The inclusive suburb: Southfield's long history of intentional integration


Bordering Detroit along a county line marked by 8 Mile Road, Southfield can fairly be described as an "edge city." Like many of the region's early suburbs, it was a natural destination for families migrating out of Detroit. Yet while many metro area communities were not welcoming to racial and ethnic minorities, exacerbating the white flight that contributed to Detroit's deterioration, Southfield stands out as a suburb that has been both inclusive and economically stable, a rare feat in a fractured metropolis.
 
So how did this happen? And what can other cities learn from Southfield?
 
"The center of it all"
 
Its geographic relationship to other places has always been a key piece of Southfield's identity. Its name comes from its founding in the 1820s in the "south fields" of Bloomfield Township. It wasn't until 1958, however, that the community incorporated as a city. By then, Southfield was already home to one of the first shopping malls in the nation, the Northland Center, so named because it was north of Detroit. In recent years, Southfield adopted a slogan, "the center of it all," to celebrate its position at the heart of metro Detroit.
 
Though Northland appears to be nearing closure, Southfield remains a nexus. A full 25 percent of all Oakland County companies are based in Southfield. It offers 27 million square feet of office space—just shy of what is available in the center city of Detroit. Along with 73,000 residents, the city is home to eight colleges and the broadcast studios of nearly every local television station.

Southfield Town Center-4
 What distinguishes Southfield from other suburbs, however, is that its economic growth coincided with demographic change as more people of color, especially African Americans, moved there. In 1970, less than one percent of Southfield's residents were black. Today, 70 percent of the city is African American, 25 percent is white, and the rest is a mix of Latino, Native American, Asian, and multiracial families. Over 36 percent of residents hold at least a bachelor's degree (the national average is just under 29 percent, while the state of Michigan's is less than 26 percent). Median household income is $49,841, making it one of two majority-black cities in Michigan with a higher median household income than that of the state of Michigan. (Lathrup Village, an enclave city of Southfield, is the other.)
 
Nik Banda saw it all happen. Now a city manager in Rochester, Mich., Banda spent decades working as a Southfield city planner, beginning in the 1970s. "People were running out of Detroit and Pontiac, and they found Southfield as a multi-ethnic and accepting community," he says.
 
According to Banda, his work was aided by his Romanian background. "People look at me and they can't tell if I'm Chaldean, Arab, Greek, or Mexican," he says. "They don't know what I am." He thinks this helped him to communicate with many different kinds of people as Southfield diversified.
 
An intentional community
 
Southfield's diversification didn't happen by accident. Rather than resisting the changing complexion of its population, Southfield made a conscious choice to prioritize civic values that all different kinds of families shared: the common ground of safety, good schools, and economic stability.
 
Policies of inclusion meant being both proactive and patient. In the seventies and eighties, many students coming into Southfield schools from other districts were behind their grade level. Rather than lower school standards to meet them where they were at, teachers worked extra to catch the new students up. Banda remembers a teacher telling him that she shouldn't be judged on the reading and writing results of the first year; if the new kids weren't caught up after two years, though, then she should be held to account. 
 
Ber-Henda Williams was among the new students in Southfield. Her parents moved there from Detroit in the eighties in search of a good education for their daughters. Williams said the schools had a strong parent-teacher network and were culturally inclusive. Her school did a performance of "It's a Small World After All" with the parents translating lyrics from 22 different languages, including Polish, German, Togala, and Swahili. "Every year, another language was added when another ethnic group moved to city," Williams said. "It was a huge effort to make sure everyone was represented. Parents were just in awe because they'd never seen anything like this."
 
Inclusiveness wasn't just a "special occasion." Classroom discussion turned on current events, from the Berlin Wall to the Tiannamon Square resistance to Nelson Mandela's release from prison. "I didn't realize these were social justice conversations," Williams said. "It was just part of the educational landscape to talk about current events, which meant talking about civil rights, equality, and what it looks like to participate in a global society."
 
Williams got a particularly good Spanish education. As a freshman in college, she placed into an honors level Spanish class because of Southfield public schools. "I had a full-on conversation with a professor who was really impressed," she says. "He asked, 'Where did you learn that?' I told him, 'In high school.' And he said, 'I never spoke to a high school student as fluent as you are.'"

