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Detroit City Limits

Jay Walljasper / Aug 12 2010

For Release Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jay WalljasperAs the son of a geography teacher, who spent endless hours of my youth poring over maps, I’ve always been fascinated with border lines. As a kid I imagined that crossing from, say, Nevada into California, would offer an immediate change of scenery from desert to Redwood trees.

I later discovered that off the map, the world is not so dramatic. At least that’s what I thought until recently when I visited Detroit with a team of seasoned urban observers from the Citistates Group. We were meeting with the Kresge Foundation about its ambitious plans for revitalizing the city, and two Kresge program officers — Wendy Jackson and Benjamin Kennedy — graciously offered to give us a tour. Despite big hopes for the Detroit, the two of them — who both live right in the city — did not spare us the sight of utterly devastated neighborhoods where most of the houses and people are long gone.

Stretches of Detroit look like an urban ghost town, with only two or three houses remaining on a block. But we also saw neighborhoods alive with people and well-kept businesses or homes: downtown, the midtown area around Wayne State University, the Indian Village historic district, Northwest Detroit, Lafayette Park and others.

What really astonished us was the city line between Detroit and the adjoining town of Grosse Pointe Park, where America’s poster child for urban decline runs directly up against a suburb whose name has long been synonymous with wealth.

Along Kercheval Street, as you approach from the Detroit side, the last structure is a St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop that collects cast-off household goods and clothes for poor families. It’s reminiscent of so many of the streets of today’s Detroit, gap-toothed scenes with rundown remnants of elegant homes and apartment buildings looking marooned in a tide of vacant lots.

But there’s the line — not to be missed, as the sidewalk turns from scruffy concrete to picturesque brick, accompanied by a soothing row of locust trees. And cheek-by-jowl with the thrift store, the Grosse Pointe side offers an antiquarian bookshop that looks straight out of London with displays of leather-bound classics in its windows

This kind of city-suburban divide raises disturbing questions, not only about urban decline but also about our shrinking sense of the common good. Through years of travel, the only comparable experience was crossing from East to West Berlin in the days before Germany reunited. But the Detroit-Grosse Pointe boundary poses an even more stark contrast between deprivation and prosperity — all within the boundaries of the same nation.

One wonders how much longer one would wait for an ambulance or police car to answer a 911 call in Detroit. What are the schools like in suburban Grosse Pointe compared to the city? Matters of life and death, your children’s hope for the future or their despair, can depend upon on which side of the line you live.

A society dedicated to the common good — to the ideal of the commons — would not accept such disparities with a simple shrug. The whole region would share public services and social responsibilities. No community would be allowed to sink so deep into devastation — no matter how profound its problems.

In Copenhagen, for instance, the wealthy northern suburbs long supported revitalization efforts in the inner city through tax revenues. Now that the central city is thriving — a remarkable comeback that’s being emulated in other metropolitan regions around the world — it’s now urban dwellers’ turn to help revive the region’s poorer suburbs.

Even in the U.S., this kind of tax sharing goes on across city lines. In the Twin Cities, each of the 180 local municipalities contributes a portion of its commercial-industrial property tax revenues — 37 percent on average across the region, amounting to $424 million this year. The fund are then apportioned to communities on the basis of financial need. The center cities and lower income suburbs in Twin Cities region draw on these funds to bolster schools and public services, which explains why you don’t see any shocking differences passing from a blue-collar community to an upscale one.

These kind of policies acknowledge the obvious fact that a metropolitan area is a single organism — and municipal boundaries are mere abstractions, arbitrary lines sketched on a piece of paper. But in the current anti-tax, anti-commons political climate, when the idea of the common good can’t be heard above the shouting, regionalist policies like those found in Copenhagen or even the Twin Cities are not going to be enacted any time soon. That’s where the Kresge Foundation comes in.

Kresge, based in suburban Troy, along with a number of other foundations in the Detroit region and around the country, is dedicated to helping revive the city through an initiative called Re-imagining Detroit 2020. The ambitious goals include improvements for public schools, major sustainability initiatives, cultural programs, a light rail line along the city’s spine (Woodward Avenue), and local business development. The thrust of this effort is the conviction that Detroit is not a basket case, even if it has sometimes suffered corrupt and inept political leadership. It’s still vital community, even if it is caught up in a complicated tangle of economic disinvestment, racial mistrust, crime concerns and overdependence on automobiles.

And it’s important to note that inner-city residents will not be the only beneficiaries if Re-imagining Detroit’s plans bear fruit. No metropolitan area can thrive with a withering city at its core. Even before the near-collapse of the auto industry in 2008, the Detroit area — studded with wealthy suburbs that are worlds apart from the problems of the inner city — was not keeping pace economically with other regions where the central cities were prospering.

