The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

What White Population Growth in Detroit Means

Scene from a block in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, just west of downtown Detroit.  Recognized as the city’s oldest intact neighborhood, Corktown has seen substantial growth in the last 5-10 years.  Source: livedetroit.org

When I started this blog 3 1/2 years ago, I initially wanted to call it “The Black Urbanist”.  It didn’t take me long to find that the name was already taken, by a great blogger in her own right.  But I still wanted to have an outlet for bringing a black perspective to urban issues, particularly as urbanism has a profile that’s higher than it’s been in decades.  And race, or more specifically racism, as much as we try to downplay it, is absolutely a driving force in our cities.  Race matters.

That’s why stories like this from the Detroit News recently are vitally important.  After 60 years of steep decline, Detroit’s white population is growing.  I actually noted this in a fairly detailed analysis earlier this year in response to a piece from Detroit News opinion columnist Nolan Finley.  I found that Detroit’s white population was ticking upward, via the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, but further data from the 2014 ACS confirms the trend.

Since 2010, Detroit’s white population has risen by more than 14,000, from 55,298 in 2010 to 69,588 in 2014, according to ACS estimates.  That’s a 25 percent growth since 2010, or 6.5 percent annually (albeit starting from a very small base).  Actually, ACS data estimates that Detroit’s white population grew by more than 8,000 from 2013 to 2014 alone.  More from the article:

Whites in Detroit made up 10.2 percent of the city’s population last year, a jump of 1.3 percentage points from 2013. The numbers have been increasing since 2010, but experts say this was the first significant increase statistically.

“I think it’s a trend. I fully expect 2015 to be an even bigger jump,” said Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit.

The influx of whites helped slow Detroit’s population decline last year. Detroit’s population was at 680,281 in 2014, down an estimated 8,459 residents from 2013, according to the data. That’s a smaller loss than the previous year’s drop of 12,784.

“Detroit’s growth is going to be predicated on white population moving in,” Metzger said.

Metzger said for a Detroit recovery to succeed, “you have to get a more diverse population and a population with resources.”

The last time the white population was over 10 percent was in 2000, according to census data.

This turned around a declining trend that began in 1950, when Detroit had more than 1.5 million whites, or more than 80 percent of the city’s 1.9 million residents.  While the city’s overall population dropped from 1.9 million to 714,000 between 1950 and 2010, the white population fell from 1.5 million to just 55,000.  And if you want to see how that compares to a handful of other Rust Belt cities, I point you to the chart below from a a post I wrote a couple years ago:

This change is significant.  Of the 72 U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people in 2010, only eight had a black majority population (Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Atlanta, Newark and Washington, DC), and an additional four had a black plurality population (Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and St. Louis).  These cities have been demographic outliers in a nation where about 14 percent of the population is African-American.  It’s also fair to say the these cities have been economic outliers as well, with little of the economic growth that has taken place in other cities around the country.  Detroit, with a population that was nearly 83 percent black in 2010, had the highest black population percentage.

The tide, however, might be changing for cities, on the strength of population growth from whites, Hispanics and Asians, and the continuing suburbanization of African-Americans.  In 2013 Washington, DC became the first city with a black majority to relinquish that status, going from 71 percent in 1970 to just under 50 percent in 2013.  Atlanta is not far behind; its black population percentage peaked at 67 percent in 1990 but is now at 54 percent.  Chicago and St. Louis are cities with black pluralities that have witnessed strong population growth from whites, Hispanics and Asians and declines among blacks that could change their current status.

The demographic shift in Detroit and the other cities is as unique as the forces that shaped them.  Perhaps one of the least understood transformations in American history is the Great Migration, which transformed a poor, rural group of people to urban dwellers within two generations.  To be sure, people saw and experienced the transformation, but with little thought given to its social implications.  The shifts in cities we’re witnessing now are very rare in American cities, and possible outcomes are still unclear.

What’s driving this demographic change in each city probably varies widely, but let me offer three possible reasons for it in Detroit:

Low low prices!  By now the low cost of Detroit housing is something that many people are quite aware of.  That, along with the related availability of cheap vacant land, Detroit represents value that simply cannot be found in any other American city.

