08 June 2010

Detroit Exodus Continues

The 1990s marked a shift in the people who were leaving Detroit. Before then it was "white flight." In the 1990s and in the last decade, it has been a flight of the black middle class according to the Wall Street Journal.

[F]rustrated by plummeting property values and high crime, many diehards have hit their breaking point. Their exodus is consigning borderline neighborhoods to full-blown blight and putting prime residential areas at risk. . . . this year's Census will show a population drop of 150,000 people from the 951,000 people who lived within city limits in 2000. That would be roughly double the population loss in the 1990s, when black, middle-class flight began replacing white flight as the prevailing dynamic. . . .

From 1999 to 2008, median household income in Detroit dropped nearly 25% to $28,730, after growing 17% in the 1990s. . . . Over that period, the proportion of owner-occupied homes fell to 39% from 49%, while the proportion of vacant homes nearly tripled to 28%. . . .

The Detroit Police Department is short about 700 officers, says Warren Evans, appointed police chief in July 2009. The result is he must assign officers to the worst crimes. Homicides have dropped roughly 25% since he took the job.

Detroit has lost a population equal to that of the West Washington Park-Beyers neighborhood every single year for the last decade.

According to the Wall Street Journal account, a major factor in the departure of the middle class is out of control crime, fanned by a police force that can't respond to it and neighborhoods full of vacant homes that encourage crime.

In the case featured of a middle class black woman, Ms. Barham, leaving one of the city's better neighborhoods:

In seven years as a homeowner in Detroit, she endured more than 10 burglaries and break-ins at her house and a nearby rental property she owned. Still, she defied friends' pleas to leave as she fortified her home with locks, bars, alarms and dogs. Then, a week before Christmas, someone torched the house and destroyed almost everything she owned. . . .

Ms. Barham befriended a local policeman, who would drive by at night to check on her. But he was soon reassigned to another precinct. After that, if Ms. Barham felt unsafe returning home late at night, she would drive to a major road, flag down a squad car and ask for an escort home.

There was [a theft] at the house even before she moved in, she recalls, in which a contractor she hired lost his tools. "I was just thinking, 'Oh, it's a vacant house, and somebody broke in and stole some tools,'" she recalls. "'That happens sometimes.'" . . .

In February, Ms. Barham returned to the house on Atkinson along with her boyfriend. She plucked a few items from the ashes. Down in the basement, the copper pipes had been stripped by scavengers. On an earlier visit, she'd retrieved her late mother's Bible.

A neighbor who confessed to some of the burglaries and the arson originally reached a plea deal for 90 days in jail until the neighbor protested and the judge threw out the deal. "[A]bout a quarter of the 225 homes in this historic district surrounding Ms. Barham's old house are boarded up."

Her attempt to be a landlord failed:

During the five years she owned it, the two-family flat was rented for less than 12 months, and the dual mortgage payments strained her budget. After being laid off by Abbott in 2007, just as the mortgage crisis began to hit Detroit, she let the rental property go into foreclosure.

She stayed with a friend after the fire who had similar Detroit experiences:

Ms. Robinson, 40, born and raised in Detroit, had urged Ms. Barham to leave the city. Ms. Robinson has watched in recent years as her father's home was burglarized twice, his car was repeatedly stolen and he was held up at gunpoint at his Detroit home.

According to another one of her friends, "Ms. Barham was the last person in his circle of about 40 friends to leave Detroit."

This kind of development undermines the city's effort to stop the city's decline.

Further erosion of Detroit's middle-class could cripple a turnaround plan by government and private-sector leaders here. It calls for "right-sizing" the city's government and geography to fit a shrunken population. But it hinges on the city shoring up stable neighborhoods and retaining middle-class taxpayers, while converting blighted areas for such uses as parks or farms.

In short, the city may be nowhere near hitting bottom. Yet, there are no obvious answers in sight. The story of Ms. Barham, as told by the Wall Street Journal, is a story of someone who plays by the rules only to see all of her legitimate expectations defeated.

It is absolutely stunning that Detroit has been able to maintain its dytopic situation for so many decades, steadily declining.

Yet, Detroit is still not a small city and is not entirely abandoned. As of 2010, Detroit proper will still have more residents than Denver, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Baltimore, Memphis, Milwaukee, Boston, Washington D.C., Nashville, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Tuscon, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami or Colorado Springs. It has more people than the entire states of Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont or Wyoming.

Detroit has a population density 90% greater than Denver, despite having a similar land area (Denver has 153.3 square miles, Detroit has 138.7 square miles). Detroit is home to about one in twelve residents of Michigan, and its metro area is still the 8th largest in the nation.

Detroit remains the most populous city in Michigan. And, Michigan is ill equipped to provide much assistance. It is also home to the nation's long term murder capitol, Saginaw, to equally declining Flint.

Detroit is also deeply a story of Northern racial segregation. Just over half of the black population of the Detroit metropolitan area lives in the city proper which is more than 82% black; about 3% of the non-black population of the Detroit metropolitian area lives there. The only cities in the United State with more black residents than Detroit are New York City, Chicago and perhaps after the next census, Philadelphia. Detroit is by far the largest majority black city in the United States, with Baltimore being the runner up. The only major city in the nation with a larger percentage of black residents is nearby Gary, Indiana, which is suffering a similar Rust Belt decline.


Dave Barnes said...

Detroit is doomed and we should move on.
Just as New Orleans is doomed and we should move on.

Both "cities" will revert to "the wild" and will become historical footnotes.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Whatever their eventual fate may be, both cities have hundreds of thousands of residents. So, simply "moving on" isn't an option.

Ken said...

Regarding population density in Denver, one should remember that a full 1/3 of Denver's land area is consumed by the non-residential Denver International Airport. If the 100 square miles of the "habitable" Denver is used along with our comparable 2010 population of roughly 620,000, you'll find our population Density is the same, if not slightly higher, than Detroit's.