Detroit’s Downsizing

Here’s the story you’ve likely heard: liberals took control of the UAW, while black liberals (oh my!) took control of Detroit. The former destroyed the US auto industry, while the latter destroyed what once was America’s 5th largest city. Like most conservative mythologies, it’s meant chiefly to entertain – not inform.

The UAW killed the big three? Labor compensation in the German auto industry is DOUBLE what it is in the US. Germany’s labor unions are much stronger, and German workers work less than anyone in the world – putting in 30% fewer hours than Americans, while benefiting from far more liberal labor laws, with such perks as paid maternity leave, 6+ weeks paid annual vacation, and, according to Forbes, the world’s 6th most generous unemployment insurance regime (with benefits worth 75% of compensation). And in this conservative dystopia… German automakers have been thriving for decades. Obviously, the problem with American car companies isnt unions or labor compensation – it’s that American cars have been badly engineered for years, and American consumers have discovered alternatives.

Detroit boomed with the American auto industry, doubling from 500,000 people in 1910, to 1 million in 1920, 1.5 million in 1930, and peaking at nearly 2 million in the late 40s. Then the story gets complicated.

In the 1950s, the automobile and a growing network of highways began to transform American cities. Workers could choose to commute to jobs in city centers from homes in the suburbs. And that’s why from 1950 to 1960 – during the heyday of American automaking – Detroit’s population SHRANK by 10%, while that of the Detroit Metropolitan Area grew by 25%. Since 1960, Metro Detroit’s population has held roughly steady, while Detroit has lost more than half its population. The fortunes of the US automotive industry notwithstanding, the number of people living in Metro Detroit hasnt changed in more than half a century, though fewer and fewer people are living in the city itself.

The city of St Louis and the surrounding St Louis Metropolitan Area followed a similar trend. Like Detroit, St Louis lost more than 60% of its population since its 1950 peak. Only since 1990, Detroit and St Louis have lost 30% and 20% of their respective populations. And between 1970 and today, while the city of St Louis was losing half its residents, Metro St. Louis held steady. (St Louis is also beset by social ills – cracking the top 5 for violent crime and the top 10 for poverty. Detroit is number 1 in both.)

Most big cities have shared their fate. Except for New York and Los Angeles, every one of 1950 America’s ten largest cities is today 20-60% smaller. Among cities that had over 500,000 residents in 1950, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New Orleans and Cleveland have since shrunk by 50%; Cincinnati by 40%; Baltimore by 35%; Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis by 25%; Boston and Washington by 20%. Meanwhile most of their greater metropolitan areas have become much more populous – all have at least held steady.

While conservatives like to tell fairy tales about liberal politicians, corrupt unions and white flight, there simply is no common set of government policies to explain the movement of populations out of cities and into surrounding areas – other than the building of highways. The experience of Detroit and St Louis is extreme, but prototypical. Indianapolis and Columbus seem to be exceptions – until a closer look reveals that they increased their populations only by annexing their suburbs. Kansas City is illustrative: while its population hasnt changed since 1950, its area has quadrupled! (Detroit and St Louis have maintained their municipal boundaries.)

In sum, the auto industry is indeed to blame for Detroit’s decline, but not as ordinarily conceived. Making cars grew the city – but DRIVING cars shrank it, along with most every other large city in the east and midwest.

Why did Detroit go bankrupt? – to be explored, when Detroit Week at the Field Guide continues….


These ruminations on Detroit are dedicated to the remarkable Dr King, city daughter and friend.


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