Detroit Is Dead. Long Live Oakland County
Lou Willis rents a one-story house on the Detroit side of 8 Mile Road, and working in her small flower garden, she can look across the street into a different world. There, in suburban Ferndale, the trash gets picked up and the streetlamps work, while she has been waiting for months for Detroit to fix the lights on her side. In Ferndale there are fewer of the vacant lots that make whole swaths of Detroit look like post-apocalyptic pastureland. Willis says Ferndale police sometimes respond to calls on the Detroit side because it can take hours for city cops to arrive. She’s thinking of moving to Ferndale, or another town in the same suburban county. “I’d like to relocate to Oakland County, where I can rely on city services and feel safer,” she says, “even if it’s just on the other side of the street.”
Willis is hardly the first Detroiter to consider that move. Since 1950 the population of Detroit has fallen by more than 60 percent, from 1.8 million to 700,000. Over that same period the population of Oakland County—a square comprising Ferndale, Southfield, Birmingham, and a cluster of other cities and towns—tripled, to 1.2 million. The county today is one of the wealthiest in the country, and 8 Mile Road has the feel of an international border. The relationship between Detroit, the nation’s poorest city, and its northern neighbors often resembles a border dispute, characterized on both sides by anger, resentment, fear, and caricature. Detroit’s July 18 bankruptcy filing is merely the latest chapter in the long dysfunctional marriage between a once-thriving city and its suburbs.
If there’s one person who best embodies this psychodrama, it’s L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland and for decades one of Detroit’s harshest critics. Patterson, 74, who was elected to his sixth term last fall, has held the post since 1993. He previously made a name for himself as county prosecutor by leading the fight against school desegregation through busing. He’s a unique combination of green-eyeshade superego and raging demagogic id. His pitch—both to voters and businesses—is that Oakland County is everything Detroit is not, and that it doesn’t need Detroit to survive. “In the old days they’d say, ‘As Detroit goes, so goes Michigan,’ ” he says in his office in Waterford. “That’s bulls---. As Oakland County goes, so goes Michigan.”
Patterson oversees 4,000 employees and a budget of $776 million for fiscal 2013. In the 1990s he switched county workers from defined benefit pensions to 401(k)-type plans, and new hires no longer get lifetime retiree health care—instead they receive health savings accounts. Changes like these have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and eliminated the legacy labor costs that plague not only Detroit but city and state governments all over the country. Oakland is part of a select group of U.S. counties that enjoy a Triple-A bond rating.
Patterson has also tried to shift the county away from a reliance on manufacturing toward high tech and life sciences. Since 2004, according to a county report produced in June, Patterson’s Emerging Sectors initiative has enticed 241 businesses to expand or relocate to the county and generated $2.5 billion in investment, 29,160 new jobs, and $63.9 million in taxes. “L. Brooks Patterson is one extraordinary county executive,” says Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan.
Careful stewardship is not what made Patterson a household name in Michigan, however. For that he can thank his mouth. In the 1970s, as county prosecutor, he compared Detroit residents under then-Mayor Coleman Young to “Indians on the reservation—those who can will leave Detroit. Those who can’t will get blankets and food from the government man in the city.” In 1997, the day after Young, the city’s first black mayor, died, Patterson told a newspaper that the deceased was “singly responsible for the demise of Detroit.” Of suburban sprawl, he has declared, “I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it.” In May of this year, feeling that fellow Republican and state Speaker of the House Jase Bolger was acting autocratically, Patterson went on television and called him “Adolf Bolger,” underscoring the point with an impromptu Hitler mustache fashioned from a comb.
This cantankerousness goes back a ways: Tom Storen, a fraternity brother of Patterson’s from the University of Detroit Mercy, remembers that, as a columnist at the school newspaper, Patterson “was always stirring the pot.” It has certainly not endeared him to Detroit. “No one can say Oakland County hasn’t been well-run,” says Detroit City Council President Saunteel Jenkins. She sees rhetoric like Patterson’s, however, as unproductive: “It has not worked in moving our region forward at all.” Patterson’s salvos still play well in Oakland County, though, where residents—many of whom, like Patterson, grew up in Detroit and fled—are exasperated and unsettled by the spectacle to the south. “He has his opponents and enemies, but the populace is behind him,” says Storen, who lives in Bloomfield Hills.
Patterson concedes that Detroit’s bankruptcy could hurt Oakland’s prized credit rating. When ratings agency representatives visit next month, he’ll try to convince them that Oakland County is “a standalone economy,” safely quarantined from Detroit’s collapse. Whether or not that’s true, Oakland County’s economy isn’t as vibrant as it used to be. Despite Patterson’s economic initiatives, population growth has slowed, and the county lost 60,000 jobs in 2009 alone after General Motors and Chrysler went through bankruptcy. Over the past decade median household income has been flat, and the percentage of residents living in poverty has doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Patterson’s opponents, pointing to the advantages Oakland County has enjoyed—chief among them an ample tax base—suggest that in the less friendly economic climate of the past few years, Patterson hasn’t looked so wizardly. “He gets a perfectly set table to come to dinner and then is able to take credit for good conversation, whereas Detroit doesn’t have a table,” says Dave Woodward, a Democratic Oakland County commissioner.
Patterson says he’s mellowed. In part it’s age; in part it’s loss—a son died in a snowmobiling accident in 2007, and Patterson is still in a wheelchair from a car crash last August. He speaks favorably of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and emergency manager Kevyn Orr. And rhetoric notwithstanding, Patterson backed a successful ballot measure last year in which the county imposed a special tax on itself to support the Detroit Institute of Arts. “I think we’ve been a pretty good neighbor,” he says, pointing out that his is the only county that sends more money to the state—much of which goes to Detroit—than it gets back. Then he adds: “I’m just done sending cold, hard cash to the city, especially when it’s going to go right down a rathole.”