Detroit is Dying… Quickly

Photo: iStockphoto

Census data released this week confirmed what we already knew: Detroit is dying. It’s just happening much faster than we thought. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population; 273,500 people. According to news reports, local officials are stunned, including Mayor Dave Bing, who wants a recount.

After New Orleans, which lost 29 percent of its population in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Detroit’s 25 percent loss is the largest percentage drop in the history of an American city with more than 100,000 people. Just ten years ago, Detroit was the tenth largest city in the country. Demographers at the Brookings Institute now believe it might have fallen all the way to 18th, with just 713,777 people. That’s the smallest it’s been since 1910, just before the automotive boom brought millions of well-paid jobs and turned Detroit into the Motor City. It’s hard to imagine, but up until 1950, Detroit was the fourth biggest city in America. In 1960, it had the highest per-capita income in the U.S.

While the complete 2010 U.S. Census data won’t be released until Thursday, enough of it is available to see which other cities were big losers in the first decade of the 21st century:  Cleveland lost 17%, Cincinnati lost 10.4%, Pittsburgh lost 8.6%, Toledo lost 8.4% See a trend? Looks like more of the same as the American Rust Belt continues to fade.

This isn’t to say that cities are losing out everywhere. In fact, as William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute pointed out this summer, cities made up significant ground on  suburbs during the latter half of the last decade. And don’t forget, as evidenced by our talk with Ed Glaeser last month, cities still rock.





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  1. Joshua Northey says:

    Demographers at Brookings should also know that the population in the city limits doesn’t really mean that much (Cities use many different models for how they break up their municipal boundaries), though I am sure the numbers are not much more encouraging for the MSA.

    Duluth Minnesota lost very close to 25% when the steel mill closed ~1980. 107k to 79k or so. It is mostly recovered now.

    Things really have changed for Michigan, got caught in the double vice of better comparative advantage overseas in their overspecialized sector and shortsighted bargaining by workers and management at home.

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  2. Gary Lowe says:

    I was born (1965) and raised in Detroit although I moved to California after college. One disadvantage that Detroit has (aside from it’s reliance on the auto-industry) is that it’s so spread out geographically. That means that you need a car even when you live within the city limits. So, when my parents moved to the suburbs in the late 1960’s, their lifestyle changed very little other than being able to own a brand new house. There’s really no advantage to being in the Detroit city limits. It’s too bad, because my mom can wax eloquent about how great Detroit was when she was growing up int he forties and fifties.

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  3. Paul Richard says:

    If only Detroit had stronger unions and higher taxes it would not have found itself in this predicament.

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    • Lou says:

      well, at least you’re not spouting the usual racist nonsense, just the latest nonsense blaming the loss of the middle class on the middle class.

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      • Paul Richard says:

        Lou, I’m a little confused by your comment. This is my first time posting. Are you attempting associate one’s views on unions with racism? My comment has nothing to do with race. Please discuss the issue at hand and refrain from ad hominem attacks. I quite sure it is possible that two people can have differing views on unions without one of them being a racist.

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      • Lou says:

        Paul, I apologize if I read your remark the wrong way. I took it as a sarcastic statement. Just as the problems of Detroit have long been blamed on the color of it’s residents, it is now popular to blame the economic problems of our country on unions and taxes.

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      • MikeO says:

        Ah, the racist argument! It never goes out of fashion with the left.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2
      • KSunk says:

        Ah, the blame the poor argument! It never goes out of fashion with with the right.

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      • Lou says:

        Well played sir. Your rhetoric is much more powerful than mine. I bow to your superior logic.

        (That WAS sarcasm)

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  4. Wayne bienek says:

    Detroit will never really have big population again.. they have the nerve to actually charge city tax like New York! They’re insane.. anyhow.. As the internet allows people to live in the suburbs of large cities, living in a large city becomes less important..

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    • Saxby says:

      I’m not sure how the internet has allowed people to live in suburbs, seeing as people began fleeing to the suburbs in the early fifties. I don’t disagree with your main point– that Detroit will never be the same city– but your reasoning seems a little flawed.

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  5. Doc says:

    Joshua’s point about city limits is spot on. For decades we’ve used Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) as the unit of analysis for understanding metropolitan markets.MSAs are far bigger than their core cities. In the recent past we’ve even gone bigger and recognized that MSAs are often combined into a single conurbation such as the San Francisco Bay Area which has several MSAs and the Tri-State areas of NY, NJ and CT’s Fairfield County which also has several. The core cities in most MSAs or conurbations have been suffering decline for decades despite the “New Urbanism”. I see the New Urbanism as a recycling process. Inner City revitalization can’t occur until the old industries, people, businesses have left or become so moribund that it’s economic to tear things down, do gut renovations and so on. The irony is that inner city establishments try so hard to keep the status quo that they delay the ultimate revival.

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    • Andy Freeman says:

      > The core cities in most MSAs or conurbations have been suffering decline for decades despite the “New Urbanism”. ‘

      Is the decline for decades despite “new urbanism” or because of “new urbanism”?

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  6. jim says:

    The recent drop in Detroit is not recent. I was born and rasied in Hazel Park a Subburb of Detroit. From my birth in 1972 till Me and my family left in 2002 Detroit has Been slowly falling to pieces.
    The seperation of the unions and the lack of Pride for the city and some of its good History has been forgoten. Not only by The Country but Als by Michigan. Detroit has Died Because We as The residents wanted it to. It was the “Problem Part ” of the State. Lay the blame at were it needs to Be The People Of Detroit And Detoit Its Self. Old Buildings Still Left Standing From The Riots Not Torn Down! The Devils Night Homes Left After Being Burnt. All Breeading Grounds For Death,Drugs And Shitty Neiborhoods. Were Was The City Then. If You Have NO Pride How Can YOU Expect the Area To Grow Or Evolve ? It Will Only Devolve and that is what it has done and is now moving out into the Suburbs. Less Teachers Less Jobs Less Caring. I would Move Back If I Seen A Little Bit Of Change And Hope . I loved The Old City . Ballgames at mich. and Trum.The Fox, The Joe, And I Loved going to Cobo. Now You Need a Third Mortgage To do anything in the city its wrong. We can Be a strong Nation and a strong city .

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  7. patsw says:,29307,1882089,00.html

    The 2009 photo essay from TIME on the abandoned infrastructure of Detroit tells you all you need to know. It’s the “broken windows” theory on an city-wide scale.

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  8. Mike B says:

    You wonder why certain cities like Detroit and Akron begin to market themselves to various underserved communities such as sex offenders or the homeless. Across the country large groups of people are being pushed to the margins of their communities, however we have large cities with lots of empty houses and plenty of space. Just as gays and other marginalized groups became urban pioneers in decades past, today’s groups could find a home in cities that regular folk have abandoned.

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    • Jay says:

      Yes, stupid people who do not understand economics voting for politicians that give them benefits from the city coffers has never bankrupted a city before. Businesses love cities with high tax rates too and love unions that want their workers overpaid. If I had a business I would want a union telling me how much to pay people and I would also want them to place lots of regulations on my business that cost lots of money.

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