Big fish in a new small pond, or overheated hipsterdom.  It doesn’t take long for a hipster landing in Brooklyn (or Boston, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or Portland…) to realize that they are hardly unique there.  They quickly become one of the growing legions of strivers in the big city.  If they’re interested in having a considerable and lasting impact where they live — and I believe many are — they will consider other places where they can make that impact.  Detroit is that kind of place.

The loss of stigma.  As an entire city, Detroit obtained a stigma that was once reserved for only the “bad” parts of cities, like Chicago’s South Side or North Philadelphia.  It was not uncommon to hear Detroit suburbanites say they never go into the city, don’t need the city, and feel entirely disconnected from the city.  That’s changing.

I’ve written extensively about the role of stigma in the current conditions of our cities.  It’s played a much bigger role than many acknowledge, and black majority/black plurality cities have paid a particularly steep price.  Issues of crime and safety, school quality, housing quality, neighborhood amenity quality and even the feasibility of economic revitalization never have direct racial connotations but always — always — have racial implications.

Not everyone is pleased with this change.  There’s been a running narrative among many black Detroit activists that the city’s been willfully and intentionally neglected by the city’s power structure so that it could be cleared and resettled.  I don’t believe for one bit that this was ever a deliberate strategy by individuals, but what’s happening seems to follow that pattern.

There is an opportunity, however, to counter the activist perspective.  For the clearance/resettlement narrative to work, it means that wealth and value must be extracted from city neighborhoods, and a strong case could be made that Detroit neighborhoods have severely starved of investment, causing extreme poverty.  It would appear now that the loss of stigma opens up opportunities for investment, a chance to increase value, and that current residents could benefit.

What’s in store for Detroit’s demographic future?  At this point, it’s hard to say (a parenthetic note: this is a good place to plug the value of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which allows valuable demographic analysis to occur annually instead of every ten years.  In the past the changes now seen in Detroit would’ve been unrecognized outside of hard-core demographers using obscure data sources.  Now we’re able to see what’s happening earlier and consider its implications sooner).  In the short term, over the next five years, it appears the trend of white population growth in Detroit will continue and possibly even accelerate.  If it does, by 2020 I imagine Detroit will have a demographic profile that mimics DC’s in 1990 or 1995.  If the trend continues into the following decade, by 2030 Detroit’s demographic profile could mirror DC’s from 2000 or 2005.  Any forecast beyond that is really just a WAG — wild-assed guess.

Conventional wisdom has long been that Detroit’s fall from grace was due to its super-dependence on a collapsing auto industry, and it certainly played a role.  But Detroit gained an enormous stigma over the same period as auto industry decline, and it became effectively walled off from society.  A growing white population may signal that the wall of stigma is collapsing.

Most opinion drivers, when thinking of improving Detroit’s plight, have been seeking the economic catalyst that could reestablish demographic growth in the Motor City.  Maybe that thinking is backwards.  With the removal of stigma and the chance to achieve a more balanced economic profile, with the chance to create new business and social networks, perhaps new economic opportunities can emerge.

6 Responses to “What White Population Growth in Detroit Means”

  1. Clay Forsberg

    Pete, have you considered the immigration of whites into Detroit might be part of a larger trend of younger people moving into the city – regardless of race or ethnic origin? You touched on this when you cited the example of hipsters relocating from other cities. The more affordable housing and economic opportunities occurring due to burgeoning information and creative sectors which attract Millennials might have a lot to do with it.

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  2. D Holmes

    I think there is probably some validity to the three reasons you list. But I'd still be curious as to how much cost plays a factor in the increase in white residents. I suspect a majority are moving into renovated historic buildings or newly constructed multifamily buildings with rents that are similar if not higher than the high end suburbs. I'm skeptical about how much of the influx is hipsters vs local young professionals. I suspect that they are moving because downtown area offers exceptional urban amenities vs suburbs.

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  3. Life

    I had to move from Metro Detroit, I'm in Dallas TX and I am white. I have been forced out of five jobs from the African Americans here, where I am a minority. They hate whites, but if you are married to a black it's about the only way to be inclusive with them I find. But I tell you that the Indians and Mexicans see how the blacks discriminate against non blacks it's not just the whites. I see blacks only like themselves, they will not change or assimilate properly.

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  4. Peter

    Actually, Washington would not be the first city to gain a black majority to lose it later. While nowhere near as dramatic as DC, St. Louis did have a black majority in the 2000 census, (51.2%) but had slipped to be a plurality once again by 2010 (49.2%).

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