Trickle down and the Millennials

Thomas Sugrue is the author of the must-read “The Origins of the Urban Crisis”, a history of the deindustrialization of Detroit. He was a  keynote speaker at the last Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference.

Prior to the speech he did an interview with John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press which was entitled: “Sugrue: Trickle-down urbanism won’t work in Detroit”. At about the same time City Lab published an article entitled “What Millennials Want—And Why Cities Are Right to Pay Them So Much Attention”. Both are worth checking out.

What I want to deal with in this post is why Michigan Future is an advocate for the approach laid out in the Atlantic Cities article, not the one taken by Sugrue. We frequently encounter that our emphasis on talent––those with four year degrees or more––is elitist.

First lets deal with the trickle down charge. Trickle down normally is used to disparage policies designed for the 1% and corporate America. A critique we agree with. The evidence is pretty strong that simply making things better for the 1% and corporate America does little to create either jobs or income for American households.

Young professionals are hardly the 1%. They, by and large, like most Americans are struggling to find good paying jobs and good places to live. Nor do they, by and large, have a political agenda that is asking for special treatment. If they have an agenda at all it is communities with the basic services and amenities they value and maybe some help with student loans. Which they are struggling with because public policy has dramatically reduced public support for higher education which was available to their parents.

Sugrue says in the Free Press interview: “But the future of a city, if it’s going to be successful, the future of Detroit is going to be improving the everyday quality of life for residents who are living a long way from downtown and a long way from Midtown, who probably aren’t ever going to spend much time listening to techno or sipping lattes.”

Characterizing young professionals as people who listen to techno and sip lattes is both insulting and inaccurate. But the more important point is that his vision of a successful city––a city anchored by working class families raising children––is long gone. (Interestingly many of the young professionals in Detroit, who Sugrue disparages, are big advocates for policies and/or have jobs focused on improving the quality of life of the poor and working class households in the city.)

The reality is, not largely because of city policy, but rather consumer demand, the working class households Sugrue wants cities to focus on when they––from all races––get decent paying jobs, in large proportions, leave the city for the suburbs. Not just in Detroit, but across the country. One can make a far better case, when it comes to place-making policy for decades Michigan and the country have had a policy of providing working class families with the neighborhoods and quality of life they want. In low density, car dependent suburbs. That policy orientation is still predominant in Michigan and metro Detroit.

The reality also is, as Gallagher points out in the interview with Sugrue, that “we’ve (Detroit) been trying to work on those poorer neighborhoods for at least 50 years now through a variety of programs.” That has been the priority agenda for the city for decades.

The chief reason Detroit and other big cities should focus on young professionals––and to some degree college educated empty nesters––is they want to live in cities, not the suburbs. (Alan Ehrenhardt details changing demand for city living in his terrific book “The Great Inversion”.) One can make a strong case that Detroit policy for decades has stood in the way of young professionals moving to the city. By not providing quality basic services to any resident and not providing the mixed use, high density, walkable, transit rich neighborhoods they are looking for.

The Atlantic Cities article is about that changing consumer demand. Citing recent polls by the Rockefeller Foundation with Transportation for America and the American Planning Association. Atlantic Cities writes: “Two public opinion polls came out in the last month suggesting the kinds of places Millennials like. Spoiler alert: it’s Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as communities such as—I’m inclined to say once again, of course—Boulder and Austin. The key characteristics seem to be walkability, good schools and parks, and the availability of multiple transportation options.”

What is elitist or trickle down about cities responding to changing consumer demand? What is elitist or trickle down about creating cities and neighborhoods with “walkability, good schools and parks, and the availability of multiple transportation options”? What is wrong with Detroit competing with Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago for these residents? Creating a place attractive to those who want to live in central cities is the only way Detroit is going to repopulate. And repopulating is the key to Detroit being a viable city long term.



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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I believe that a part of the problem of your analysis is you commonly are referring to citizens’ needs as “consumer demands.” It’s a business-oriented starting point that frequently becomes problematic when addressing the dispersal of services to citizens.

