Repost: What Really Makes Detroit Different

In light of recent transformative events in Detroit — the conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on corruption charges and the appointment of an emergency financial manager by the State of Michigan to avoid the fiscal abyss — I’ve decided to repost this piece from May 2012.  Without a doubt there are things that make Detroit’s experience unique among major cities.  But there are many similarities it shares with others, and hopefully lessons can be learned. — Pete

Whenever I’ve written about Detroit I invariably get comments from boosters of other Rust Belt cities who say that Detroit’s experience is no different from Buffalo/Cleveland/St. Louis/Pittsburgh.  And you know what?  Economically speaking, other Rust Belt cities have been hit just as hard as Detroit has.  But no major city has paid a greater social cost than Detroit.

Everyone seems to be able to cite the numbers that Detroit’s population is down by more than one million since 1950.  It’s the only American city to have achieved the status of one million residents and then lose it.  All this is true.  But no one seems to be willing to scratch the surface of those numbers to see what was really happening.
I’ll scratch that surface – white flight on a scale not seen anywhere in the nation was what happened.
I took a look a U.S. Census data for eight major cities between 1950 and 2010, to see how many white and black residents were reported at each decade.  I compared them with Detroit to determine if there were any real differences among them.  No real science to the cities I chose, but there were reasons.  Below are the cities and the reasons:
Chicago – regional standard-bearer
Baltimore — second-tier city (behind New York) in its region, like Detroit is to Chicago
Buffalo – historical peer city to Detroit
Cleveland – historical peer city to Detroit
Milwaukee – historical peer city to Detroit
Philadelphia – second-tier city (behind New York) in its region, like Detroit is to Chicago
Pittsburgh – underwent similar economic transformation
St. Louis – historical peer city to Detroit
Caveats: before 1980 persons of Hispanic/Latino origin were not counted separately; they were acknowledged as “Spanish-speaking” in 1980 but counted separately as Hispanic/Latino in 1990.  The numbers for white residents in earlier decades might reflect Hispanic/Latino residents who would later be counted as such.
What did I find?  The number of white residents in all nine cities fell from just over 10 million in 1950 to just under 2.5 million in 2010, a decline of 76 percent.  The only city to show an increase in white residents in any decade over that period was Milwaukee, between 1950 and 1960.  You can see how the cities match up with each other in the following table:
White Population, 1950-2010
1950
1960
1970
1980
1990
2000
2010
Chicago
3,110,406
2,712,509
2,218,825
1,490,516
1,055,032
906,453
854,505
Philadelphia
1,692,501
1,467,841
1,282,185
987,603
826,086
644,959
563,096
Baltimore
723,677
610,366
480,052
347,755
287,781
205,069
173,869
Cleveland
765,694
622,872
458,051
309,290
250,280
198,537
132,536
Buffalo
542,423
459,238
364,198
253,372
212,296
159,201
119,680
Milwaukee
614,446
675,346
605,232
466,343
398,208
298,487
220,088
Pittsburgh
593,559
502,804
412,453
318,377
266,683
226,165
198,096
St. Louis
702,573
534,019
365,253
240,890
201,913
152,507
134,742
Detroit
1,546,239
1,182,462
838,791
413,959
212,791
99,883
55,675
Do you notice what I notice?  Look at Detroit on the bottom row.  Detroit had more than 1.5 million white residents in 1950, but only 55,000 in 2010, a staggering decrease of 96.4%. 
This is better explained with another table with percentage changes:
Pct. Change in White Population, 1950-2010
1950
1960
1970
1980
1990
2000
2010
Chicago
0.0%
-12.8%
-18.2%
-32.8%
-29.2%
-14.1%
-5.7%
Philadelphia
0.0%
-13.3%
-12.6%
-23.0%
-16.4%
-21.9%
-12.7%
Baltimore
0.0%
-15.7%
-21.4%
-27.6%
-17.2%
-28.7%
-15.2%
Cleveland
0.0%
-18.7%
-26.5%
-32.5%
-19.1%
-20.7%
-33.2%
Buffalo
0.0%
-15.3%
-20.7%
-30.4%
-16.2%
-25.0%
-24.8%
Milwaukee
0.0%
9.9%
-10.4%
-22.9%
-14.6%
-25.0%
-26.3%
Pittsburgh
0.0%
-15.3%
-18.0%
-22.8%
-16.2%
-15.2%
-12.4%
St. Louis
0.0%
-24.0%
-31.6%
-34.0%
-16.2%
-24.5%
-11.6%
Detroit
0.0%
-23.5%
-29.1%
-50.6%
-48.6%
-53.1%
-44.3%
And yes, that means Detroit halved its white population every decade between 1970 and 2000.
Looking at these numbers, one might wonder if the staggering decline in white population in Detroit was accompanied by uncharacteristic growth in the black population.  Not really:
Black Population, 1950-2010
1950
1960
1970
1980
1990
2000
2010
Chicago
492,451
813,043
1,097,628
1,196,019
1,074,518
1,054,150
873,374
Philadelphia
377,032
528,663
652,784
633,079
623,132
646,476
643,975
Baltimore
225,081
325,841
422,989
431,153
435,720
423,810
395,552
Cleveland
148,199
250,550
287,596
251,334
236,123
243,507
211,502
Buffalo
36,548
70,857
94,405
95,551
100,734
108,865
100,866
Milwaukee
22,946
62,271
105,414
146,965
191,567
222,671
233,175
Pittsburgh
82,570
100,923
105,064
101,745
95,429
90,667
78,872
St. Louis
153,366
214,507
254,495
206,477
188,425
181,058
157,093
Detroit
299,630
482,672
661,646
759,325
774,064
772,431
586,011
On the whole, black populations increased in the above cities by 78 percent, from 1.8 million ton just under 3.3 million.  Most of the cities approached a doubling of their black population over the last 60 years, but with declines since 2000.  Detroit fits in that scenario.  The cities that are outliers here are those that had historic old black communities (Philadelphia, Baltimore), which did not increase as dramatically, and those that were relatively late to the Great Migration (Milwaukee, Buffalo), which did.  Pittsburgh seems to have missed the Great Migration altogether, at least in the way the other cities experienced it, and St. Louis’ small land area lends itself to skewed figures.
Here are the percentage changes:
Pct. Change in Black Population, 1950-2010
1950
1960
1970
1980
1990
2000
2010
Chicago
65.1%
35.0%
9.0%
-10.2%
-1.9%
-17.1%
Philadelphia
40.2%
23.5%
-3.0%
-1.6%
3.7%
-0.4%
Baltimore
44.8%
29.8%
1.9%
1.1%
-2.7%
-6.7%
Cleveland
69.1%
14.8%
-12.6%
-6.1%
3.1%
-13.1%
Buffalo
93.9%
33.2%
1.2%
5.4%
8.1%
-7.3%
Milwaukee
171.4%
69.3%
39.4%
30.3%
16.2%
4.7%
Pittsburgh
22.2%
4.1%
-3.2%
-6.2%
-5.0%
-13.0%
St. Louis
39.9%
18.6%
-18.9%
-8.7%
-3.9%
-13.2%
Detroit
61.1%
37.1%
14.8%
1.9%
-0.2%
-24.1%
So, Detroit’s white population decreased substantially more than the other cities on this list, but its black population increased at about the same rate.  How does that look on a graph?  Detroit is the black dotted line:

