The Incredible Shrinking City


Just as we were putting together our cover story about metro Detroit’s changing social fabric, the U.S. Census Bureau released estimates showing that Detroit’s population fell to under 700,000 for the first time since before the 1920s.

The decline isn’t new; it’s part of a continuing 60-year exodus.

My parents were part of the migration, moving to the suburbs after General Motors opened its sprawling Technical Center in Warren in 1956.

Growing up, we didn’t think much about race. We identified ourselves in other ways: perhaps by religion, school, or baseball team affiliation. Ethnicity ran a distant fourth at best. But 1967 changed all that — and accelerated the exodus out of Detroit.

One organization rising from the ashes of the civil unrest was New Detroit Inc. They were at the root of what is now Midtown’s free music festival — the Concert of Colors (page 38). But their message and mission were never only about music. They set out to foster honest dialogue and action on matters of race and equality.

Fast forward to 2014. We sometimes believe we’re “beyond” race. After all, the nation elected an African-American president — twice. And Detroit recently voted in a white mayor. But racial tensions persist. Consider the fallout from comments made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this year.

That brings us to today’s incredibly shrinking city. At its peak, Detroit drew immigrants and transplants. As late as 1930, more than a quarter of residents were foreign born. Others migrated from within the U.S., largely from the south.

For Detroit to make a sustained comeback, some people are calling for a repeat performance. As Alexa Stanard reports on page 64, immigration matters a great deal. People are still drawn here to realize their version of the American Dream.

It’s a boost to the economy, as well. A companion story points out that much of Michigan’s foreign-born population is educated and entrepreneurial. That’s why organizations like Global Detroit and politicians like Gov. Rick Snyder are pushing hard to attract the next wave of immigrants.

Other historical events have had an impact on our city, as well. Monica Mercer took a tour offered by The Detroit Bus Co. to explore the impact of Prohibition (page 58). Trips like these can be enlightening to tourists and residents alike, and encourage more people to explore the city.

But Detroit’s revival will only happen if people are drawn to actually live in the city as well as play here.

The recent spike in residential occupancy rates in Midtown is certainly one good sign. That’s why we also take a look at how a small group of individuals can make a big difference (page 31). See how they turned one of the worst blocks on Woodward Avenue from one you might cross the street to avoid into one you might feel comfortable enough to stroll to a restaurant, a show, a coffee shop, or the neighborhood grocery store.

While the city of Detroit may never reach the nearly 2 million citizens it had at its peak, it will take both large and small efforts to reverse the current population trend.