Politics and Prejudices: To make Detroit a place where middle-class families can make a rational choice to move, look at Southfield 

Tale of two cities

Well, the days of emergency management and bankruptcy are over. Detroit is back on somewhat shaky feet, shorn off a lot of debt, and with a plan to put more money into services.

But does the city really have a prayer of success? Yes, some young urban pioneers are moving there, and two or three developers are snapping up all the available land.

Yet how does Detroit hope to become a place where middle-class families can make a rational choice to move, live what passes for normal lives, and raise children?

Nobody talks a lot about that, but that really is the key to Detroit making it in any kind of long-term, meaningful way.

And there is a model of a successful city where most of the population is now black, but which has managed to stay middle class, weathered the Great Recession, and is growing again.

That place is Southfield, across Detroit's northern border. Southfield, ironically, first blossomed as a result of white flight and the freeways that helped empty the city.

Some urban experts date Detroit's downfall from 1954, when the Lodge Freeway opened, as did Northland, the nation's first huge open-air shopping center. Northland was right across the Oakland County line in what was then Southfield Township.

There may have been more farm animals than people in Southfield then, but that changed fast. Southfield incorporated as a city in 1958 and would soon have 70,000 people.

A forest of office towers sprung up in the 1970s that became a satellite downtown, surrounded by ranch houses and colonials. Southfield, unlike Detroit, never had much heavy manufacturing or huge, dirty factories. It was a middle-class, service industry town which was a magnet for young families.

Nearly all of them were white, at first. They were largely Jewish and professional. Southfield was less than 1 percent black in 1970, but that began to change. The growing black middle class began to push into Southfield.

African-Americans were 9 percent of the city's population in 1980; 29 percent a decade later. City officials hoped to keep the population roughly balanced, but were up against what has been the real American dilemma: Most white people don't want to live with black people. The African-American population hit 54 percent in 2000, and when that was announced, more whites skedaddled.

But not all. Brenda Lawrence, an African-American city councilwoman with a long history of involvement on the school board and in the community, ran for mayor in 2001, against Don Fracassi, who had held the job since 1972.

That was a curious campaign, where voting didn't always break along traditional lines. Some whites backed Lawrence, saying that Fracassi had been there too long and was too cozy with developers. But I talked to a number of black voters who did not want her to win. They had moved there because they wanted to live in a comfortable suburb, they told me.

"Any city that has a black mayor turns into a ghetto," one man told me, by which he meant a place of crime and blight.

Well, Lawrence won, and the city stayed middle class. Last week, I talked with her as she prepared to resign as mayor to take the seat in Congress she won last November.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to the city of Southfield, and they should," she said. "It is a middle-class, African-American majority city, but one with so much diversity."

Southfield's black population was 70 percent in the last census, and it may be higher now. But there is still a solid core of white residents loyal to the city. Some are Orthodox Jews reluctant to leave because they need to be where they can walk to their synagogues on the Sabbath.

Others are like Euni Rose, a bubbly, energetic widow who has lived in Southfield since she moved to Michigan in 1972.

"Southfield has embraced me in more ways than I can count," she says. "I will stay here till they drag me away."

She especially loves the city's gleaming new library, and, like other residents, praised the efficiency of the city's police.

Services, the mayor told me, are the key. She knows Southfield isn't Detroit, and that Motown faces staggering challenges, but she knew her city was facing a crisis when the Great Recession of 2008 hit and then lingered.

Tens of thousands of feet of office space became vacant. Southfield lost about 7,000 people — nearly a tenth of the population. Some homes were just abandoned in the dead of night. To their credit, city officials moved fast.

"We made sure residents knew they had a stake in this. We gave them the numbers and empowered them to call the city, day or night, and report suspicious activity," Lawrence said. Southfield hired flying squads of college students in a program she called "Two Kids and a Truck" to patrol the streets. If vacant properties needed lawns cut or windows repaired, they took care of them. If they were in foreclosure, they sent the bank the bill. Today, the economy is coming back.

There are still too many vacant storefronts along Southfield Road, but the towers are filling up again. A major new mixed-use retail and residential center is going up at 12 Mile and Southfield. Population and property values are again increasing.

"One other thing we've done is to make sure we had community policing. Our police are in the schools, in the neighborhoods. People know them," Lawrence said.

Most Southfield police officers are not black. "But when it comes to crime, we don't see black or white." Southfielders just see community vs. criminals, she told me.

Ironically, Fracassi, the man she defeated long ago, was the unanimous choice to replace her as mayor until a new election is held in November. Now almost 80, Fracassi seems to have lost none of his zest for the job.

Today, he is praising the city's diversity to work to fill more of the city's remaining vacant office space.

Southfield has its problems, many made worse by revenue-sharing cuts from the state but they seem to have found some ways to manage them that work. If I were Mike Duggan, I just might take Brenda Lawrence to lunch and pick her brains.

A Cheer and a Boo

Governor Rick Snyder unexpectedly did the right thing last week, by vetoing a nutty package of bills that would have allowed any juvenile of any age to bang away, unsupervised, with BB guns and air rifles.

Unfortunately, he seems to have done so only on a technicality, since part of the package didn't make it through both houses. The National Rifle Association really wants these bills, as part of their philosophy that no weapons should ever be regulated, anywhere, anytime. You can bet they'll be back.

However, Snyder did precisely the wrong thing in signing a bill that would "screen" welfare recipients and force any "suspicious" ones to undergo testing. If they test positive, they have to enter a treatment program or get kicked off welfare.

Experiences in other states indicate that such programs don't work and cost states more money than they save. They also unfairly stigmatize welfare recipients, who are no more likely to be on drugs than other members of the population.

Not to mention that a similar bill the legislature passed in 1999 was quickly ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts. But for some politicians, nothing is harder to pass up than a cheap and easy opportunity to beat up on poor folks on welfare.

Fortunately, this is only a one-year pilot program. Let's hope it expires before too many children go hungry after their parents' benefits are cut off.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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