The National Catholic Review

When leaders of the Archdiocese of Detroit began looking for solutions to the mounting poverty in the Detroit metropolitan area, they discovered that the traditional ministries of soup kitchens, clothing drives and holiday baskets were not changing the impoverished environment of the city. The city’s decline was more structural, institutional and political, and they realized that they were looking squarely into an injustice that had developed and permeated the community for the past 40 years—urban sprawl. The archdiocese, which serves 1.5 million Catholics in six counties of southeastern Michigan, joined a coalition of interfaith religious congregations that is working hard not only to curb and contain urban sprawl, but also to approach it as a moral issue that demands a response of justice and equality for all people living in the region.

 

Urban sprawl is a consequence of federal, state and local land-use policies that have resulted in an epidemic of unplanned growth, the voracious consumption of land and gross inequality among people in a region. Sprawl is deemed responsible for abandoned buildings, run-down neighborhoods, poor schools, pot-holed roads, polluted lakes and streams and feelings of alienation and disconnection among residents and their communities.

“We have caused the problem. It seems logical that we can deal with it,” said Dan Piepszowski, director of Christian Service for the archdiocese, the division heading up the fight against sprawl. “We have to be uncomfortable with communities that are isolated racially or economically or socially. That’s not a good healthy thing for the church,” he added.

“Detroit was the envy of New York and Chicago 40 or 50 years ago,” said Ann Serra, director of grants and metropolitan equity for the archdiocese, another leader in the effort. “There was a lot of money here because of manufacturing. No one would have thought Detroit could become what it is now. We were at the top.”

According to Ms. Serra, Detroit began its downward economic spiral in the 1950’s, when manufacturing began to move to the South as a means of avoiding high labor costs. The riot of 1967 accelerated the depopulation of the city. In the early 1970’s bussing mandates to desegregate schools encouraged more movement of white Detroiters outward to a ring of suburbs around the city. Freeway construction accompanied that movement, and millions of dollars were spent in building that accommodated an increase in automobile transportation and weakened the public transportation system’s route scheduling and accessibility.

“There were restrictions on bus routes along racial lines,” said Ms. Serra. White people did not want to ride a bus with black people, and buses did not go out to the suburbs where the jobs were. Black people who lived in the city could not get a ride to their jobs. Indeed, one of the key issues surrounding sprawl is transportation. So the archdiocese is also working to promote a mass transit system in the southeastern Michigan region.

“The nation’s transportation system is a kind of apartheid,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, a sociologist from Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga., and a leading national expert on race and the environment. Mr. Bullard spoke last fall at the Conference on Living in Justice and Solidarity sponsored by the archdiocese. “It was set up to create racial, economic, social and geographical barriers in our communities.”

“We are a suburban nation,” said Mr. Bullard, citing that in 1990, 67 percent of new growth occurred in the metropolitan areas. Now 80 percent of new growth occurs in suburbs, where mostly white people live. In Detroit, 70 percent of the office space is located outside the city and out of reach of the many central city dwellers who need jobs and the transportation necessary to get to those jobs. One-third of the people do not own cars and most are poor and non-white. They rely on public transportation to get them to work, stores and social activities. But because of Detroit’s limited public transportation system, only 2 percent of the population uses the system—as compared to cities like New York where 47 percent of the population get around on buses and trains.

The archdiocese has been educating Catholics about sprawl and its effects on the region since 1999. It hired Myron Orfield, president of the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation in Minneapolis and author of a groundbreaking book, Metropolitics: Social Separation and Sprawl, as a consultant on this project. He spoke at the fall conference, too.

“As population decreases, property values decrease, business disinvests in that community, and poorer people move in,” said Mr. Orfield. But he said that the decline of Detroit goes much deeper. It turns out that the first ring of suburbs is declining and a second ring has been developing during the 1990’s. According to Mr. Orfield, the Detroit metropolitan area has increased in land area by 30 percent, while the city’s population—which peaked in 1950 at two million—is now half that size.

Mr. Orfield cites the example of Macomb County, north of Detroit, where the centrally located older suburban bedroom communities of Warren, Centerline, East Pointe and Fraser are losing middle-class residents to newer developments out on the edges of the county. Because these communities do not have much of an industrial or commercial tax base, they provide fewer resources and services per household and are experiencing physical deterioration. Poorer people are either left there or they are moving in.

“Part of the problem in Detroit is the historical pattern equating prosperity with movement away from the city to the suburbs,” said Mr. Piepszowski. People left the city feeling pushed out because of crime, bad schools and drugs. They also feel pulled out because of government policies and incentives that favor growth.

Sprawl encourages local communities to adopt self-defeating behavior patterns that negatively affect economic development in their own backyards as well as those of their neighbors. Mr. Piepszowski noted that southeastern Michigan local governments compete with one another instead of cooperating for business development. This “creates an impediment to economic growth and prosperity for the whole region,” he observed. Any talk about regional government and planning makes people suspicious that they might be asked to bail out Detroit, so they resist any attempts in that direction. Mr. Piepszowski said that resistance to regional approaches comes from the same pride and healthy parochialism that built these communities. But such an attitude also reduces the region’s ability to attract businesses looking for an area that provides a support system of education, housing, a diverse labor pool and adequate transportation networks.

In fact, the history of regional approaches in Detroit has not been encouraging, including approaches advocated by the archdiocese. In the 1970’s, for example, the archdiocese’s support of bussing for the purpose of providing all races with equal opportunities for education helped to spark white flight to the suburbs. Today white people still blame black people for the decline of the city, while black people see sprawl as white people’s problem. Mr. Piepszowski said that unless all the citizens of the region attack sprawl together, a backlash against regionalism might create more segregation.

