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Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

White, Black, Green Flight Devastate Detroit


March 25, 2011

DETROIT — Sixty years ago, the Motor City spent a year celebrating its 250th anniversary and swelling with pride.

There was ample reason for that. Half a century before that, Detroit had been a fairly insignificant town, with fewer than 300,000 people, who mostly did things like make stoves and process fertilizer.

Then came the automotive era. By 1930, Detroit had six times its turn-of-the-20th-century population. The city put the world on wheels and, as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” helped win World War II.

Detroit was an enormously vibrant city. The 1950 census showed it had grown to 1,849,568 people. When Detroit formally celebrated its founding that summer, city fathers triumphantly predicted that a population of two million was just around the corner.

President Harry Truman even came to mark the occasion, in an era when presidential travel was not nearly as common as now.

Barely half a century later, Detroit has become one of the bleakest urban disasters in American history. City officials expected to get grim news from the U.S. Census Bureau this week. What they got, however, was even worse than expected.

The numbers painted a picture of sheer urban devastation unlike any in modern experience, of the depopulation and ruin of a once major American city.

Consider this: since the Republican National Convention came to Detroit in 1980, the city has lost half a million people. The decline was even steeper in the three decades before that.

This year, the census enumerators found a mere 713,777 people left in what a popular website calls the “ruins of Detroit.”

More than four-fifths of them are black. Many of the rest are Hispanic or Asian. The city’s white population has dwindled to 7.8 percent — 55,604 souls. Sixty years earlier, it was 1.6 million.

But while for years the term “white flight” had been the best way to describe what was happening, today it’s mostly about “black flight.” The African-American population of Detroit declined by an astonishing 185,393 people between 2000 and 2010, an indication that the middle class of both races has given up on the city.

To some extent, that is almost certainly because the schools are perceived as being so bad. To some extent it is the fear of crime, the lack of grocery stores, the higher cost of everything, including auto insurance. There are countless stories of people, white and black, who struggled valiantly for years to stay in Detroit before giving up in exhaustion.

Despite that, some had speculated that the census would find that the percentage of Detroiters who are white had increased.

Newspaper and magazine stories indicated that the city was attracting a new generation of young urban pioneers, who were returning to Detroit from the suburbs, living in lofts and creating an artistic and urbane lifestyle. Sadly, the census indicated that this was pretty much a fantasy. Sure, there may be a few kids doing those things. There are also people who vote for the Green Party. But both groups are statistically insignificant.

The census also revealed that nearly half of what white population had remained in Detroit in 2000 vanished over the next decade. That means more than 95 percent of Detroit’s 1951 white population has disappeared.

Nobody would argue that Detroit’s troubles are solely due to the fact that the whites left. In fact, one-quarter of the black population — far more people — left over the last decade as well.

But the “vanishing Caucasians” and the census returns from the suburbs tell another story that most of us don’t want to hear.

Integration, that dream of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, just doesn’t seem to work, at least when it comes to where people choose to live. Writer Desiree Cooper, a former Detroiter herself, wryly defines integration as that period of time between when the first black family moves in and the last white one moves out.

The census seems to indicate that is sadly true. Southfield, 9 percent black in 1980, is 70 percent black today. Highland Park, an enclave embedded in Detroit, is now only 3 percent white.

Only minutes away are Oakland County communities like Huntington Woods, where blacks are still less than 1 percent of the population.

Detroit’s real problem is not a matter of black and white, however, but green. The city is terribly poor, and the terrible census numbers will make things even worse, since cities get money from both the state and federal governments based on population.

The fact is that despite major league sports and casinos, Michigan’s largest city is now largely a ruin, with fewer people than it had during World War I. Had a Detroiter in 1951 been told his city would lose almost three-quarters of its population by the next century, he might have concluded that meant an atomic bomb was coming.

In terms of economic impact, one could argue that what really did happen wasn’t much different.

