Mapping Detroit: Fact-checking the mayor's claims on Detroit's scrap yard tally

This is part of a series from the unofficial cartographer of Detroit, Alex B. Hill, a self-described “data nerd and anthropologist” who combines mapping, data, and analytics with storytelling and human experience. He is the founder of DETROITography and author of “Detroit in 50 Maps." 

In a puzzling revelation, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan presented a figure of 452 auto and scrap yards during his 2023 Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC) speech, which prompted me to thoroughly investigate the data's origins. Despite exhaustive searches across platforms such as the City’s open data portal, business data explorer, and POI data providers, the cited number remained elusive. 

Finding data

Attempting to validate the mayor's claim, an exploration of Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department-issued blight violations on the open data portal revealed a new set of sites exceeding the reported 452 auto/scrap yards. A Google Streetview check uncovered an auto/scrap yard operation in a residential alleyway, leading to questions about how these locations are regulated.

Comparing that data with figures from the State of Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) revealed disparities, with 110 used auto parts and metal recycling sites found, a stark contrast to the Duggan’s figure. Looking for clarity on data sources from the mayor's office resulted in more confusion, unveiling the connection to a 2019 moratorium on new auto or scrap yard businesses.

Mayor's Office engagement

While sorting through data sources from the mayor's office, I stumbled on some information related to a January 2019 moratorium on new auto/scrap yard businesses. A June 2022 presentation by BSEED to the City Planning Commission disclosed the use of Secretary of State data sources to compile the list of sites. The Secretary of State maintains searchable databases for both auto repair and auto dealers as part of their online services, but the numbers used by Duggan still didn’t match up. 

BSEED's memo outlined a methodology, including a perplexing assumption that 50% of auto repair shops were not active. With a master list of 1,414 sites, the numbers diverged from those mapped in June 2022. A spreadsheet of 121 business shutdowns related to auto uses enforcement showcased limited overlap between BSEED's master list and the Secretary of State's records.

[MAP: auto_uses_closures.jpg]

Examining closures since 2019, only seven locations overlapped with BSEED business closures, raising questions about the dataset's comprehensiveness. The lack of actual scrapyards in the BSEED closure dataset further muddled the picture. The closure of 114 additional sites in the crackdown on auto/scrap yards remained a mystery.

What did we learn, exactly?

Despite the ongoing investigation, the perceived widespread scrapping in the city might be exaggerated. Instead, a smaller subset of scrapping activities, combined with concerns about decaying old cars and parts, fueled a negative narrative. The way data was presented obscured the distinction between scrap yards and small businesses, impacting public perception of Detroit.

The number of scrap yards in Detroit became a contentious issue amid discussions of Mayor Mike Duggan's Land Value Tax Plan. Duggan's claim of 452 auto/scrap yards spurred inquiries into the definition of a scrap yard, revealing conflicting perspectives. The proposed tax plan could double tax bills for scrap yards, prompting scrutiny of the city's data. The City Council's Legislative Policy Division offered up yet another number, citing 60 "junkyards," adding layers of complexity to the scrap yards count in Detroit.

Data is a valuable commodity and it’s unfortunate when it’s used in unverifiable or confusing ways. When the City publicly references data, it should be readily available on the city’s open data portal or another public source. The numbers help us track progress and identify what assets we have available. Data and numbers matter, maybe not as much to every person, but they seed the narratives of our city and drive perceptions of the people who live in Detroit.
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Read more articles by Alex B. Hill.