The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroit’s Demographic Transformation

Bike riders gather for the Colin Hubbell Bike Ride in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood in 2012.  This scene likely would not have occurred in Detroit 5-10 years earlier.  Source:

Nolan Finley is an opinion columnist for the Detroit News.  Generally his views skew conservative, but usually not in a bombastic, far-right sense.   He has a viewpoint that might represent many of Detroit’s suburban residents, whose brand of moderate, blue-collar conservatism led the Reagan campaign to identify many Oakland and Macomb County residents as “Reagan Democrats” who would vote for him when he ran for president in 1980.  He’s written extensively about Detroit’s corruption and mismanagement in years past, which brought the ire of the city’s elected officials, community activists and progressive residents over the years.  He’s also written about the budding but palpable revitalization that’s arisen in Detroit’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods over the last 3-5 years. Say what you will, but he is a Detroiter who cares deeply about the city’s present and future.  

Last month, he wrote a column that sparked quite a bit of debate.  Entitled “Where Are The Black People?”, Finley wondered aloud about the presence of African Americans in the revitalization efforts of the city.  From his article:

Nobody wants to inject race into the marvelous story of downtown’s rebound, driven largely by young creatives who grew up in the suburbs and are now fiercely Detroiters. I don’t either. It’s a downer, and the last thing I want to be involved in is another conversation about race. Druther have a stick for my eye.

But with racial tension simmering across the country, Detroit must heed obvious warning signs.

It’s a clear red flag when you can sit in a hot new downtown restaurant and nine out of 10 tables are filled with white diners, a proportion almost exactly opposite of the city’s racial make-up.

It’s a warning signal when you go to holiday events for major Detroit cultural institutions and charities, and you can count the number of African-American revelers on both hands.

It should stop us in our tracks — as it did me the other day — when a group of 50 young professionals being groomed for future leadership shows up to hear advice from a senior executive, and there’s only one black member among them.

This is an important concern for Detroit as it faces its future.  Finley is correct in saying that in an era when racial tensions are simmering, Detroit cannot have a revitalization that does not include its largest demographic group.  Since the 1970’s Detroit has been America’s largest majority-black city, while at the same time earning a reputation as an urban dystopia.  Now that the city has exited bankruptcy, now that the auto industry is back on its feet, now that the city is experiencing some semblance of a revitalization, how inclusive has revitalization actually been?

To begin answering that question, we need to look at and analyze Detroit’s recent demographic trends to see what’s been happening, and how things are trending.  When we understand the trends, we can determine what steps are necessary for greater inclusion and participation in the city’s rebirth.  

I undertook a demographic analysis of Detroit since 2000 to see what trends and patterns are impacting the city at this time.  I downloaded Detroit Census Bureau data on race and ethnicity from 2000 and 2010, and American Community Survey data from 2013.  I did this by zip code so that I could drill down and further investigate patterns of population change within the city.  I hope to find out if there’s the beginning of an answer to Finley’s question. 

Detroit Demographics

Let’s start with the entire city of Detroit, which you see illustrated above in green.  Here are a pair of tables that indicate what’s happened with Detroit’s population since 2000 (click on any of the many tables below to make them bigger):

In 2000, Detroit became the first American city to reach one million residents and then fall short of that number.  But at the start of the 21st century, Detroit took its decline one step further.  Between 2000 and 2010, the city lost another quarter of its population, losing almost 24,000 residents annually.  That loss was led by the number of white residents who left the city — a staggering 44% over a ten-year period.  The number of Hispanics slowly increased over the period, however, while those in the very broad “other” category increased substantially.  It should be noted though that the “other” category, which includes Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, biracial and multiracial persons, is a highly variable category that largely depends on how such people choose to define themselves.  By 2000, African Americans came to represent nearly 83% of Detroiters, and remained near that level through 2010.

Starting in 2010, however, there’s an interesting shift.  Detroit’s overall population is still decreasing, but the rate of loss declined considerably.  Between 2010 and 2013, Detroit lost 3.5% of its population, or a rate of -1.2% annually.  This happened because while the black majority is still moving out of the city at rates seen since 2000, whites and what demographer William Frey calls “new minorities” — Hispanics and Asians — grew substantially.  Detroit’s white population grew by nearly 11 percent since 2010 alone; Hispanics grew by nearly 10 percent; Asians by a staggering 22 percent.  Meanwhile, Detroit’s black population continued its decline, losing six percent over the three-year period.

