Detroit Postmortem

Forget all of the obituaries filled with talk of brain drain and population decline. Magical things are still happening in Detroit.
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Forget all of the obituaries filled with talk of brain drain and population decline. Magical things are still happening in Detroit.
Greektown Historic District in Detroit. (PHOTO: GREEKTOWN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Greektown Historic District in Detroit. (PHOTO: GREEKTOWN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Detroit is dead. The bankruptcy filing is the death certificate. After performing the autopsy, I've determined upward mobility killed Detroit.

I'm not the only coroner on the case. Brad Plummer (Washington Post) with a leading cause, brain drain: "Since 2000, Detroit’s population has declined 26 percent. There are now just 706,000 people in the city, way down from 1.85 million during its industrial heyday in 1950."

Demographic decline is like too much salt. We lack a clear link to an existential threat. Indeed, the city's population has fallen dramatically. Well, many Rust Belt cities have experienced a drop in population. They aren't dead. Far from it. In 1950, metro (city and suburbs) Detroit's population was over three million people. Fast forwarding to 2010, suburban Detroit (sans city) had a population over three million people. See this report from Data Driven Detroit.

Metro Detroit's population peaked in 1970, hovering near four million for the last few decades. In other words, it has grown by more than 30 percent since the supposed heyday of the 1950s. How so not Rust Belt. How so not dying.

Suburban Detroit is a success story. It's the greatest suburban success story in the United States. Since 1950, statistically speaking, for every person who "left" the City of Detroit, two people "showed up" in the suburbs in 2010. Per Global Detroit, immigrants overwhelming prefer the suburban to the urban. Metro Detroit is diverse and vibrant, entrepreneurial. Bloomberg View blogger and fellow coroner Evan Soltas didn't get the memo:

Detroit forgot the economic case for cities: When you put different industries and different people with different ideas in close contact with another, magical things happen.

"Magical things" is, of course, the technical term economists use for a number of spillover benefits created by urban areas. Their work suggests that the magic happens mainly from the mix of ideas.

And for economists and historians, the irony is rich: Detroit was the textbook example of these urban spillovers before World War II. The textbook was Jane Jacobs's, an urban sociologist who rose to fame in the 1960s.

The magic things allowed many people the means to get out. Everyone wanted to leave the magical city. Fortunately for Detroit, people can come into close contact with each other and live in the suburbs. It's called commuting. As for the supposed density dividend, we've already disposed of that nonsense here.

Without migration, ideas don't mix. The quality of network is more important than quantity of connections. Those suburban immigrant neighborhoods are economic dynamos. Magical things are happening there, in Detroit. The residents of the city are isolated from all the action, density be damned.