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. Terry says:

    Detroit suffers from poor design on top of the usual stuff like high insurance rates, high property crime, and corruption (tho that’s not as bad thanks to the internet). Giant highways disect neighborhoods and there is no adequate public transportation. Hopefully some of that will change with the new light rail down Woodward, where economic development will spread out for blocks down the path.

    Also, from my view point of having moved to the area in 1997, it seems to me that the city has more things to do downtown and in Mid-town over the past decade or so, as the people have left. So I say, less people, more awesome.

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  2. TruckerMark says:

    What killed Detroit was a combination of things going all the way back to World War II. During the war numerous war plants were built which attracted huge numbers of blue-collar employees. It was also during the war when Detroit’s first large race riot occurred, which began to drive suburban growth. The 1950s saw the closure of Briggs, Hudson, and Packard, with Studebaker leaving town too. The 1960s saw increased racial friction under Mayor Cavanaugh and others resulting in the 1967 riots. While the 1968 Tiger’s come from behind victory in the World Series brought the city back together temporarily, suburban flight continued after the 1967 riots, and the city was eventually doomed, as older plants were not modernized and there were a large number of plant closures during the 1979-1982 recession. My roommate in Birmingham was among the last workers let go at the old Dodge plant in Hamtramck, and in 1982 I used to haul car paint out of the old Fisher Body plant on Piquette too. In a report on Detroit that I did a year ago, I noted that just Chrysler had closed nearly 3/4ths of what had been more than 40 different plants there between 1970 and 2009, throwing an estimated 70-80K workers onto the street, plus the jobs at suppliers, plus service industry jobs too. Imagine your city loosing 300,000 jobs per every 1 million residents? It is little wonder that Detroit is suffering so. .

    There have been several factors which have combined to hurt the Rust Belt cities. The imposition of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s greatly raised the costs of doing business for Detroit’s manufacturers, as did the cost of the ban on soft coal over acid rain concerns. The cost of coal exhaust scrubbers didn’t help either. When we add these imposed environmental regulations to the extra cost of union labor as well as extra fuel and heating costs, and the extra costs associated with the declining availability of Iron and copper ores from northern Michigan and the Mesabi Range, together, the added costs of operating large heavy industries dependent on hot metal industries in the area made many such plants non-viable, which is why many of the older plants were not modernized. Even robotic assembly couldn’t save Pontiac Motor, as other costs had grown too much. Greatly increased levels of allegedly “fair” foreign trade since NAFTA has been the death knell of many of Detroit’s remaining heavy industries.

    The Detroit metro area is still very large in terms of population, but within the city limits of Detroit it is little surprise that the population has fallen so drastically. There have been numerous signs over the last 10 years that this was the trend, such as additional plant and school closings, and large-scale housing abandonment. A city-authored report of early 2010 identified over 40,000 abandoned houses and apartment buildings waiting to be demolished. While the casino business, Detroit’s downtown sports teams, and large projects like the Renaissance Center have saved the near-downtown area, large portions of city residential and industrial neighborhoods stand vacant with thousands of standing burnouts. Underground utilities regularly leak and what had been a proud city of the 1960s has gradually turned into a near ghost town now, with little hope of reinventing itself and regaining its former glory.

    I left Birmingham late in 1982 after three different truck lines that I worked for during that year went out from under me. I had been born there and had lived my first 25 years there. I still know many people there, many of whom are struggling again for the 3rd or 4th time since 1979. A close friend lost everything he owned recently after putting-in 32 years at GM Truck & Coach after his plant closed permanently. Other friends would love to be able to leave but they can’t sell their houses. Every Spring what’s left of the roads there turn into a disaster area as the cold patch from the previous year is washed away. A trip down any major road there will tell the story as millions of sq ft of commercial space stands abandoned in any direction that you head. Even the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece on it a few years ago that I enjoyed, entitled “Down & Out in Bloomfield Hills”. Imagine living in an urban area the size of Detroit, of four million people, with an unemployment rate over 20% and a 1 in 200 chance of selling your house, while the State and local government is increasingly unable to maintain existing services, as business after business after business and factory after factory closes its doors??? The effect has been a lot like flying a bomber over Europe early in World War II.

    Detroit was once a great place to live, and now it is a depressing place to visit. At the time when I left Detroit I always thought that someday I would return. Lately I have been looking at lakefront property in the northwest suburbs, while the prices are down by 75% or more. Maybe I’ll get one for a Summer place? Imagine owning a nice Summer lakefront house within 45 minutes of Detroit Metro Airport for 75% off? Would it be worth it, and would I ever be able to sell it? Right now there are several thousand people hoping that I say yes. What has America come to? I giant race to the bottom, to see who can do it for less by cutting the most corners and respecting the fewest laws?

    What a sad country we will be after we lose all of our industry. What has happened to Detroit is like the proverbial dead canary in the coal mine, as it stands to happen to almost all of us if we don’t wake-up soon. I have little hope that many of our children will have it nearly as well as we have had it. Basically America is becoming a Chinese colony, as the top 2% crowd rakes us over the coals, determined to squeeze every cent of profit out of us before the finally dump us all. And we are just letting it happen so worried about things that don’t matter while Rome continues to burn. Wake-up America, before we all go down in flames!!!

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    • Hitek says:

      “while Rome continues to burn”

      Yea, where is Nero when you need him? At least we could hear some music while the city destructs. What is left there, other than intervention-needed land, that would compel any businesses or residents to flock there?

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  3. Andrew Ziaja says:

    One way of reading Detroit’s decline is as the result of beggar-thy-everyone policy-making. It’s been a long, painful trip to 700,000, and it’s hard to see where the curve bottoms out.

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    • peevee says:

      The biggest problem standing in the way of Detroit renewal right now is the remaining 700,000 residents. Just imagine the city with NO CURRENT RESIDENTS. No crime. No corruption. No welfare costs. Free land. Free grand old buildings just waiting for renovation. And the rest can just be demolished en masse and rebuilt from scratch in modern (AND good old) mixed-use fashion. How many people in the US and around the world would like to live and work in that new city?
      Traveling and living around US and overseas I learned one simple truth: any place is only as good as its people. You may deny it, you may be angry at me for stating that truth, but it does not make the statement any less true.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  4. Brent says:

    All of the cities listed (sans Pittsburgh) have a city income tax that takes additional taxes out of paychecks of people who live or work in their city.

    Maybe coincidence…but maybe not.

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  5. onesy says:

    Detroit will grow again. At some point, as more people leave the city, and Real Estate prices bottom out, a new group will see an opportunity. I bet in a decade or two, it’s a nice place to live. I see lots of small urban farms in its future.

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  6. Mike Richards says:

    What’s the source for the clam that Detroit had the highest per capita income in the US in 1960? Census tables I’ve seen for 1960 only give household income for MSAs and Detroit is in no way is Detroit the highest. I’ve seen this factoid attributed to Newt Gingrich and picked up by right-wing blogs, but surely Freakonomics has better data sources, so it would great to know where that number comes from.

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  7. John says:

    “In 1960, it had the highest per-capita income in the U.S.”

    please note that this is when Detroit had it LAST Republican mayor. There has been a Democrat in office there since 1962. The start of the downfall.


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