Vanishing City: The Story Behind Detroit’s Shocking Population Decline

  • Share
  • Read Later
Detroit, Michigan

REUTERS/Molly Riley/Files

The news this week that Detroit’s population plunged more than 25% to just 714,000 in the last decade shouldn’t be surprising. The city’s collapse is as well-documented as it is astonishing – the population peaked at nearly 2 million in the 1950s, driven in part by a post-World War II auto industry boom now long gone.

(More on See tilt-shift photography of Detroit)

Predictably, Detroit officials have vowed to challenge the Census Bureau’s report. “I don’t believe the number is accurate,” the mayor, Dave Bing, said in a hastily scheduled news conference Tuesday. Bing’s response is understandable. It is hard to believe that what was once America’s fourth-largest city now has a smaller population than Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., in the fast-growing South, and Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Ind., in the shrinking Midwest. City officials, perhaps justifiably, fear a loss of federal funds tied to population, as well as an erosion of Detroit’s power in Congress.

But there is another story behind these numbers. Some of Detroit’s population loss in the last decade can be attributed to the exodus of middle-class blacks unwilling to subject their children to schools that too often lack the audacity to expect them to succeed, and crime in the relatively affluent neighborhoods that remain. It’s not just Detroit. A similar black middle-class exodus is occurring in in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and New Orleans — though the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina offers a different explanation in the Crescent City. Traditional African American political and business networks in those urban centers are diffusing. And the broader shift could have significant implications for black politics nationally. (Detroit, for the record, remains America’s most populous majority-black city.)

(More on See Detroit school kids’ dreams for the future)

Simply put, Detroit is at a crossroads. One path leads to collapse, the other renewal. Mayor Bing, an erudite NBA All Star-turned steel magnate whom I profiled when I was TIME’s Detroit Bureau Chief, has taken on a daunting challenge: defining what it means to rebuild a 21st-Century American city. Backed by philanthropic and business groups, he will have to try to move residents of Detroit’s eerily sparse neighborhoods into the few remaining vibrant districts like Midtown, home to a thriving university, hospitals and museums.

But for all the talk of Detroit’s revival aspirations, this week’s numbers are sobering. The population decline is a jolt to the city’s self-image. And if people never return, it’s unclear what will happen to Detroit’s nearly 140 square miles — enough to fit Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan with room to spare — that now lie largely vacant. The city, like businesses and governments across America caught in decline, will have to reinvent itself as something smaller. —By Steven Gray

(More on See pictures of a Detroit food bank)