Earlier this month, Detroit filed for bankruptcy, knocking Stockton from its perch as the most populous city to have ever gone broke. Suffering from $18 billion in debt, bankruptcy was pretty much inevitable. Since the news broke, the media has been unable to resist the comparisons between Mo Town and Stock Town. However, while the two cities share a common bond in bankruptcy, they face two very different paths forward. No, Detroit is not like Stockton, for better or worse. Here are the big differences a lot of people are overlooking, and why they are important.
Detroit’s population is falling, Stockton’s keeps climbing
Detroit has been in decline for several years by a number of metrics, but probably the most telling is the massive population loss incurred since the 1950s. At its peak, Detroit proper was home to nearly two million people. Today, that number hovers around 700 thousand. This staggering loss of people presents two major issues for Detroit moving forward: dwindling revenues and a stockpile of abandoned houses and buildings.
As residents fled Detroit in droves over the past 60 years, the city’s tax base went with them. Contrast that with Stockton, which has never seen a population loss and in fact continues to grow despite the city’s challenges. Even during the recession, Stockton’s population grew. Moreover, net migration, after suffering for a couple of years, is back into positive territory. This is a positive sign for Stockton as the tax base will continue to grow, whereas Detroit struggles to keep people in the city.
Detroit was once home to two million people, and while over half of those residents are gone, their housing remains. Large swaths of Detroit are ghost towns as the city suffers from an epidemic of abandoned housing, creating blight and crime, wasting city resources. In Stockton, this situation is not nearly as bad. While many lost their homes to foreclosure, most homes were picked up by investors and are at least occupied by renters. While investor-dominated neighborhoods are by no means a good thing, Stockton does not have Detroit’s problem with abandoned housing, at least not on the same scale.
Both sprawl, but Detroit is worse
One glaring similarity between Stockton and Detroit is that they are both victims of their chosen growth patterns. Some incorrectly believe that Detroit is compact and dense (such as my pal John Beckman), but actually, Detroit grew out, not in. In fact, Smart Growth America lists Detroit as the 15th most sprawling city out of the most populous 83 metro areas in the country (Stockton is not included in the rankings). In both cases, extreme outward growth sapped the life out of older areas, but the consequences appear to have been worse for Detroit, where once stately residences are now overtaken by foliage and entire neighborhoods have been abandoned.
The big difference between Detroit and Stockton with respect to sprawl is that our suburban developments are still part of Stockton. In Detroit, most people fled to other towns entirely. For example, someone who is longing for a move further away from Stockton’s ills might move further north into a Spanos development, or west into a Grupe community. They may have left older areas, but their families and their tax dollars stayed in Stockton. In Detroit, families left the city entirely. If someone moves to Auburn Hills, Michigan, their tax dollars are long gone. Even the Pistons, Detroit’s storied basketball team, left the city for the suburbs.
Detroit is Michigan’s most important city
The city of Detroit is vital to the state of Michigan as the region’s top economic engine. If Detroit fails, the state suffers. Because of its importance, the state has been intimately involved in the city’s budgetary process, hoping to stave off bankruptcy. Top officials, including current Governor Rick Snyder and former Governor Jennifer Granholm have appeared on national media outlets discussing different ways to keep Detroit afloat. While there are varying views about the way in which to save Detroit, there is a common theme: Detroit is important and its success is vital.
Stockton, on the other hand, is not in the top 10 most populous cities in California. Jerry Brown doesn’t even consider the Central Valley part of the state and could care less if Stockton ceased to exist. Even though Stockton is just an hour’s drive to the south, Sacramento has been ambivalent to the city’s struggles. Contrast that with Michigan’s capitol, Lansing, which devotes entire sessions on how to deal with Detroit.
Detroit’s downtown is in the early stages of a renaissance.
You’d never guess it based on the media attention, but young professionals and employers are flocking to Detroit’s downtown. Tens of thousands have moved into the city’s core, creating a building boom in Downtown and Midtown Detroit. Businesses like Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield are leading the charge, moving their offices back into the city. Quicken CEO Bill Emerson notes that Detroit has created the environment for businesses to tap in to a growing talent pool of young professionals that want to be in an urban environment.
“There is an opportunity cost of not being in an urban environment,” Emerson told Fortune Magazine in 2011. “The youth of America, when they graduate, they’re looking to go to an urban environment (to live, work, and meet others). An asphalt parking lot is not necessarily the best way to do that.”
Many in the urban policy realm believe that the city’s bankruptcy will have little to no effect on this boom. Richard Florida wrote that despite recent events “The seeds of rebirth” have already been planted in large part thanks to the influx of creative class into the center of the city.
In Stockton, downtown is certainly improving, but much work remains to truly leverage the city’s core to create the kind of economic catalyst we see in Downtown Detroit. Stockton does have a great potential to reel in tech employers and millennials, especially thanks to its proximity to the Bay Area and the presence of anchor institutions near downtown, such as the University of the Pacific. Downtown Stockton has the bones to become a vibrant, attractive community, but much work remains.