Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
As American suburbia in 2018 was revealed as far more complex and diverse than its “white bread” past, outspoken Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson stepped forward to seal his persona as the ultimate suburban dinosaur clinging to decades gone by.
In Crain's Detroit Business, Patterson expressed befuddlement that anyone – and especially any company – would want to take up residence in Detroit rather than his beloved Oakland County. The inner city has “emptied out,” he said, while suggesting that he believes the revival of downtown and Midtown are nonsensical.
"I don't understand that phenomenon, with high crime, high taxes and little services" in Detroit, he said.
The idea that the flow of employers and employees has reversed, moving south of Eight Mile, is inconceivable to a politician who burnished his rhetorical skills during the Detroit-bashing days of the 1970s and ‘80s. At the same time, Metro Detroit is changing right under Patterson’s nose as the divide is no longer whites vs. blacks.
While Patterson, an iconic figure in Michigan Republican politics for several decades, longs for the return of suburban domination, some new research and reporting shows that dramatic alterations in American suburbia came to the forefront in the November midterm elections. At CityLab, reporters have revealed ground-breaking cultural changes that indicate the nation now features several types of suburbs, depending on population density and ethnic demographics.
Here is a sample of what they reported:
Ah, suburbia, land of the bland. White-picket-fenced realm of white-bread people and cookie-cutter housing. That’s still the stereotype that persists in how many of us think about and portray these much-maligned spaces surrounding cities. But if there was once some truth to it, there certainly isn’t today.
In the past several years, a much more complex picture has emerged—one of Asian and Latino “ethnoburbs,” rising suburban poverty, and Baby Boomers stuck in their split-levels. And 2018 really drove home the lesson that, when Americans say they live in the suburbs (as most do), the suburbias they describe are vastly different kinds of places, where people of every stripe live, work, pray, vote, and vie to control their communities’ future.
Out-of-touch and left behind
Old-time suburban officials such as Patterson -- who turns 80 on Friday and first was elected as county executive in 1992 -- can't comprehend that many location decisions, by families and corporations, are no longer about tax rates or crime rates but rather about quality-of-life issues such as parks, recreation programs, efficient roads, beautification projects, bike paths and diverse, welcoming schools.
What’s more, just as Detroit officials in the 1980s looked across Eight Mile and imagined how significant it would have been if all those new, gleaming office buildings in Oakland County had been built downtown, Patterson has spent the past few years stewing over moves by Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to dramatically tilt the tables toward development projects in Motown.
Patterson won’t accept that the region’s synergy is centered near Woodward and Jefferson while far-flung suburban malls and shopping strips face a shaky future.
The times, they are changing.
The sharp focus provided by CityLab’s reporting produced an updated analysis of every U.S. suburban congressional district as one of four types: rural-suburban mix; sparse suburban; dense suburban; and urban-suburban mix. I would suggest that throughout the tri-county area we have all four types of suburban communities within close proximity.
This 2018 lay of the land is particularly impactful within Metro Detroit. Once labeled as the most segregated metropolitan area in America, southeast Michigan endured more than three decades of growing poverty in Detroit and burgeoning prosperity in the suburbs. White flight was a one-way trip. Suburban economic advantages were obvious.
Oakland County was previously one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. Oakland still racks up a list of multi-million dollar developments on a yearly basis, but the November election results revealed an enlightening shift in southeast Michigan and in suburban communities across America. The Patterson brand of Republicanism no longer prevails.
Diversity goes beyond ethnicity
Suburbanites now range from owners of a 4,000-square-foot home to struggling single moms renting a 400-square-foot apartment. In the coming 2019-20 political cycle, to casually label Oakland County and Macomb County as suburbia is off target to the point of being irrelevant.
Consider in Oakland County the vast cultural expanse between Oakland Township and Oak Park or, in Macomb, the divide on display of Washington Township vs. Warren.
Widespread recognition of these socioeconomic realignments has been a long time coming but the Dequindre corridor – the border between Macomb and Oakland -- especially has reached transformation.
Immigrants from Iraq, China, India, Albania, Serbia and Bangladesh have substantially altered the old white- bread demographics of Warren, Troy, Madison Heights and Sterling Heights. The growing Asian population has spread to the Bloomfields and western Wayne County. Even the obscure migrant community of the Hmong, an ethnic group that has traditionally lived in the mountains of Vietnam and Laos, has established a presence in Detroit’s suburbia.
What’s more, in the typically white communities of the Detroit area, Millennials are changing everything as they gravitate toward Detroit’s downtown and Midtown areas. Further away, those at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation and the subsequent Gen Xers have reshaped the suburbs in Detroit and elsewhere.
Women, and especially women officials and voters, are at the forefront of this evolution -- not just the stereotypical “soccer moms” but college-educated women who hold high-ranking positions in every facet of the business world.
Democrats on the rise
What we now see evolving carries vast political implications – so far, in favor of the Democrats. In the former GOP stronghold of Oakland, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer won by 16 points in November and two key congressional seats flipped to the Democrats. The Dems also hold four of the six countywide office and took control of the Oakland Board of Commissioners for the first time in recent memory.
In neighboring Macomb, recognized nationally in 2016 as Donald Trump country, that label is already fading as the Dems held their ground in local and legislative races and Whitmer carried the top of the ticket. In western Wayne, the Democrats flipped several suburban legislative seats.
On a nationwide basis, the partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans have increasingly shaped up as urban vs. rural. The suburbs are the middle ground, but in Metro Detroit they’ve also become an interesting stew that features urban and rural ingredients with quite a bit of ethnic spice.
The influx of first- or second-generation immigrant candidates into the political arena, particularly Chaldean Iraqis, Arabs and Indians, has altered the look of election ballots from top to bottom.
In recent weeks, a chagrined Patterson hinted that he might resign two years early and let Republican officials choose a like-minded successor before the new Democratic majority took their seats. The idea was to give a fellow Republican a head start before the 2020 election for county executive. But Patterson quickly backed away from this partisan trick, leaving open the possibility that he may run for an eight term. Perhaps he should have realized that his hand-picked successor would be tagged as a throwback to the days of an Oakland County that no longer exists.
At the dawn of 2019, the era of Patterson politics is long gone. Any candidate or political consultant who tries to define the suburban voter better do their homework. Because nothing is simply black and white.