    Another problem lies here, with what is essentially a falsehood: “the young professionals in Detroit, who Sugrue disparages, are big advocates for policies and/or have jobs focused on improving the quality of life of the poor and working class households in the city.” This has not been the case in practice. It also has not been the case in the many other times cities use the strategy of attracting the “creative class” to its central business district. The idea that ‘this time it will be different’ is reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    Lastly, the absolutes put forward in your last paragraph, particularly “Creating a place attractive to those who want to live in central cities is the only way Detroit is going to repopulate.” is dubious at best. Regardless of the “only way” item being a pretty bold statement, I have an extreme hesitance to the idea that the “only way” to repopulate is to bring young types in while at the same time depopulating by forcing older and less economically advantaged people out. That’s not really repopulating, rather it’s replacement from what I’ve seen. Why can’t we have both? If these millennials were truly interested in the struggle of the elderly and the working class that stayed in this city during the tough times, where are they and their powerful voices when those same working classes and retirees are driven out of places like the Albert? Now I’m not the type to broad brush an entire generation, because obviously there are going to be exceptions to the rule. But it seems quite contradictory to suggest that the millennials want to have policies to help with the poor and marginalized, yet at the same time will not tolerate living next door to them. Is it so hard to enact policies that are beneficial to all? Is there so little money to be made in the city that we have to allow development in a completely neoliberal version to the point where we pay businesses and developers to make the money to be had? I think there is a pile of money to be made here. And it is the mandate of the State to ensure that all groups of the citizenship benefits from that, not just the Gilbert’s, Illitches, and Maroun’s of the world. It’s not a big ask, really. Gilbert, Illitch, and Maroun can certainly take a moderate hit to their profit line and only make a few hundred million this year, and still be pretty interested in this city. Suggesting that they will take all their investments and development dollars and run off is neither realistic nor based in any type of research that I know.

    Want a REAL Detroit experiment? Let’s see what happens when we try to benefit everyone, rather than the privileged few, and see how that affects everything from economic equality, to race relations, to infrastructure improvements, and on down the line. Let’s look to “bubble up” rather than “trickle down” because we have seen the effects of trickle down in many other cities.

    1. I wrote a second post on the topic that will run next week. It lays out more of the case for why young professionals are key to future economic well being to not just the city, but region and state.

      More than happy to keep the conversation going after that runs. But given what seems to be two completely different visions of what a successful city is we will probably still be far apart.

      The Millennnials who are choosing to live in cities–including Detroit–didn’t run out of cities when times were bad. They were too young. For many of then this is their first time living on their own after school. What’s different about them than previous generations is they want to live in cities, not the suburbs. That is a good thing for cities. I can’t imagine anyone suggesting that Detroit and other cities not try to attract people who want to live in the city.

      As the post lays out the Millennials are not the privileged few. No place in my post is there any mention of a few business leaders. Let alone advocacy for special breaks for them or any other developers.

      The two posts are making the case that for the city, but also for the region and state, creating places where mobile young talent wants to live and work should be an essential element of economic growth policy. Because the most prosperous places in a knowledge-driven economy are now and will be even more so in the future places with concentrated talent/workers with four year degrees or more. That is what the next post deals with.

      How to make Detroit an attractive place for young professionals to live and work is something we need to work on. It may or may not require developer incentives. But you can’t get to that conversation until we decide that attracting young professionals is a priority.

      In terms of why can’t you do both. I think you can, but resources are limited. If you look at the list of attributes from the surveys mentioned in the post what the Millennials are looking for in a community–“walkability, good schools and parks, and the availability of multiple transportation options”–are what would benefit and should be available to all residents. But there are only two ways these kind of basic services and amenities can be paid for in Detroit–either increasing the city’s tax base or increased state or regional support for the city. Detroit needs both. Hard to imagine how you increase the Detroit tax base without attracting new residents and businesses.

      Finally as John Gallagher mentioned in the interview with Sugrue the city has been trying what you refer to as bubble up for decades. Seems to me it has been the city’s policy priority for a long time, with, to say the least, not a lot of success.

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