Houston, You Have a Problem: You’re Not Detroit.

Houston's growth seems unstoppable. Meanwhile, the population of Detroit has fallen to historic lows. So which city is better off?

The top-of-the-fold headline on the front page of the Detroit Free Press on May 19 promised hope and change: “Exodus from city slows to a crawl.”

Detroit’s population, the article proclaimed, was 677,116 on July 1, 2015, a decrease of only 0.5 percent from the previous year. Between 2013 and 2014, by comparison, Detroit’s population declined nearly three times that percentage. So we’re good, right?

Well, not exactly.

As Detroiters have come to know, there’s usually a “however” in good-news stories about the city. Seven paragraphs into the Free Press article, the h-word arrived.

“The city did, however, fall out of the top 20 for the first time since 1850.”

Ouch. That’s the kind of “however” that can leave a bruise.

Looking back to 1850:

  • Millard Fillmore was president of the United States.
  • P.T. Barnum was getting rich off such attractions as Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale.
  • People who rode in phaetons, cabriolets and broughams were sitting in horse-drawn carriages, not automobiles. Those contraptions were decades away.
  • And the population of Detroit was a bit over 21,000. To put that into perspective, the seating capacity of The Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons, is 24,276. The city cracked the top 20 in 1860, when at #19, the population more than doubled, to 45,619, which is well under the 65,000 seats in Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play.

A dozen or so American cities have grown bigger as Detroit slid from the fifth largest in the country in 1950 to where it is today at number 21. None has super-sized faster than Houston. The Bayou City had 596,163 residents in 1950, compared to the 1.8 million in Detroit that year, when Motown was ranked number 5. Today, Houston is the fourth largest city in America, with more than 1.9 million residents.

There is, however, a downside to Houston’s meteoric rise. The city’s rapid growth is creating floods that disrupt lives, damage property, close schools and businesses and kill people.

The day after the Free Press story, The Wall Street Journal ran an article below this headline: “Houston’s Rapid Growth, Heavy Rains, Heighten Flood Fears.”

“Many cities in the South and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have grown faster than other parts of the country in recent decades and become more prone to flooding…But the Houston region, with its 800 miles of creeks and bayous, is particularly vulnerable.”

It’s bad enough that the city is low-lying and built on clay, which doesn’t drain very well. Compounding the problem: “…lax building regulations allowed older subdivisions to spring up in areas where flooding was inevitable, experts said.”

Quoting an expert, the article went on: “When heavy downpours hit, the rain has no place to drain,” because so much of Houston’s wetlands and prairie have been paved over.

Eight people died from the Houston storms in April. The mayor named a “flood czar” to work on flood prevention.

Storms that cause shut-down flooding are rare in Detroit. The most recent one occurred in 2014, when rainfall measured between 4.75 and 6 inches on a single day.

Here, instead of too much pavement, more and more land pops up every time the city tears down a vacant house. Some parts of the city have returned to something akin to prairie. Earlier this year, a friend visiting from the suburbs swears that he saw three deer trotting across an intersection in my Detroit neighborhood.

Can Houston fix its flooding problem? Yes, it can. More important, will Houston fix its flooding problem? Human nature being what it is, I have my doubts.

Finding the millions of dollars necessary to replace antiquated drainage systems is costly. What will be even more difficult for Houstonians is admitting that its growth must be managed, and not allowed to continue on its unregulated course. I’m talking about a change in public policy, which is often an arduous and lengthy process. Too often, catastrophe has to befall people before they are stirred to fixing what needs to be fixed.

Hopefully, Houstonians are wakening to the hazards of unbridled growth. Detroiters had the opposite problem. We were blind to the reality of contraction. As the city’s population dwindled decade after decade, elected officials, community leaders, businesses and residents kept telling themselves that the bleeding would stop on its own, or that the tuck work projects that were put in place would arrest the decline. We were wrong. Detroit had to hit bottom before its people accepted the new reality and the challenges ahead. Now, however, we’re slowly crafting a reimagined Detroit with energy, imagination and hard work.

 

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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.