Economically, it is hard to see how Detroit, even with the best leadership in the world, can now be viable on its own. Nor is it easy to see how Michigan can return to prosperity unless something — metropolitan government, perhaps — happens to revive its major city.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 24, 2011 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , ,

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg Thrasher // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:01 am

    The End of the City in America

    The fate of cities across America is fragile many cities are on the edge of insolvency and bankruptcy. The states in which these cities are incorporated in are also facing severe fiscal problems and budgetary shortcomings. It is prudent therefore to have a discussion on a number of issues from regionalism to quality of living in face of these severe financial realities confronting american cities.

    Many of these cities because of these dire financial distress provide less services to their residents from fewer police and fire department services to street lights being shuttered to EMS response times being extended and certain calls being ignored completely. The spectrum of a complete shutdown of city services is no longer a script in a science fiction novel but a real time reality for public employees in our cities.

    Some residents in city neighborhoods are locking themselves and families in barricaded homes. The very idea of state national guards taking over law enforcement duties in many bankrupted cities across the nation is real and on the agenda of many city planners and state legislatures. The EFM legislation currently unfolding in Lansing many have argued is a blueprint for the takeover of Detroit .

    With this new downsized urban centers there has been an increase in vigilante groups, religious cults and people hibernating within their homes only coming out in the day time and rushing to return to home before the night comes to fill the air. When there is despair in the city air it fosters and cultivates paranoia, urban myths, and fear.

    In the face of this devolution of american cities across the country it is imperative that strategies and ideas must be developed to confront the end of cities. This examination of cities and life in this new economic and social, political reality however dos not have to be a negative or crisis proposition. Life can be come renewed and reenergize if we have the courage to design a new urban frontier.

    Regionalized cities which are the consolidation of other failed cities could create a platform of better services, improved schools and better over all quality of life in the neighborhood that are arteries of life in our urban locations. People simply are no longer loyal to cities and are more interested in their quality of life.

    What is driving people living in the new world order is the right to live quality life styles and living conditions that empower good food, safe streets, fresh air, beautiful surroundings, people who want to love life instead of battling decay and decadence.

    The equation for a new city maybe the complete destruction and collapse of the old city and its borders and boundaries. People want their lives to be purposeful and meaningful, they don’t care who or what government agency is picking up the trash, policing the streets and where the water and lights come from. People want service that work and make their lives more livable.

    Designing a new city begins with the objective and desires of those living in the old city and those living outside the city. It may even require that cities no longer be called cities but renamed and redefined as Urban Regions with one police department, one school district, one water board, one energy company, one health department, one park and recreation department…one…..one…..one…

  • 2 Cara McAlister // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Many corporations have invested millions if not billions of dollars into Detroit, as well.

    Michigan does not need to be held down due to Detroit. The city’s government and schools need to be downsized to reflect the sad truth. Detroit has to be broken up into smaller cities that are yet to be. A new lead city will emerge. But not there.

  • 3 Jim Brazier // Mar 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Metropolitan government is certainly an admirable solution. But it is most likely undoable politically unless there are political incentives for such a change. A merger of the City of Detroit with other Wayne County municipalities with Wayne County might be possible. The better solution would be to create a metro government encompassing Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties with the possibility of including Monroe and Livingston Counties. Perhaps the financial crisis faced by local governments that will worsen under Snyder could lead to creating a metro government reponsible for certain metro services such as police and fire with the option of adding more metro responsibilities over time. Certainly, the tax structure would have to be reformed for greater uniformity of tax rates across the metro area with a de-emphasis on property taxes and substitution of sales and income taxes. But such structural changes are likely to defeat any metro government solution.

  • 4 Neil Lehto // Mar 25, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Off-the-top of the head suggestions for metropolitan government ignores all of the social, historical, economic, political and legal obstacles. Michigan is a constitutional home rule state, which is not just a catch-phrase of local self-government but a guarantee to neighboring communities such as different as Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park that those differences are respected and continued. I think that is why people like Jack and myself are so gloomy about the future of the region.

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