What If Detroit Is Just Returning To Its Natural Place?

Detroit annexations history.  Source: detroittransithistory.info

Here’s a thought that often crosses my mind.  Let’s take five commonly agreed upon Rust Belt cities — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.  Each share a fairly similar pre-industrial history as regional capitals of sorts.  Detroit and Milwaukee have long been the economic centers and largest cities in their respective states, while Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always performed a similar role in a subregion within their states (Western New York, the northern tier of Ohio, Western Pennsylvania).

Coming out of the Civil War, the cities were all of similar size; the 1870 Census shows that Buffalo was the largest of the five with 118,000 residents and Milwaukee was the smallest with 71,000.  Between 1870 and 1900 the Rust Belt Five accelerated in population growth at pretty much the same pace, with each essentially quadrupling in size.  Except for Milwaukee, which reached its population peak a decade later, the cities peaked at the time of the 1950 Census and have been in decline ever since.

But as I often find myself saying, Detroit was different.  While the other four roughly doubled in size again between 1900 and 1950, Detroit increased its population by almost seven times over the same period, reaching 1.9 million.  You can see the difference below:

While each of the cities had spectular growth due to the spread of manufacturing, none was the center of the automotive industry except Detroit.  This could be interpreted as the population impact of the auto industry to Detroit.

You’ll notice that the chart above also includes “Detroit” in quotes.  Here, I took the average of population change for the other four cities and applied it to the actual Detroit starting in 1900.  In other words, if Detroit had grown like Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, its Rust Belt compatriots, the Motor City would’ve peaked at about 637,000 in 1960 and shrunk to about 428,000 by 2010.  That is quite different from the reality.

One way of interpreting this chart is that the actual Detroit has been in a race to fall back to the level of the others.

Now here’s the nagging thought I frequently have: what if Detroit’s physical size was never sustainable to begin with?  Certainly there are cities that are larger, much larger, than Detroit at its 1.9 million peak, but what if Detroit was just never meant to be the size that it eventually became?  Most megacities throughout the world were envisioned by someone to become the bustling metropolises that they did, and they were planned accordingly.  What if Detroit’s destiny was to be a middling metropolis of a middling state in the middle of the country, only to have that interrupted by the introduction of the auto industry?

Looking at the chart above, Detroit’s early 20th Century population growth looks like a steroid injection, even when compared to cities that were acknowledged to be booming at the same time.

Of the Rust Belt Five, Detroit’s history is probably most similar to Milwaukee.  Both had French exploration roots, both became Great Lakes ports serving their respective states’ hinterlands, both ultimately became the largest city in midsize, Midwestern states.

Detroit is still the largest of the Rust Belt Five, with about 120,000 more residents than Milwaukee as of 2010.  But as the Motor City’s rapid population descent continues, it won’t be long until it catches up with its partner cities.  Maybe Detroit’s bottoming out is nearer than we think.

One thought on “What If Detroit Is Just Returning To Its Natural Place?

  1. A primary characteristic that these cities share is fixed land areas during the last 40 or more years (and for some of the cities, up to 100 or more years). So there population declines in older residential areas haven't been masked by annexation or growth in greenfield areas. A more useful chart is one replacing the population with the number of households. These data better reflect abandonment, and eliminate the population declines attributable to decreases in household size (which for Detroit is a factor that could account for at least 600,000 of the population decline). Even if the actual household count data aren't readily accessible, you can easily convert the city populations to households by using historical data for average household sizes in the US (which are available back to 1790).

    What you will find from these data are when the really declines attributable to abandonment started occurring (as well as the finding that Milwaukee's households have actually increased in number while the city's population was decreasing by >130,000 – which is a vastly different scenario than the assumed abandonment narrative supposedly associated with industrial decline).


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