by Jane Briggs-Bunting
Poor Detroit. Still reeling from a decade when the three auto companies, formerly known collectively as the Big Three, imploded with two of them taking federal loans to survive, the Motor City lost almost 25 percent of its residents, according to U.S. Census figures released this week.
In its heyday in the mid-20th Century, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the nation. Now it languishes at 18th.The new population count by the census folks is 713,777, the lowest in a century. One in every four residents left the city during the past decade. Michigan, as well, was the only state to lose population despite an increase in the U.S. population during the past decade.
The implications are harrowing for a city with huge deficits, a school system with a state appointed fiscal manager, decaying neighborhoods and vast swaths of empty lots. Downtown, a vibrant retail area in the 1950s and 1960s which once boasted three major department stores along its main artery, Woodward Avenue, now has none. In the old neighborhoods where small clusters of houses remain, selling prices, if there are buyers, are in just the four and five figures.
And to add insult, it looks like ABC will cancel the show Detroit 187 after just one season. How much more of a battering can the city take?
Pizza moguls Mike and Marian Ilitch have done their best to revitalize the center city with their historic Fox Theatre and the Tiger’s Comerica Park. The woeful Lions have Ford Field, and the Ilitch’s Red Wings play in the Joe Lewis Arena. GM is back in the RenCen, once considered a lightning rod for Detroit resurgence four decades ago. Three casinos do business in the city. Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center anchor what is described as a mid-town center.
The city has also suffered at the hands of a scandal-plagued former mayor, now in prison for perjury and facing a raft of federal criminal charges.
The current mayor, Dave Bing, the former NBA star and business executive, pledges to challenge the count in hopes of raising the census numbers by 40,000. Each new resident could net $10,000 to the city in the form of federal funds.
Detroit can have its renaissance, but it will not return to its former stature. The suburbs surrounding it have become the financial heartbeat of the region. The schools are better, the governments more efficiently run, even in an era when the dominant automotive industry shed almost half its workforce.
Detroit should strive to remake itself as a model “urban suburb,” preserve its historic buildings, consolidate its populations as Mayor Bing has championed, turn its vacant land into urban farms, in many ways returning to its roots. When the French founded Detroit, they created a system of ribbon farms, 200-400 foot strips of land bordering the Detroit River and extending north around three miles.
Other cities have experienced similar falls from their glory days and remade themselves. Detroit was the 20th Century rags-to-riches story. Down on its luck now, don’t count the Motor City out just yet.