Inner and Outer Detroit

This is where the value of evaluating data by zip code comes into play.  There are 27 zip codes within Detroit’s city limits, and you can learn far more about demographic patterns and distributions when looking at zip codes than you can when looking at the city overall.  In fact, through my analysis I’ve found that perhaps two Detroits are emerging, based on demographics.  See the map below:

This map highlights the split between what I would call Inner Detroit (in blue) and Outer Detroit (in green).  Inner Detroit consists of downtown and all of the inner ring neighborhoods that generally comprised the city prior to about 1925.  Inner Detroit was developed and built by that time.  In 1925 and 1926 Detroit went on an annexation binge and brought the green areas under its jurisdiction.  Parts of it have areas that are as old as Inner Detroit, but the vast majority of it was developed after the Great Depression and World War II.  There are 12 zip codes in Inner Detroit, 15 in Outer Detroit.  
When you see the demographics of Inner Detroit, you can see how it differs from Detroit overall:

The first thing you’ll notice is that Inner Detroit has a different demographic character than the city overall, at least going back to 2000.  Percentage-wise, there are almost a quarter fewer African Americans in Inner Detroit than in the city overall, and nearly 50 percent more whites, and three times as many Hispanics.  Asians appear to be slightly more evenly distributed throughout the city.

The second thing you’ll notice is that the rate of population loss has not only declined here, but one could say that it has stabilized.  On the strength of population growth among the white, Hispanic and Asian populations, population in Inner Detroit has held steady since 2010.    Decline among blacks has slowed but is still apparent.

Differences become more clear when you evaluate Outer Detroit against Inner Detroit:

Outer Detroit is far less diverse, with nearly ninety percent of its residents being African American.  Whites and Hispanics are far less visible in Outer Detroit compared to Inner Detroit, but their numbers are increasing.  Asians saw a slight increase, but their very small base means they have minimal impact on local demographics.  Population loss among African Americans is still strong here, losing more than two percent annually.  

In a nutshell — Inner Detroit has a diverse demographic profile that is rapidly changing; Outer Detroit has a fairly homogeneous demographic profile (almost exclusively African American) that is slowly changing.

Inner Detroit Dynamics

Here’s where we dig even deeper.

Knowing what I know about Inner Detroit — principally, where various demographic groups live and have been growing — I broke down Inner Detroit into three subareas: Downtown/Oldtown, the Inner Core, and the Outer Core.

The Downtown/Oldtown subarea is in purple, and is made up of downtown (obviously), and the Midtown, Corktown and Woodbridge just to the north and west of downtown.  The Inner Core is highlighted in dark blue, and takes in the North End, New Center, and LaSalle Gardens neighborhoods on the north, and Eastern Market, parts of Poletown, Lafayette Park, Elmwood Park and Islandview.  The Outer Core, in light blue, contains neighborhoods like Mexicantown and Delray to the west, and Milwaukee Junction, the Kettering area, Indian Village, English Village and East Village to the east along the riverfront.

Let’s see how they stack up, starting with Downtown/Oldtown:

Here, population loss has been stabilized since 2010, once again on the strength of strong population growth from whites and Hispanics.  Black population continues to decline, and after a growth spurt between 2000-10, the Asian population made a curious decline since 2010.  Again, variations in the “other” category are hard to analyze because of variances in self reporting.

Here’s the Inner Core:

The Inner Core exhibits a similar demographic profile as Outer Detroit, with more than 80 percent of its residents being African American.  However, there has been strong growth in its number of whites (nearly 12 percent) and Asians (almost 50 percent) since 2010.  The Hispanic population is falling rapidly, and the African American population shows a decline here as it does in the rest of the city.

Lastly, the Outer Core:

Detroit’s most diverse subarea is the only part of the city that is growing in population, and will likely be the first to relinquish its majority black status.  Once again, strong growth is evident among whites, Hispanics and Asians since 2010, enough to buffet population loss from African Americans.  


Put it all together, and it’s clear the demographic transformation of Detroit is underway.  Whites, Hispanics and Asians all show strong growth in Detroit since 2010, while African Americans are still showing population decline.  One caveat: whites, Hispanics and Asians show very strong growth, but start from small bases in a largely African American city.  Slight numerical changes can have strong impacts, positive or negative, on percentage changes.

Also, let’s be clear — it’s too early to say whether the demographic transformation is leading to the economic transformation that the city desperately needs, or that the demographic transformation means that the economic transformation taking place now is any more or less real than previous cycles.  It will be interesting to see how the current transformation plays out over the course of this decade; I’d be really interested in seeing what the 2020 Census says about Detroit.

So to answer Nolan Finley’s question, blacks are moving away from Detroit, in a fashion much like earlier generations of Detroiters decamped for the suburbs, or left the region entirely.  What may be shaping up over the next few years, however, is a divide between the inner parts of the city that are rapidly diversifying and growing, and the outer parts of the city that are relatively stagnant in both demographic change and growth.

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