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.





Joshua Northey

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.

Gary Lowe

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.

Paul Richard

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


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.

Paul Richard

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.


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.

Wayne bienek

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..


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.


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.


Andy Freeman

> 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"?


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 .



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.

Mike B

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.


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.


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!!!



"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?

Andrew Ziaja

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.