Let's talk about suburban decay.

One really interesting phenomenon I've seen as I've gone through the Rust Belt is that the blighted city neighborhoods are now extending into the first ring of suburbs, the types of places which were built and laid out during the wealthy years of the 1950s and 1960s.  We talk a lot about urban decay as a people and as a country, but not a whole lot about suburban decay.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, in some ways.  Most cities have name recognition, branding power, as marketers say.  New York = banks. Los Angeles = movies. Detroit = cars.  And when a big city runs into trouble, people turn heads.

OK, fine, but what does this have to do with failing suburbs?

But decaying suburbs don't have the pull of decaying cities.  Detroit's bankruptcy in the early 2000s was a national scandal.  (It did lead to one of the greatest commercials of all time, though.) But few people know or care about the travails of places like Highland Park, Michigan, which has collapsed every bit as much its larger, more famous neighbor.  Originally, Highland Park was designed to be a tony, exclusive streetcar suburb, and was the headquarters to Chrysler; it fell apart after World War II, under the weight of white flight to the suburbs.



Pre-World War II suburbs like Highland Park have infrastructure which is impossible to maintain, given the collapsed tax base.  This isn't a problem unique to pre-World War II suburbs.  In fact, post-World War II suburbs are even worse, because they put fewer people onto more land, meaning that there's a lot more physical infrastructure to maintain - roads, pipes, power poles, and so on.  

And there are a lot of these working-class, post-War suburbs out there, like Warren, Michigan, which came of age during the era of white flight from the urban core after World War II.  Between 1940 and 1970, Warren's population increased four times, from 42,000 to 179,000; since then, it's lost a quarter of its population.

Drive around Warren today, and you'll start seeing the opening signs of decay: vacant lots, poorly paved roads, chainlink fences surrounding suburban houses, pawnbrokers. There aren't many people willing to invest in Warren, so both the housing stock and the commercial space are aging rapidly.  

There's no good way out of this if you're a working-class Rust Belt suburb.

Richer suburbs, like Grosse Pointe, 25 minutes away, have enough wealth that they can maintain their existing infrastructure as is even with population loss.  Grosse Pointe has lost the same percentage of its population as Warren.

In non-Rust Belt regions, there's usually enough demand that working-class communities can just build their way out of the infrastructure problem.  Compare, e.g., Valdez Street in Oakland, CA in 2011...

...with the same view in 2022.



The repaved roads, the street trees, the new stoplights, bike racks, and sewer upgrades were all paid for by developers. But Metro Detroit just doesn't have that kind of demand.  It's far more lucrative to build downtown, in wealthy suburbs, or at the urban periphery.

So what is there to do, then, for communities like Warren?

The first step is to realize that you have a problem, and to have a serious discussion within the community as to just what the city's long-term trajectory is.  It's going to require hard choices.  Youngstown, Ohio, of similar size to Warren, got to the problem late, and ended up having to engage in large-scale planned shrinkage.

Second, the community needs to identify just what Warren's strengths are.  Notably for a Rust Belt suburb, there are plenty of jobs.  The enormous General Motors Technical Center is located there, as is the U.S. Army's Detroit Arsenal, and Fiat Chrysler's Warren Truck Assembly plant.

Third, it requires a hard look at what would bring someone to Warren, specifically, as opposed to any of the other places a family living in Metro-Detroit would want to go.  And if the answer is, "nothing in particular," that's your answer right there.


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