Detroit’s not in desperate shape — if you count all of it

Jack Lessenbury.
Jack Lessenbury.

DETROIT — Suppose I told you that most of what you think you know about Detroit is wrong, and that the city is largely thriving.

That it has one of the highest job creation rates in the nation, even after taking a serious hit from the near-death and permanent contraction of the domestic auto industry five years ago.

That most Detroiters are in fact white, that many are affluent, and that there has been very little real population loss.

All that may sound crazy. But there is, in fact, more than one Detroit.

The one covered incessantly by the national media looks nothing like the place described above. That Detroit is a desperately poor city, whose ruined neighborhoods largely look like a third-world village or a bombed-out German city at the end of World War II.

That Detroit has been taken over by the state and has filed for bankruptcy. Everything the city owns has been mortgaged, and the city has nearly $20 billion in unfunded liabilities.

That Detroit is nearly all black, and poorly educated. It has horrible city services, dysfunctional schools, and high crime rates. That Detroit’s real unemployment rate, the mayor says, may be 40 percent or more. Estimates are that there are only 685,000 or so people left in that Detroit.

But they are surrounded by the rest of Detroit: the 3.7 million or so other people who live in the six-county metropolitan region.

They are much better off, and have better schools and opportunities. Meet them in an airport in San Diego or Atlanta, and they are unlikely to say they are from Canton, Bloomfield Township, or a dozen other places nobody knows.

They’ll say they are from Detroit. Then they’ll begin to explain.

Why is the original Detroit in such terrible shape?

There are many reasons, but the fact that there are two Detroits is a big part of the reason. Urbanologist David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, is fascinated by what makes cities thrive, and what makes them die. Twenty years ago, in his landmark book Cities Without Suburbs, he conclusively demonstrated a key fact about America’s cities: “The real city is the total metropolitan area, city and suburb,” he said.

What makes the difference between thriving and dying cities? Elasticity. Cities that were “elastic” — that could annex other communities and expand territory — nearly always got richer and stronger. Cities that did not expand declined.

Looked at one way, Detroit did continue to expand. The city’s population officially peaked in 1950, when it had 1,849,568 people. Since then, Detroit has continually shrunk. But not really.

The metropolitan area had 3.2 million residents in 1950. Half a century later, that total had risen to almost 4.5 million.

That should have meant a bigger, not small, tax base. But while the vast majority of people came to the area for Detroit jobs, within a few decades they no longer lived in — or paid taxes to — Detroit. That, rather than race, may be the biggest problem.

In his book Two Nations, Andrew Hacker, a political scientist, showed that integration has essentially failed — that whites tend to leave any neighborhood in which blacks are more than 10 percent of the population. This seems to have been especially true in Detroit.

And Detroit is an anomaly among cities for reasons other than race. Founded in 1701, Detroit was a medium-sized town at best for centuries.

Then came the automobile. Detroit, which had 285,000 residents in 1900, had almost 1.6 million by 1930. The newcomers poured in from the south, from the countryside, from eastern and southern Europe.

They stayed a generation. But when the freeways opened up the suburbs in the 1950s, they had no long history with the city, little nostalgia holding them there, and little incentive to stay. People left for the suburbs, in some cases moving a single block away, and Detroit lost the power to tax them.

The city responded by increasing taxes on those who remained, which drove more people to leave, increasing the speed of the vicious cycle. Detroit promised benefits and pensions to city workers, hoping to have the money to pay them.

But it didn’t. In recent years, black flight has succeeded white flight. Detroit has fewer black residents than it did in 1970; fewer white ones than in 1870. Now there will be bankruptcy, and trauma for those who will lose things they never imagined losing.

Eventually, a Detroit shorn of its debts should emerge.

But if those in power choose to ignore the fact that the city is indeed the metropolitan area, and don’t provide for some form of revenue and power sharing across the region, it is hard, if not impossible, to see how Detroit can possibly survive, let alone thrive.

Nor is it easy to see how Michigan can have much of a future, if its largest city remains largely a penniless and blighted ruin.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: