For Detroit, the past decade has been like New Orleans without Katrina. The population has plummeted. Thousands of homes stand vacant and deteriorating. And the city’s economic base – and therefore its source of municipal revenues – is very shaky.
The US Census Bureau reported this week that Detroit’s population has fallen by one-fourth since the last census in 2000 – down to 713,777, a drop of 238,270 residents. That’s the lowest it’s been since 1910, back when Henry Ford was cranking out Model T automobiles and the city’s population was on the upswing, headed toward 1.8 million in 1950 when the “Motor City” was thriving.
There’s more bad news in numbers: Nearly 23 percent of the city’s housing stock is vacant. The last five years have seen an estimated 57,800 home foreclosures. And the number of manufacturing jobs in Michigan has dropped by some 400,000, many of those in the automotive industry.
For his part, Mayor Dave Bing pledges to fight the census numbers.
"Personally, I don't believe the number is accurate, and I don't believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge," he said Tuesday in response to the latest bad news for his city. “The census has a history of undercounting residents in urban cities like Detroit. We were undercounted in 2000, and the census estimate was again revised in 2007.”
It’s not just bragging rights for a city once in the top ten among US cities in terms of population but now barely in the top 20. Levels of important sources of federal and state funds are at stake as well.
“Every person that’s counted in the census brings approximately $10,000 to Detroit over the next decade for schools, roads, hospitals, and social service programs,” said Bing. “Additionally, we could lose millions in statutory revenue sharing from the state. We are in a fiscal crisis and we have to fight for every dollar. We can’t afford to let these results stand.”
Getting beyond corruption
Detroit has had a tough time politically in recent years.
Last year, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to up to five years in prison for violating the terms of his probation stemming from his conviction for lying under oath about an affair with his chief of staff.
In December, Mr. Kilpatrick, his father, and three others were named in a 38-count indictment involving millions of dollars in kickback schemes from contractors, non-profit donors and others.
Bing knows he has his work cut out for him.
Part of his “Detroit Works Project” includes a plan to reshape the city by removing blighted homes and encouraging people to move into recovering neighborhoods by concentrating improved city services there. As part of rebuilding Detroit, Bing and other city officials hope to attract 200 Detroit police officers who now live in the suburbs.
In addition to a series of public forums, the city is looking for help from philanthropic organizations, business leaders, and banks.
Bank of America helps out
This week, Bank of America officials pledged to donate 10 refurbished vacant homes for police officers who move to the city and to demolish 100 abandoned houses, donating the land for green space or urban farming.
“We are trying to be creative and see how we can be part of the solution,” Kieth Cockrell, marketing president for Bank of America in Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press. “I am inspired by what Mayor Bing is doing in the city.”
Detroit successfully challenged the 2000 Census. As a result, 50,000 residents were added to the city’s official population.
Still, most observers believe it will take more than that to turn the city around.
“Reality can no longer be denied,” writes Free Press columnist Tom Walsh. “No sane person can expect a return to the Detroit or Michigan that once were. Now the imperative is to rebuild, to create something fresh, to quit the bickering and get on with life.”