A Harvard Research Institute Explores What Makes A Good Neighborhood in Detroit

The trio is using big data to revive the American dream

In 1945, the city of Detroit was locked amidst a thorny mayoral election. More accurately, it was a tooth-and-nail proxy war on one of the most consequential issues of the moment: housing. The, incumbent Edward Jefferies, promised voters to “safeguard their neighborhoods” against “racial invasions,” virulently, and successfully, drumming up anxiety over his opponent’s support of mixed-race housing. These tactics were drawn from larger crusade rippling across the U.S. — one that would codify the country’s history of racial discrimination into housing policy.

“We still tend to put a lot of white middle-class values on what makes a good neighborhood,” says Alexa Eisenberg, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health currently studying housing policy in metro Detroit. Unlike many other major cities, Detroit never sincerely invested into the low-income public housing found in New York or Chicago. Instead, it was defined by independent, but poor-quality housing left behind to African Americans by white residents moving into the suburbs. “There has been no city in America that has reflected the downturn of economic opportunity for black Americans more than Detroit,” says Alford Young Jr., a professor of Sociology and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Still, most policies aimed at revitalizing Detroit, by way of its housing, are built upon the traditional formula of what defines a suitable neighborhood: white picket fences, and manicured lawns, and well-endowed school districts. They are the signposts of white suburbia, which took root in Jeffries’ America, and are particularly detrimental to a city like Detroit. “A good neighborhood [here] doesn’t have to have, what we consider to look good on the surface,” Eisenberg says. 

“A good neighborhood doesn’t have to have, what we consider to look good on the surface.”

–Alexa Eisenberg

More than 700 miles northeast of Detroit, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a research and policy institute based out of Harvard University trying to discover exactly what makes a “good neighborhood.” Opportunity Insights was founded in 2018 by Raj Chetty — who is considered one of Harvard University’s most promising young economist — in partnership with John Friedman, a professor of economics, international affairs, and public policy at Brown University, and Nathaniel Hendren, Chetty’s fellow professor of economics at Harvard. The trio’s goal is to revive the American dream through the power of big data.

Opportunity Insights draws its data from an extensive tax base that allows its studies to circumvent traditional forms of statistical research — which often consist of small, randomly assigned case studies — and more closely approximate reality. To some extent, their research corroborates the obvious: the country’s history of racial segregation still remains entrenched in its residential patterns. But they’re also backing the notion that the solution may not necessarily revolve around making over poor, largely African American urban neighborhoods to look like wealthy white suburban ones.

“We’re trying to distinguish between traditional measures of affluence and real opportunity,” says policy director David Williams, a Southfield native who, until recently, served as senior adviser to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “When we talk about opportunity, that means if you live in a certain place and you’re coming from a low-income family, what are your chances of rising up the income ladder?” A map of the U.S. shaded by degrees of opportunity, as OI has done with its resources, suddenly looks significantly different from one shaded by degrees of wealth. And it is opportunity, Williams asserts, that might be the key to making a good neighborhood.

But how might one locate opportunity in a place where opportunity seems limited? “Anyone that is under the age of 21 in Detroit has no lived experience in a city that was seen as promising and enriching and rewarding,” Young says. “Without a history of work opportunity in their communities, without a history of the kind of community development that might have unfolded in other cities, there’s a real challenge to make sense of what living in a healthier community can look like.”

OI’s research numbers show that there is a way to find opportunity here, but it’s only apparent when you look at the city’s numbers in comparison to black children across the U.S.. In that context, a city that once appeared as an economic wasteland becomes speckled with promise. Black children from  low-income families who grow up in North Rosedale Park, a neighborhood with an incarceration rate of 1.2%, and employment rate of 81%, can grow up to earn $31,000. That’s about $10,000 more than the national average. On the other hand, black children growing up in Grosse Pointe Park — a significantly wealthier neighborhood with an incarceration rate of less than 1%, and employment rate of 76% — only grow up to earn  around $17,000. The data reveals that opportunity, and its absence, exist intertwined, one on top of the other, and side by side in this city.

Core to OI’s research is pinpointing the factors that engender this opportunity nationally. One dynamic Williams finds particularly interesting, is that regardless of whether a black boy grows up with a father figure in his household, in neighborhoods where more fathers are present, young black boys that grow up there tend to fare better on average. The research is still ongoing but some other factors they are noticing include the presence of employed adults, low levels of racial disparity, and greater levels of racial integration. “I think it speaks to the fact that growing up in a place where you see pathways to opportunity is really important.” Intuitive as it may sound, that’s not a conjecture made off of common knowledge. It’s an inference based on data culled from households across the country. One with real potential to be transformed into policy.

“Growing up in a place where you see pathways to opportunity is really important.”

—David Williams

OI has already hit the ground running in that regard, too. Last year, they partnered with the U-M’s Poverty Solutions: an initiative that conducts action-oriented research to find ways to alleviate poverty within Detroit, statewide, and even internationally. Since Poverty Solutions launched  in 2016, they’ve been working closely with the Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility to help inform and enhance the city’s efforts to promote economic mobility.

“Opportunity Insights chose to partner directly with us to see how their research could inform our broader work of promoting economic mobility,” says Assistant Director of Economic Mobility at Poverty Solutions Patrick Cooney. He says some recent research in which OI found that their sample of children — who were growing up in the economically challenged Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood in the 1980s — fared better than those in neighboring areas. Poverty Solutions is working to couple that data with context on what was happening in Jefferson Chalmers at the time, especially with regard to local development. “The role that we’re playing in the partnership is seeing how we can pair their data with some local qualitative insights,” Cooney explains.

“I’m not clear that there has ever been a clear investment in housing policy for young African Americans,” Young says. Until now, that is. Though it’s still early, the initiative OI has taken on is about much more than color-coding the country or dictating to people where they should live. “Our work is really bringing the research and data with the lived experience to create really thoughtful programs and policies to make a real difference,” Williams says.

They’re changing the language of success in the process, by unwinding it from absolute thresholds of income, achievements, and color, and reworking it around measures of movement, change, and progress. To win in life, their research says, should just be about getting from one point to the next. Everyone’s starting point is different.