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The Suburban Trip: Can

The Suburban Trip: Can image
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"Borders are the imaginary lines that separate the imaginary rights of one country from the imaginary rights of another," one early American philosopher drily observed. His comment applies equally well to Eight Mile Road, the line separating Detroit from suburbia and the same avenue which Mayor Coleman A. Young advised the city's muggers, thieves and undesirables to "hit" when he assumed office two years ago. Coleman's admonition serves to underscore the scorn and paranoia with which residents on one side of the line view those on the other: everybody "knows" it ain't safe to go into the city at night, not to mention actually live there, just as everybody "knows" all suburbanites are uptight honkies. The polarity between the two groups comes about as a result of the so-called "white flight" from the city that began in the 1950's. Where Do Suburbs Come From? Detroit's housing stock was fairly saturated, and homes were needed for new residents and the families of troops returning from World War II. But the greed of real estáte investors and brokers, the racist attitudes of the whites who thronged to the suburbs, and the naivete of public agencies also played significant roles. According to James Knack, Detroit's head city planner, the city hit a peak population of nearly 1 ,900,000 in about 1950. Since then it has lost around 500,000 residents, mostly white. Public agencies, perhaps unwittingly, expedited the process. Eighty to ninety per cent of the suburban growth that occurred in the post-war period would not have been possible without the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) mortgage program, estimates Robert Williams, Detroit's deputy director of planning. The FHA funds were plowed into undeveloped (read "suburban") markets, but were largely unavailable for rebuilding of existing structures, like homes in Detroit. The Housing Act of 1949, which promised "a decent home for every American," razed older, "blighted" city neighborhoods, displacing the poor families who had lived there, and pushing the white outer ring further out. Such legislation "gave working and middle-class whites an option they hadn't had," says Williams. Blacks were prohibited from doing likewise because of their lower income levéis, discriminatory housing practices in the suburbs, and what Williams sees as the "preference of blacks to live in homogeneous neighborhoods." HUD's low and moderate income housing program of 1968 virtually assured abandonment of Detroit homes by providing funds "which encourage real estáte investors to attempt to foster rapid turnover of housing, accelerating the exodus," according to John E. Mogk, a professor of law at Wayne State University, and a former mayoral candidate. The development of freeways was the crowning blow- now, those who could afford it could live in the suburbs and commute to jobs in the city. The same freeways also ate up city land that had been used for housing. "Because of expressways, we have lost as many housing units (in Detroit) as are contained in the entire city of East Lansing," Williams notes. "The people who occupied those homes had to go somewhere." The displaced black population moved into formerly white, largely Jewish areas of the city, such as the Twelfth and Linwood area and the Á old Dexter, Hastings and E Livernois sections. The m whites moved on to the E suourbs. E It was not a case of the E blacks pushing out the E whites, however. As E Knack says, "not a E single black family E moved in without a E white family leaving." E The city of Detroit itself facilitated the migration. Under the ambitious leadership of former water department head Jerry Remus, the city extended sewer and water lines to the suburbs, thus hastening their growth. Unscrupulous real estáte agents preyed upon the racial fears of the migrating whites with "block busting" tactics that brought more whites to the suburbs and more money to the agents. "Progressive liberáis" blamed the blockbusting real estáte firms that cleaned up profitably on the white exodus. No one blamed the greedy suburban land developers who slapped up flimsy pre-fab houses to accommodate the immigrant v No one figured that maybe, just maybe, it was the shoddy home developer who passed the scare rumor, because he couldn't sell his substandard modules otherwise. The whites were so anxious to get out they gave little complaint to where they were going to. Sheer racism accounts for much of the phenomenon. One reporter recalls her experience in a Southfield suburb: a teen-ager on the block was a junkie; a woman across the street had recently committed suicide; a thieving ring flourished, as did a prostitute; and the wife of a Mafia chieftain on the street had been kidnapped and never found. But when the first black family moved in, the reaction was, "My God, the neighborhood's going to pot." Economics and get-rich schemes on the parts of developers furthered the abandonment of the city. Hazel Park has been called "an excuse for a race track." Westland was actually named after the shopping center of the same denomination, and Southfield was incorporated as a means of obtaining the Northland Shopping Center's tax base. How Everybody Loses As a result of the exodus, Detroit was left largely black and Á largely poor. Between 1960 and 1970 Detroit lost a greater percentage of jobs to surrounding commiinities'than any of the fourteen other largest urban centers in the nation, ZrSnt to Mogíc. A report prepared for Governor William Milliken in 1973 states that the segregated housing patterrrs resulting from the migration produced "a regional education system which is one of the most segregated in the nation. In a sense, both suburbanites and city dwellers were shortchanged by the population shift. Suburbanites bought the developers somely printed brochures alluding to a modern log cabin in the wilderness. What they actually bouglit was a bedroom module whose plans naa been Xeroxed for every builder in suburbia and erected on every a vailable square inch of ground. They were thrust into fa Droduced houses so similarly f f designed that a visitor could walk into any house blindfolded and know exactly j where to piss. "Housing stock out Ij there (in the suburos) is not as good," Williams asserts. "Dollar for dollar, you get more in terms of quality construction in Detroit." Many of the oldei suburban communities, such as Royal Oak, Walled Lake, Ferndale, %. Clair