“What drives Detroit is race,” said the Rev. Steve Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham. Reverend Jones is part of a growing of interfaith coalition pastors that is working with the archdiocese to curb sprawl. Birmingham is one of the older suburbs of Detroit and home to high-income executives of the automobile companies. “You just can’t get away from [race]” said the Rev. Jones. “It permeates everything we’re about. Detroit is the most segregated metropolitan area [in the country]. It just passed Gary, Ind.” He contends that race is one of the reasons why Detroiters have traditionally avoided building a mass transit system, too. “We can’t imagine sitting on a bus with people different from us,” he said. “We don’t trust one another and we don’t trust the differences. What’s more, we don’t have any practice [dealing with people who are different from ourselves].”

Cognizant of the racial divisions in the region, Mr. Piepszowski argues that people must learn more about others’ faiths and lifestyles and learn to live with one another. “We Catholics have to be comfortable with diversity both internationally and domestically.” Mr. Piepszowski points to Southfield as a gem of community diversity. An older, formerly white suburb in northwest Detroit, it now contains Armenians, African Americans, Chaldeans, Jews and Russians living together. Such cities, he said, provide wonderful models of racial and cultural mixes.

The archdiocese’s Christian Service Department relies on parishioners to assume the leadership for this new anti-sprawl ministry. It sees the ministry as another opportunity to build lay leadership. And laypeople are readily assuming their roles as leaders.

“We are getting a much better response from people as they become part of a public discourse,” said Ann Serra, who remembers the hopelessness she witnessed during the first meetings of the new anti-sprawl ministry. In the suburban parishes she heard horrible stories about Coleman Young (the former black mayor of Detroit) and his policies, as well as people’s fears about the migration and decline in the area. Now Ms. Serra conducts a dialogue with participants. She begins by first asking them why they chose the community they live in. Invariably they say, because of the schools, safety and lower taxes. No one has listed accessibility to shopping or highways. “What we are trying to do [through the sprawl issue] is build solidarity in the church,” she said. “Everyone is learning as we dialogue. The people see that we’re all Catholics, regardless of race, and that we have obligations to one another, whether we live in the city or the suburbs.”

The archdiocese has been contacting all its 314 parishes to join in this ministry against sprawl and to promote a regional mass transit system in southeastern Michigan. It has also teamed up with a local community organizing group called Moses (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), which works with other religious congregations in the city and suburbs on this issue. Moses provides a training program that teaches citizens how to take responsibility and mobilize for change in a democratic way. Residents learn how to build citizen coalitions from a position of power and action.

“To be powerful is a good thing,” said Bill O’Brien, executive director of Moses. “To be powerless is a scandal. Power is the ability to act. Through power we teach church leaders how to organize people and/or money.” O’Brien said that people become empowered because they are in relationship with individuals and groups of people. “The church is a place of relationship and community. We provide people with a strategy to make that happen.”

Archdiocesan leaders and other church organizers see the elections of 2002 as an opportunity to assert their power for a regional mass transit system. The state is about to undergo a huge turnover in leadership. Because of the state’s term-limits law, there will be a change of governor as well as of 30 percent of its representatives and 70 percent of its state senators. Kwame Kilpatrick became Detroit’s new mayor earlier this year after coming from the Michigan state legislature, where he sponsored a regional transportation bill.

“But the transportation network is just rubber and steel unless the relational pieces come into play,” cautioned Mr. Piepszowski, who recognizes that there are still some political hold-outs against a mass transit system. “Transportation is a social delivery system. It’s about people. Solving our transportation problems in the Detroit metropolitan area is one way to overcome inequality among people here. As Catholics, we come to our faith as a community. Catholic teaching is all about building community.”

Ann Serra remains optimistic, too. “When you are connected, you see others’ problems,” she said. And relationships among church people, connections between the city and suburbs through this battle against sprawl—and for mass transit—are key to the archdiocese’s hopes for promoting justice in the Detroit metropolitan area.

Olga Bonfiglio, a freelance writer who grew up in the Detroit area, is a professor at Kalamazoo College, where she teaches a geography class entitled: The Influences of Geography on Community.

Comments

D. Scott Baker, AICP | 11/8/2002 - 3:06pm
As a certified urban planner, I note with concern Olga Bonfiglio's uncontested assertion that urban sprawl is reponsible for "feelings of alienation and disconnection," along with host of other more mundane social ills.

I have no problem agreeing that sprawl contributes to some of the problems mentioned in the article, because I witness them every day working for a large Florida city. I also agree that many of these problems demand democratic, community-based solutions.

I worry, however, when my colleagues start to equate a better land use plan with the answer to someone else's feelings of "alienation and disconnection." Within the more fashionable responses to sprawl, such as "new urbanism," inarguably good design has been subtly imbued with the power save and heal souls as well as cities.

Alienation and disconnection are spiritual problems for which there is no political or geographical solution. I hope the reformers in Detroit keep this in mind as they take on the concerns of their community.

D. Scott Baker, AICP | 11/8/2002 - 3:06pm
As a certified urban planner, I note with concern Olga Bonfiglio's uncontested assertion that urban sprawl is reponsible for "feelings of alienation and disconnection," along with host of other more mundane social ills.

I have no problem agreeing that sprawl contributes to some of the problems mentioned in the article, because I witness them every day working for a large Florida city. I also agree that many of these problems demand democratic, community-based solutions.

I worry, however, when my colleagues start to equate a better land use plan with the answer to someone else's feelings of "alienation and disconnection." Within the more fashionable responses to sprawl, such as "new urbanism," inarguably good design has been subtly imbued with the power save and heal souls as well as cities.

Alienation and disconnection are spiritual problems for which there is no political or geographical solution. I hope the reformers in Detroit keep this in mind as they take on the concerns of their community.