban isolationism, that if it has Detroit’s name on it, it’s only Detroit’s problem.

This isn’t a case of asking suburbs to kindly help out a struggling city that can’t make it on its own; it’s asking them to invest in the city that belongs to them too.


Beam can be reached at ebeam@umich.edu.

Podcast: To hear a discussion of this column, click here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *