Detroit's Wealthier Suburbs Feel Economic Pain

As the city of Detroit struggles through recession, the collapse of its auto industry and a loss of population, its wealthier suburbs are also hurting. Historically, Detroit and its suburbs have been divided around issues of race and class, but these days, hard times are prompting renewed talk of regional cooperation.

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As the city of Detroit struggles through recession, the historic collapse of the automobile industry and a loss of population, its suburbs also are hurting. Home foreclosures, business failures, and an economic slowdown have hit these more prosperous communities, as well. Historically, Detroit and its suburbs have been divided along lines of race and class. But as Anthony Brooks reports, these days, equal opportunity hard times are prompting renewed talk of regional cooperation.

ANTHONY BROOKS: Driving north out of Detroit, the abandoned buildings and vacant lots give way to shiny office towers, busy shopping malls and wealthy suburbs like Birmingham. This is an upscale town of 20,000 people in the heart of Oakland County, among the wealthiest counties in the country. But even here, amid the trendy boutiques and art galleries, businesses are struggling.

(Soundbite of busy diner)

BROOKS: Here in the Whistle Stop Diner, there are barstools and red leatherette booths. Owner Matt Rafferty has cut back the hours of his staff, taken over some of the cooking and cleaning himself. And recently, he tried something else to increase business and help his neighbors.

Mr. MATT RAFFERTY (Owner, Whistle Stop Diner): For one week, I let my customers come in, have a meal, and then pay me whatever they could afford. So people would come in and tell me stories about being laid off or their houses got foreclosed on. You know, I was getting hugged and there was tears. And there was, you know - it really made me feel good to kind of give back and help people out.

BROOKS: Despite the challenges, Birmingham feels a world away from Detroit. Yet many here say they feel a strong link to the troubled city. Rafferty wears a Detroit Tigers baseball cap and says Birmingham needs a healthy Detroit.

Mr. RAFFERTY: It's absolutely necessary. I mean, Detroit is not very far away. And whenever Detroit has something great going on, it filters all the way through the suburbs. Everyone is involved with Detroit. I mean, people ask you where you're from, you say Detroit.

BROOKS: Steve Trachsel, who runs the local barbershop in Birmingham called The Barber Pole, agrees.

Mr. STEVE TRACHSEL (Owner, Barber Pole): If Detroit does well, suburbs do well. I mean, when the Super Bowl came in, we had a lot of influx of people coming here spending money, staying in our hotels, you know, getting haircuts here, it's good for everybody, you know? And the suburbs of Chicago do great because Chicago is a happening place.

BROOKS: Even so, in 2002, voters in metro Detroit rejected a referendum on regional funding of the arts, which would have helped make the city a more happening place. And a plan to develop public transportation to link Detroit to its suburbs has been discussed for years with no results, though it's back on the table again.

The desire to support Detroit's sports teams, museums and restaurants hasn't translated into region-wide cooperation with and investment in Detroit, according to Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan.

Professor MARGARET DEWAR (Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Michigan): What I want to see is a regional vote on, say, tax-based sharing; something like what the Twin Cities have, that shows there's cooperation between city and suburb. So I think, even if people say they care, I think it's time to show it in more concrete ways.

BROOKS: For their part, suburban leaders have struggled for years to do business with a city government known for corruption and inefficiency. Some politicians, like L. Brooks Patterson, the executive of Oakland County, are unapologetic about ignoring Detroit. Here he is on Detroit radio station WJR.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Mr. L. BROOKS PATTERSON (Executive, Oakland County, Michigan): My first priority always will be to take care of my constituents. I have them, you know?

Unidentified Man: I believe - I understand that if...

Mr. PATTERSON: ...sharing responsibility. If there's a program that's put forth that's good for the City of Detroit and good for Oakland County, I'm there. I'm a player. If there's a program put forward that is good for Detroit but injurious to the interests of Oakland County, I'm going to oppose it.

BROOKS: This past spring, Patterson signed on to a so-called Economic Growth Alliance with three other suburban counties that excluded Detroit. Because according to Patterson, we have more in common with our neighbors to the north and to the east.

But Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., says the suburbs ignore Detroit at their own peril.

Mr. LOU GLAZER (President, Michigan Future Inc.): The reality is, is that if you look at the most prosperous places in the country, they are all anchored by a vibrant central city. You will not have a broad middle class. You will not have a strong knowledge economy. Without Detroit working, the lesson across the country is the region doesn't work. And if the region doesn't work, the state doesn't work.

BROOKS: Back in Birmingham, Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Zarotney acknowledges the challenges.

Ms. CARRIE ZAROTNEY (President, Chamber of Commerce, Birmingham): But I think now more than ever is an opportunity and a necessity to reinvest in the city. If we want to be a powerful area, like a Chicago, we need to reinvest in our city. We can't just let it die on its own.

BROOKS: Zarotney says the current recession should remind people in places like Birmingham and Detroit of the need to work together.

From NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

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