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Detroit's Uneasy Relations With Michigan


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

Since the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on July 18th, many economists and political leaders have stepped forward to warn that other cities could soon follow. According to court the Pew Research Center, 61 of our nation's biggest cities have $217 billion in pension and health care liabilities. And they don't have the funds to pay for them. But while Detroit is like its sister cities in many ways, there is one attribute that seems to be unique to the Motor City, and that's an uncomfortable and sometimes adversarial relationship with the rest of the state.

Reynolds Farley is Professor emeritus of sociology and population studies at the University of Michigan. He joins me from Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Welcome.

REYNOLDS FARLEY: Thank you very much, Celeste. I'm pleased to be here.

HEADLEE: I'm sure you've been following all the different debates about what has gone wrong in Detroit. What are they missing from this puzzle?

FARLEY: I think they're missing the structure of government in the State of Michigan, and the way in which our governmental system has contributed to the travails of the city of Detroit. In other words, the state legislature back in 1911 established a home rule system for the state of Michigan; meaning that each municipality is responsible for its own taxes and responsible for its own city services.

Detroit is surrounded by about 136 municipal governments in the three county area, each of them with incentives to boost their own economy and very few incentives to cooperate on metropolitan-wide problems, such as economic development, environmental issues or transportation. That is a serious problem that a number of cities face.

However in Detroit, the long history of racial antagonism combined with demographic trends to produce a situation by the 1980s in which the city had an overwhelmingly black population and the suburban ring had a very small white population, and a system of government in which there are no reasons, no promotion of city-suburban cooperation to rectify the many problems of the area.

HEADLEE: When did this happen? I mean at one point, Detroit was called the Paris of the West. At what point did Detroit kind of become the punching bag of the state?

FARLEY: I think it the punching bag of the state well after World War II for two primary reasons. One, was the exodus of population from the city to the suburbs. So Detroit voters really dominated the state's politics and made a huge impact on national politics up through the 1960s. But as the population of the city of Detroit, primarily the white population shifted to the suburbs, the suburban ring had the demographic clout to be very influential in state politics. And the city's clout disappeared at the same time and then Detroit became a very poor city as a more prosperous population left.

And at the current time, the exodus of middle-class blacks - from the city of Detroit to the suburban ring - very much resembles what happened to the white population in the '60s and '70s; an exodus of the more capable, more financially secure population to suburban areas where city services are viewed as more desirable.

HEADLEE: So you're talking about things which are very unique to not only the state of Michigan but the city of Detroit. Does that mean this kind of bankruptcy probably wouldn't happen in another city? Is this all individual to the Motor City?

FARLEY: There are, I think, two things about the motor city that make it different for the most other cities. One, is Detroit's economic base - its job structure in 1950 - was overwhelmingly in the automobile industry and firms related to the automobile industry, including the railroads. Cleveland, Chicago had somewhat more diverse economies. It's not that the automobile industry has left Detroit - it certainly has not. But labor productivity means that a hundred men and women in auto shops can be as productive as perhaps 260 men and women were just 30 years ago.

And then the very, very clear city-suburban divide with regard to race. This long history of the racial divide and animosity is associated with it, does distinguish Detroit from many of the other cities that are facing fairly similar economic problems.

HEADLEE: Reynolds Farley, author of "Detroit Divided" and Professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, thank you so much.

FARLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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