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Detroit Is Dead. Long Live Oakland County

As Detroit implodes, its northern neighbor prospers
Presiding over that growth: L. Brooks Patterson, county executive since 1993
Presiding over that growth: L. Brooks Patterson, county executive since 1993Photograph by Paul Sancya/AP Photo

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.