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.