More than a million.
Since 1950, approximately 1.2 million people have left Detroit — a number equivalent to the population of Dallas. And the exodus continues, albeit slowing.
According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, the city is home to approximately 673,000 people and is barely hanging on in the top 25.
While the decline is slowing, the reality that it continues. And while there is burgeoning population and investment growth downtown, Midtown and elsewhere, this suggests growth might not be enough to offset population losses in the other parts of the city.
I was born and raised in the city when Detroit was a top five city in terms of population. Not anymore. Now, it’s 23rd.
Talk about a precipitous fall. Why?
There are many factors driving this and at the Mackinac Policy Conference that concluded Friday, Mayor Mike Duggan matter-of-factly laid out a historical context that included questionable discriminatory practices implemented by federal and local governments. For example, Duggan, in a thoughtful and poignant approach, discussed the city’s freeway system and how certain ones, I-75 and I-375 for example, impacted long-standing neighborhoods such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. This led to to the displacement of African-American families and homes. Additionally, “red-lining,” a lending practice based on race, contributed to housing segregation where blacks were essentially directed to live in certain parts of the city.
I would also add there’s been a significant loss of manufacturing jobs, which hasn’t been offset by job gains in other areas. When jobs are lost, people leave for opportunities elsewhere.
To wit, I remember in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Houston Chronicle newspaper, full of classifieds with job postings, would drop its Sunday paper on Detroit’s streets. Detroiters moved to Houston en masse.
With that said, I keep wondering: Why haven’t other, older industrial cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, et. al.) fallen as far and as fast Detroit, and what will it take to stop the continued depopulation of the city?
Granted, the city population declines have slowed and, during his Mackinac conference comments, the mayor cited DTE Energy Co., which estimates there were more than 3,000 incremental housing electrical hookups in the last year — meaning more houses are becoming occupied and, hopefully, indicating population growth.
Additionally, many will point to the increase in housing and rental permits and population growth in Midtown and others will point to the number of businesses moving downtown, new development efforts and the increasingly strong entrepreneurial ecosystem across the city.
Clearly, this is a start.
It’s great news that there is new construction dotted across the landscape — most notably in Midtown and downtown. But the reality is that Detroit is 139 square miles and until revitalization efforts infiltrate the entire city, it will never fully experience a true renaissance. Look beyond the glitzy buildings going up or being rehabbed downtown and other parts of the city, for example, and spend time in the neighborhoods.
The fact is that as you drive along certain thoroughfares and through various neighborhoods, you will note the abandonment and neglect. Yes, there are targeted areas across the city where there’s a collective effort between the public, private and educational sectors to revitalize and increase neighborhood density.
As the mayor duly noted and visually depicted as part of his Mackinac presentation, jobs are being developed, created and moved closer to the residents.
But this thought kept gnawing at me. I grew up in the city when it was home to 1.5 million and was fortunate to experience life in the Motor City when commercial retail was abundant and Detroit Public Schools had more than 200,000 students. What will it take to attract people, including families?
First, let’s accept the fact that Detroit — unless an annexation of the suburbs takes place or there’s a major influx of residents — will probably no longer be a part of the million-resident club.
At the Mackinac conference, Duggan announced a campaign called “One City. For all of Us.” The premise is based on inclusiveness. All people who work together should be able to live together as well. To an entranced and captive audience, he laid out several principles focused on making the city a more livable place where people can work, play and find employment near where they live.
As the city continues to evolve and define its future, it’s important to develop realistic expectations, goals and a plan based on Detroit being a smaller, more efficient city providing a quality of life worth pursuing. I’m not an urban planner, but I am a businessperson who’s a visionary and strategic thinker.
With that said, here are my thoughts:
- Long-term vision and planning: The mayor discussed his vision for Detroit. It needs to continue to be clearly defined and effectively communicated across the city, region and state. It also must be realistic. I’m not suggesting it’s not, but it’s essential that the plan be fluid, transparent, realistic and executable.
- Continued education improvement: There’s a major push toward advanced technology and STEM, for example. Many people in the city are not educated in these areas because the city’s been a major manufacturing hub for so long. The belief was you could graduate and find a job on the assembly line, which is no longer the case. In other words, there’s a significant gap between today’s job expectations and what people have been trained to do. The overall curriculum needs to be reassessed to ensure young people are the central focus and are being educated in areas where future opportunities will exist. Same with those believing they’ve been left behind.
- Neighborhood strategy: Yes, there are many announcements regarding revitalization, blight-removal efforts and job creation. Flex-N-Gate, for example. However, what is the overall strategy supporting job creation and reallocation of people, if necessary? Without jobs in the neighborhoods, it will be a challenge to extend revitalization efforts. Therefore, a plan focused on neighborhood job creation needs to be developed and implemented that connects job creation across the entire city in sync with a transportation system that links residents with jobs.
- Public safety: Turn on any local news station and the first 10 minutes are “doom and gloom” — specifically, crime and other similar types of stories. Sometimes it makes me think we are the “Wild, Wild West,” Detroit-style. Chief James Craig and the Detroit Police Department team are doing an excellent job under the circumstances. However, I’m sure one might say DPD is resource-constrained.
- Regional cooperation: Clearly, with 1,700 business leaders attending the conference on Mackinac Island last week, many were opened to Duggan’s ideas and willing to become more engaged, I believe. There continues to be a heightened sense of interest in Detroit’s revitalization efforts, but the interest needs to continue to translate into action.
Metro Detroit is the population center of the state, with approximately 50 percent of the state’s population residing in Southeast Michigan, while Detroit is the largest and most recognizable city.
I believe in our city and its future. However, the city needs to continue to aggressively confront its challenges, redefine and effectively articulate expectations outward while continuing to push for jobs. Additionally, by adopting a consumer-centric and inclusive approach, Detroit’s future will continue to evolve positively.
To Duggan’s credit, he recognizes that the strategy needs to continue to evolve and must include business, residents and all of those interested in taking this city down the path of stabilization and, ultimately, growth.
It’s clearly a start, but more needs to be done.
Editor’s note: Mark S. Lee is the founder of The LEE Group and host of Small Talk with Mark S. Lee, which airs Sundays at 8 a.m. on WXYT 1270AM live and streams on cbsradio.com. This commentary was originally posted at leegroupinnovation.com and is reprinted with the permission of its founder & CEO Mark S. Lee.
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Mark S. Lee photo courtesy of Small Talk with Mark S. Lee