Outside the schools, Southfield leadership brought together diverse people to serve on boards dedicated to cross-cultural city policy and management. They clarified expectations for all Southfield residents, which boiled down to being respectful of the city and its people. It was a transparent way diffuse any burgeoning racial tension by steering the conversation toward civic values and neighborly habits.

"I think the key was, we weren't afraid to talk about it face-to-face with African American leaders involved," Banda said. "Other (cities) didn't do that. They reacted to all the stereotypes."

Banda remembers people telling him that Northland mall was going to be the death of the city because "only black people are going there." 

"I got in a fight with that guy," Banda says. "[I told him,]'Wait and see where we are in ten years, and you'll eat your words.'"

One point Banda emphasizes: while Southfield had residents of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious difference wasn't especially present during his years there. Most Southfield residents came from Christian or Jewish backgrounds, including the wave of Chaldeans from Iraq that began pouring into the city in the late eighties, and that somewhat simplified the task at hand. Cities like his hometown of Dearborn, he said, have a different context, and will likely need to find different ways for its residents to find common ground.
 
Another factor Banda attributes to Southfield's success is the lack of corruption in city hall. Over his multi-decade career, there was only one incident of corruption that broke faith with the city's residents. "You can look at the records," Banda says. "It's as clean as you get in government. Integrity in governance is huge."
 
There was enough pride in city leadership, in fact, that layoffs and city service cuts were very rare. During the scarcest years, funds stagnated ("I didn't get a raise for nine years," Banda says) but the staff "sucked it up" rather than diminish the capacity of the city to do its work. It kept the streets plowed. It is now spending money on road repair again. This has helped ensure that Southfield's leadership has credibility with its residents.
 
The challenges of the future

Southfield Town Center -1

Today, Southfield is at a crossroads. The welcoming policies that gave it an advantage over the twentieth century are now more commonplace among its neighboring suburbs. Detroit has strengthened as a core city, undercutting Southfield's strategy of serving as "the center of it all." During the real estate crisis, office vacancy in Southfield grew to ominous proportions. And the religious difference that was not a pressing issue among citizens in Banda's years at the city is taking shape.
 
At the same time, Southfield remains ahead of the curve in inclusivity. While Michigan digs in its heels as one of the last states to oppose gay marriage, Southfield unanimously adopted an ordinance protecting LGBT rights. At the ordinance hearing, twelve people spoke in favor of it and only one opposed it. According to the Detroit Free Press, supporting resident Robert Lewis told the council that when he moved to Southfield 25 years ago, he asked for protections for African American residents. His request for equal access back then "did not include the gay and transgender (community). That needs to be corrected."
 
In the last election, the city's congressman, Jeremy Moss (D—Southfield) joined Jon Hoadley (D—Kalamazoo) in becoming only the second and third openly gay members of Michigan's House of Representatives. Moss is a former member of the Southfield City Council.
 
Southfield Public LibraryBer-Henda Williams continues to be a believer in Southfield. As an adult resident, she ran a poetry series at the public library and she participates in the "celebrity reader" program in the public schools. As for decisions the city can make now to ensure that its future remains prosperous, she thinks Southfield would benefit from an incubator space like Detroit's TechTown to cultivate more entrepreneurism in its corporate economy. As home to universities like Lawrence Tech and media hubs like the Specs Howard School, the resources are already there. Pop-up programming, like the Revolve Detroit initiative on the Avenue of Fashion, could also ignite Southfield's start-up energy. "I see food trucks, mobile boutiques—there are a lot of ways small businesses can be tapped to further the culture and opportunities here," Williams says.
 
And with a more vibrant Detroit as a next-door neighbor, Southfield has the potential for dynamic collaboration with the city's creative class. As a mid-size city, it is well suited for people who want to have an impact. Southfield's tradition of reinventing the suburban story is only just beginning.
 
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Anna Clark is a Detroit-based journalist and the editor of Rust Belt Chic Press's "A Detroit Anthology." Follow her on Twitter @annaleighclark.
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