Since it emerged from the largest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in late 2014, Detroit has become the national poster child for a once proud industrial city and cultural center very much on the rebound.
The one-time motor capital of the world and birthplace of the legendary Motown sound gradually climbed back from a financial, economic and social abyss and began to methodically reinvent itself as an edgy urban center of business, research and innovation.
City leaders and residents were spurred on by a unique public, private and philanthropic coalition determined to return a city severely scarred by past riots, white flight, soaring crime and pathetic public schools to its past glory.
Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans and an unmatched patron of the Motor City’s revival, acquired or took out leases on 60 or more properties in the downtown area, including the iconic Hudson’s department store, as The Fiscal Times reported a year ago. Many of his acquisitions are 20th-century architectural masterpieces that have been turned into offices, businesses and trendy restaurants. Gilbert also underwrote Rocket Fiber, the high-speed Internet service launched in January that analysts and business experts say could help downtown businesses compete on a national level for customers and employees.
Those who visit or live in downtown Detroit rave about a vibrant restaurant, theater and nightlife scene, a fast growing artists and craftsmen community, construction of a new light rail line and a new hockey and basketball arena to complement the Ford Field and Comerica Park football and baseball stadiums. Young people with an urban pioneering spirit have flocked to Detroit from other parts of the country to take part in the revival.
And almost like frosting on the cake, the long-suffering Detroit Lions were in first place in their National Football League division heading into the Thanksgiving Day holiday, and are pressing for a rare appearance in the post-season playoffs.
But just in time to spoil the city’s holiday spirit, researchers at Michigan State University in Lansing have released a report dismissing much of Detroit’s vaunted recovery as a mirage that obscures the continued widespread blight, poverty and misery in the sprawling town. Laura Reese, a professor of political science and director of MSU’s Global Urban Studies Program, said in the report that coffee shops and stores that have sprung up along Woodward Avenue – the city’s main drag – do little to address the lack of jobs, quality education and job skills.
Reese’s study, which was published online in the journal Cities, has the cheeky title: "'It's safe to come, we've got lattes': Development disparities in Detroit." The report documents one of the worst-kept secrets– that the preponderance of new development is concentrated in a roughly seven-mile square area of downtown and Midtown Detroit.
That area is a gleaming diamond in the rough, and stands in sharp contrast with the remaining 95 percent of the city, where “decay continues to dominate the post-apocalyptic neighborhood landscape,” Reese writes.
The study examines a troubling array of factors that help to explain why Detroit – with a majority black and economically impoverished population -- is still many years away from a meaningful recovery. For instance, the poverty level surged from 33 percent in 2009 to 40 percent in 2014. That means that roughly 300,000 Detroiters are trapped in poverty today – the highest level of the 25 largest cities in the country.
With many factories long gone or shuttered, Detroit saw its unemployment rate rise from 25 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2013 before gradually falling to 11.1 percent this fall – but still more than double the 4.9 percent national average.
Law enforcement and public safety continue to be huge problems. Homicides and other serious crimes are concentrated in neighborhoods well outside the glittery downtown area. The public schools have been troubled by teacher strikes and other labor unrest and are among the worst in the country.
In 2015, for instance, only one percent of fourth-graders in the public schools scored as proficient or advanced in science, while just eight percent scored at an acceptable level in math and 12 percent in English, according to the report.
Even after surviving bankruptcy, the loss of jobs and population has seriously harmed the city’s finances. What’s more, property tax delinquencies reached a high of 47 percent of all parcels in recent years, with uncollected taxes topping an estimated $131 million, according to the report.
It’s not as if Mayor Mike Duggan and other city leader haven’t tried to do more for residents outside the Midtown and downtown areas. Despite perpetual financial challenges, Detroit has made some progress in improving public safety, installing new street lights, modestly improving public transportation and demolishing abandoned and blighted buildings.
One of the biggest problems is trying to address the sheer scale of the problem. Detroit is a big, sprawling city, with more than 138 square miles within its borders and roughly a third of that marred by blighted or abandoned buildings. It is virtually impossible for city officials and utility companies to provide adequate public services and police protection to a population of 677,000 residing in many far-flung neighborhoods.
While many of these efforts need to be continued, Reese said, they do not address the core issues of poverty, substandard education and lack of job training and opportunities.
“Without a major commitment to improving education and job skills throughout Detroit, the gap between the city core and neighborhoods will continue to grow," Reese wrote. "While the availability of lattes may be a sign that Midtown is moving toward the best of times, these are instead the worst of times for most Detroit neighborhoods."