Transit Tops Agenda as Metro Detroit Talks Regionalism, Race at “New Metropolis” Event

John Powell talks regionalism for the cameras.
John Powell talks regionalism for the cameras.

We’re back. Thanks for your patience the past two months. This also marks our first anniversary here at TransportMichigan.org. It’s been good having you along for the ride!

Last Thursday evening, downtown Royal Oak’s Emagine Theater hosted a who’s who of metro Detroit advocates for regional cooperation at “Reimagining the Region: Building a New Detroit Metropolis,” a film screening and panel discussion on the racial shifts and infrastructure problems occurring in inner-ring suburbs around the country. For thirty years, metro Detroit’s failure to establish a regional transit system has been a symbol of segregation and distrust between the city and its suburbs, and the panelists agreed that for the sake of both, that has to change.

State Representative Jim Townsend of Royal Oak talked about the billions of dollars the region could save with a transit system, while Ferndale City Councilwoman and Michigan Suburbs Alliance Associate Director Mel Piana discussed how she’s helped six south Oakland County cities apply for planning funds to study extending a Woodward Avenue light rail line across Eight Mile Road. “That will help us connect better with Detroit,” she said.

Moderator Stephen Henderson of the Free Press prodded the panelists to move faster. “I have a hard enough time getting the Oakland County Executive and the Mayor of Detroit to sit at a table next to each other,” he said. Yet john powell, the nationally-known, Detroit-born scholar of race and regionalism, noted that the nascent regionalist coalition had already won some political victories against continued sprawl, including the Michigan Department of Transportation’s adoption of a “fix-it-first” policy that puts repair of existing roads before new widening projects.

The struggle, of course, is far from over. One of the audience members who took the mike afterwards was Michael Bridges of Farmington Hills City Council. “If you’re interested in mass transit, call [Oakland] County Executive Brooks Patterson,” he urged. Describing Patterson as “an obstacle to transit,” Bridges said that in a recent meeting, Patterson had rebuffed his request to prevent cities in Oakland County from opting out of supporting the SMART suburban bus system. That provision is responsible for the massive gaps in transit service in suburban Wayne and Oakland County – which, Bridges observed, made it necessary for employees of Novi’s Twelve Oaks Mall to walk three miles from the nearest bus stop.

Bridges’ remarks were a useful reminder that the ultimate fate of the region rests on political shifts in the suburbs, particularly on a regional effort to stop the outward sprawl (better late than never, especially now that we’re losing population) and redistribute investment throughout the region. That doesn’t mean just in near-downtown Detroit, either, but in the rest of the city and inner-ring suburbs, too. Better transit, including light rail or rapid buses down Woodward, Gratiot, and beyond, is an obvious means towards that end. To make it happen, though, the regional coalition needs to get even broader.

Notably, no City of Detroit officials were on the panel – a reflection of the event’s focus on inner-ring suburbs, perhaps, but also of the continuing difficulties those suburbs and the city have encountered in making common cause. In addition, the two suburbs represented by city officials – Ferndale and Mayor Karen Majewski’s Hamtramck – are a bit atypical in the region, and somewhat distinct from those featured in the films. Notwithstanding their troubles with aging infrastructure and fiscal crisis, neither face flight and disinvestment on the scale that’s been so devastating for Detroit; Ferndale has flourished as a gay haven and boasts a revitalized downtown, whereas once solidly Polish Hamtramck has taken in new Yemeni and Bengali immigrants. It would have been good to see someone from a place like Warren, Eastpointe or Redford, too, since these cities are experiencing the old white-to-black racial transition described in the second  film.

In these times, however, it’s good to hear words of hope. The fifth panelist, Reverend John Hice, emphasized that we have to learn to see the region’s current sickness as something other than terminal. “We are not a story where we are the last chapter, we are in the middle of the book,” he said. But to make that possible, so younger generations “know what they are a part of,” Hice said, “we need to be able to tell the story.” That goes for the tougher parts, too.

Full disclosure: The author is an employee of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, event co-sponsor.