Vanishing Detroit

The 2010 Census delivered stunning news about Detroit.  The Census determined that the Motor City’s population has fallen — some might say collapsed — by 25 percent in only 10 years.  According to the Census, Detroit now has only 713,777 residents.  Detroit is now about one-third the population it achieved at its high point, in the 1950s.  Former citizens of Detroit, black and white, have fled the city for the suburbs or have left Michigan entirely.

The rapid decline of Detroit’s population will come as no surprise to anyone who has been to the city in the past few decades.  Even in the early 1980s, when Kish, Snow and I visited, Detroit had the scent of death about it.  The city was tied inexorably to the American auto industry, and as the Big Three fell victim to their own hubris and inability to produce quality vehicles at reasonable prices Detroit suffered.  Successive urban renewal-type projects, from the Renaissance Center to casino gambling, became increasingly desperate and made the city’s image fall still farther.  A few years ago I went to a deposition at a law firm’s building in a formerly grand neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown, and found block after largely vacant block of rubble and an occasional gutted building.  Parts of inner city of Detroit seem to be turning into a vast urban wasteland.

A rapidly shrinking city poses significantly more difficult problems than does a rapidly growing one.  What do you do with dozens of neighborhood fire stations, police stations, and schools that are greatly underutilized?  How do you consolidate services when entire neighborhoods have disappeared, and therefore consolidated districts must cover a significantly larger geographic area than before?  And most importantly, how do you convince new businesses to relocate to Detroit and revive its economy when the city’s own residents are running away?


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