 

 
To me, this is the elephant in the room.  This is where Detroit is different from other Rust Belt cities.
Between 1950 and 1970, the decline in Detroit’s white population was on the low end of the spectrum of cities on this list, but it was in the ballpark.  Prior to 1970, Detroit and St. Louis were the white flight laggards.  After 1970, the bottom fell out and Detroit stood alone.  While there certainly are economic reasons white residents may have had for moving, this graph may lend credence to the twin theories of Motor City white flight – the 1967 riots and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.
I’m not trying to persuade anyone of the invalidity of their decision to move from Detroit.  There were good reasons and not so good reasons.  I’m only trying to describe its impact relative to other cities.  And where exactly are those white residents who left over the last 60 years?  Certainly many have passed on.  Some are currently in the Detroit suburbs or elsewhere in Michigan.  Some are part of that great Detroit Diaspora that took them to New York, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland.  There are clearly at least 1.5 million reasons why white residents left Detroit. 
But the fact is, had Detroit experienced white flight at the same combined rate as the other cities on this list, and not experienced any other changes, there would be nearly 350,000 more white residents today.  Maybe 140,000 more households.  Maybe more stable neighborhoods.    
However, some other changes might have likely happened had Detroit not experienced such severe white flight.  Entrepreneurship might have spawned some businesses that could have bolstered the economy.  A better economy and more balanced demographic profile might have attracted more international immigrants, again providing more economic stimulus.
We will never fully know what it could have been.  But I do know this is what makes Detroit different.

3 thoughts on “Repost: What Really Makes Detroit Different

  1. I wondered about that. Most of the other Rust Belt cities above had two phases of Great Migration — 1910-1930 and 1950-1970, with the second one being much bigger. Maybe steel's decline began just a little before the auto decline, putting a ceiling on jobs and possible future migration.

    Like

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