On two recent visits I’ve seen evidence that Detroit’s famously feisty residents have not given up on their hometown. Some neighborhoods show signs of reversing urban blight, largely through the indomitable spirit of entrepreneurs and grassroots organizations — sources of positive energy that Kresge and other foundations want to join forces with to revive the city.

I see credible signs of hope that some day in the not-too-distant future strolling from Detroit into Grosse Pointe Park will be no more eventful than traveling from Kansas to Nebraska.

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and the forthcoming All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is an associate of the Citistates Group, Contributing Editor of National Geographic Traveler and Fellow of On The Commons. This is expanded from a blog for His website: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted August 12, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mr. Walljasper, I enjoyed reading your article, but what you may not be aware of is that, these city blocks in Detroit on Mack to Grosse Pointe have existed for decades. The Far East Side project has been trying to remedy this situation, but because of our racial divide history, it has been a difficult struggle. I just completed my masters in urban planning and have been a member of the Places to Invest Advisory Council for the past year. I have tried on numerous occasions to get people from Detroit interested in this venture to no avail. Let’s hope things will change with your organization.

    Thank You,Robin West Smith, MUP, PMP
    Certified Project Manager, Trainer & Speaker
    Member of the Professional Woman Network International Advisory Board (2010)
    Member of the Resolution Fund Advisory Council for the Places To Invest Initiaitve

  2. David Cohen
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Jay Wallsjasper’s article gives me a lift. I used to return from work in Detroit and tell my wife I left East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was getting on the plane to leave.

    The article stimulated a thought which may be redundant to your constructive writers and readers. Here it is: Develop a Common Good Index (CGI) for US Metropolitan areas on education, health, transportation, land use, personal security. I leave the details to your team.

    The discussion CGI would produce would surely be useful We could compare other cities including some in other continents that overwhelm those who are new to them.
    What prompts this is my own experience with the value of the Human Development Index (HDI). It has a useful influence on political and policy discussion in countries I have worked in. Attempts to broaden the discussion to US states and cities has begun. That’s all to the good. Much more is needed.

    A Common Good Index is also needed.

  3. Diana Sieger
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I grew up in Grosse Pointe which isn’t something I talk about too often. It’s not that I’m ashamed but sometimes it is difficult. A friend forwarded this article to me and as painful as it is to share, it does say something about the brave journey the the foundations in the metro Detroit area are doing to address the issues facing Detroit. I’ve seen the shockingly horrific border between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit. It is indeed sobering and painful. The border – the chasm – the despair can be addressed. Detroit isn’t the only city where the dramatic divide can be seen but it is my hometown and is much more personal to me. Class differences, racism, everything needs to be on the table. Thank you for this article and pointing to other examples that can be a beacon. The last paragraph is especially poignant: “I see credible signs of hope that some day in the not-too-distant future strolling from Detroit into Grosse Pointe Park will be no more eventful than traveling from Kansas to Nebraska.”

  4. Stewart Sarkozy
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Mr. Walljasper’s observations ring true for anyone who has driven back and forth across those sometimes very visible borders. Grosse Pointe and Detroit are stark in their division and visuals, some of which Mr. Walljasper touches upon. More important are the invisible divisions and borders for people, families and communities that are often go well beyond access to education, police, health and so much that many (even struggling) cities and communities take for granted. I grew up crossing those borders quite often in the Detroit area, having been born and raised in Dearborn, with roots in Detroit, another version of the dividing line, with its own unique aspects, too long for discussion here. But each surrounding/border community to Detroit had (and often still have) those unique interplays and that is why the “revisioning” of Detroit is not just a discussion of Detroit itself. I remember my trips (some very recent) across those lines, taking many pictures, making many observations as I followed invisible paths back to where my grandfather and his family from Hungary settled in Delray/Detroit, a place now full of skeletal houses, shuttered and moth-balled Hungarian churches, lying in the shadows of Henry Ford’s giant capitalist venture, but still with a willingness to survive. And my story is just one of so many as Detroit and all the surrounding areas have transformed to what we experience today. I happen to work in community development, so my thoughts and experiences touch upon Detroit and other places of transformation in the country. But it is a special place for me and so many others – a place that should not have such visible borders.

  5. Neal Peirce
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Received from Diana Sieger :

    I just posted this on Facebook re: the article on Detroit. I just saw the request to forward this information to this email address. I hope I did this correctly re: attribution to your article. Thank you, Diana Sieger

    I grew up in Grosse Pointe which isn’t something I talk about too often. It’s not that I’m ashamed but sometimes I am. John Logie forwarded this article to me & as painful as it is to share, it does say something the brave journey the S.E. MI foundations are undertaking to address the issues facing Detroit. I’ve seen the shockingly horrific border between GP & Detroit-SOBERING & painful.

