Detroit Counts

Detroit Counts
By Shea Howell
April 1 – 8, 2011

The U.S. census report pegging Detroit’s population at 713,777 seems to have sent the Mayor and many of his supporters into shock. Their responses included, “I don’t believe it,” “It’s in free fall,” “A breathtaking drop,” “A crying shame” and “Shocking.”

The numbers led to a series of stories in the mainstream media, providing a picture of the decline of Detroit and what it means to have lost 25% of our population in 10 years. Many accounts noted that this is the largest 10 year drop in Detroit’s history, including after the uprising in 1967. The numbers work out to 65 people leaving Detroit every day or about 2.7 people per hour since 2000. It is as if all of Madison, Wisconsin, packed up and left.

The numbers also led to a series of explanations. Council President Charles Pugh noted how many of our young people have been locked up in jails and how many people flee the city or fake their addresses because of car insurance. Others argued that it was the result of a black middle class following the American Dream to suburbs now made affordable. Mayor Bing, rebounding from his initial shock, vowed to press for a recount. “Personally, I don’t believe that the number is accurate and I don’t believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge,” Bing said. “We are in a fiscal crisis and we have to fight for every dollar.”

In sharp contrast to the hyper shock and awe of city officials, most community people in Detroit greeted the news with a shrug or wry humor. One local artist is planning T-shirts with “Detroit Census 2010—quality, not quantity.” Another talked about “living in a small but very deep pond.” Almost everyone I talked to wondered why on earth the city leaders were so surprised.

The hyper reaction of Bing and friends is deeply troubling. Of course, falling below 750.000 raises some very difficult questions, including the loss of federal dollars, representation in Congress and possibly the right to levy income taxes. But it should not have been a surprise. The near collapse of the Big Three and the foreclosure crisis have swept through Detroit like a tsunami, taking out homes and businesses that have long endured the slow but steady attrition of the last 40 years of deindustrialization. My own neighborhood near the Northwest Activity Center survived decades of change until three years ago. Then, within a few months it seemed, nearly half the houses in just the few block area that I walk every morning had been abandoned.

The hyper reaction says much about how out of touch the city’s decision makers are with day–to-day life in the community. It also reveals how their touchstones for judging our city’s health and vitality depend on abstract numbers rather than daily contact with the imagination, creativity and determination that are to be found in almost every neighborhood.

For most Detroiters, the week before the census numbers and the week after it present the same challenges and opportunities. The census figures will have little impact on our daily lives. After all, being smaller allows us flexibility and freedom. We are still the largest city in Michigan, nearly four times as big as Grand Rapids with its population of 188,040.

Rather than challenging the numbers, the Mayor and others would do well to rethink their understanding of what is really happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

To seize upon the census numbers to justify his “shrinking” schemes will only further entrench the Mayor and his foundation friends in a direction that is out of touch with the sources of real promise in our city.