  6. Posted August 15, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Michigan’s Twin Cities of Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph, on the West side of the state, have overcome divisions through shared future tax revenue agreements. Benton Township participates removing municiple seperations and the lines that divide us. A Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is the key ingredient developed through non-profit status awarded to a corporate redevelopment company formed by Whirlpool Corporation. The transformation of this community began in the 70’s with the Home Improvement Act 293 of 1976. It’s also the law in Detroit and is a platform to be utilized there, as well. It takes a long time to raise a village, especially when you have to do it over. We have the tools in Michigan. It’s old law and works.

  7. stuart Mcdill
    Posted August 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    For a totally different slant on Michigan read “What happened to Michigan” by Mason Gaffney.

    Posted August 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I lived in the city limits of Detroit for half a year (southwest Detroit) in 1995. Coming from a relatively rural area of the west coast it was a shock to say the least. The corporate limits between Detroit and Dearborn run right through the middle of a park. The corporate limits were visible to the eye by looking at the Dearborn park (freshly mowed, modern playstructures, kids playing organized sports) and the Detroit park (overgrown grass, trash, rustly play structures and empty).

  9. Posted August 16, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Great article and good follow up comments, especially the idea about a “CGI”. It is necessary to measure carefully from what is being “taken” from Gross Pointe and “given” to Detroit, because there is a tipping point, where Gross Pointe could become more like current Detroit rather than the desired outcome of Detroit becoming like current Gross Pointe. A CGI or similar index could measure the success of the policy in terms other than transfer payments from one jurisdiction to the other.
    Also, there is a long history of municipal corruption in Detroit that has, in great part, created the conditions we presently see. Sadly, even the most enlightened policies will fall short if administered in a corrupt manner. I recommend a great book “Devil’s Night” written by Detroit city local that observed the city fall apart around him.

  10. Posted August 17, 2010 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for this excellent article. One of my best friends lives in Grosse Pointe Woods; through that friendship and visiting the area I can say that both the problems and promise mentioned here ring very true with me.

    FYI my photo albums of Detroit and the area:

    “Ann Arbor and the Grosse Pointes”

    “Cranbrook/Saarinen House & MOCAD”

    “Detroit Institute of Art”

  11. Wendy Rosch
    Posted August 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I have three problems with this commentary…
    (1) You seem to assume that Grosse Pointers don’t care, or are blind to the problems of Detroit because their community is well-maintained. As a Grosse Pointer, I say just the opposite is true. In a metro area where many people try to move far from the city border so they don’t have to think about its problems, Grosse Pointers choose to live nearby because of their deep passion and love for the city. Indeed, from what I’ve been told, Grosse Pointers make up the vast majority of contributors to major charities in the city. We love it, and we refuse to give up on it and move to places like Troy, Northville, Birmingham precisely because of that commitment. Instead of chastizing those who chose to stay close, we should be encouraging more people to move closer to the city in order to gain a vested interest in its outcome.

    (2) The idea that we should focus on Detroit as a commons is already a deeply held belief in Grosse Pointers minds. In fact, I often argue this exact point whenever I hear of any investment in the outside suburbs. But Grosse Pointers cannot act alone. This can only work if all of metro Detroit contributed. Otherwise, Being an outsider to this area, your focus on Grosse Pointe ignores a much bigger impediment to change in this area–the expansion of Oakland County. It is Oakland County that poached most of the businesses, funds, and wealth years ago. Grosse Pointe is one of the few exceptions that remain connected and committed to the city. Until it, and the other outer suburbs agree, Grosse Pointe’s commitment is a drop in the bucket.
    (3) The stark border of Grosse Pointe is not as much a reflection of rich versus poor, as you suggest. Indeed, many of the residents on the GP side of that border are struggling. The “gabbage patch,” which is where the bookstore you mentioned is located, is hardly affluent, despite the homey, Norman Rockwell feel. The real cause of this stark distinction is one of good government on one side of Alter versus a government that has been broken for decades. For various reasons, Grosse Pointe Park has operated like a well-oiled machine. Detroit, unfortunately, has wasted many opportunities. I love Detroit with all of my heart, but I do believe your account of the differences between GP and the city is overly simplistic. For many years, Detroit broke its commitment to the social compact, and that caused many of its residents–both black and white, rich and poor–to cross Alter for a better life.

  12. Dave Cunningham
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It is a sad difference at the Alter road boarder. The fact of the matter is that there have been investors in the area trying to improve the Detroit area off of the boarder of Grosse Pointe. There was several blocks on Alter on the Grosse Pointe side in the early 1990’s that was completely redone. I’m talking new housing,concrete,sod and all. Not even 15 years later most of it is destroyed or completely run down. Just seeing that, who wants to invest in a city where it’s own population don’t care. I’m not talking everyone but more than you think. The city does have hope but everyone needs to come together to make it work.