YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Suburban Rush Puts the Brakes on Motor City's Census Drive

Population: Detroit loses fight to stay above 1 million mark, one more blow after decades of strife and decay.


DETROIT — On Wednesday morning, Detroit's number came in. Mayor Dennis Archer was the first person here to see it, in his 11th-floor office overlooking the river that separates this city from Canada.

Like someone who's played the lottery and lost, Archer glanced down at the number and frowned--951,270. Detroit had become the first American city to reach 1 million residents then slip below it. Archer had lost a battle to restore some pride to a city tarnished by four decades of racial strife and urban decay.

"We have, I think, bottomed out," the mayor later told a group of television reporters assembled in front of the "Spirit of Detroit" statue next to City Hall.

The official count from the Census Bureau provided a sort of statistical punctuation mark to a long, sad chapter of American urban history: the decades of "white flight" that saw almost half of Detroit's residents flee to the suburbs.

Archer had fought hard to keep Detroit's official count over the magic seven-figure mark, organizing a citywide campaign that opened last year, canvassing the streets himself and slipping census forms into mailboxes.

"It's disappointing, given all of the hard work," he said. Speaking to a live television audience here, he struggled to find a "silver lining." At least, he said, the city wasn't losing residents as fast as it did during the really bad old days of the 1970s.

But the continued decline was doubly disappointing because it occurred in a decade of economic growth and prosperity in Michigan. While the city's population fell by 7.5%, the Michigan count rose 6.9% during the 1990s. The count for Detroit's metropolitan area was not available, but in suburban Livingston County, the population soared by 37%.

Beyond matters of pride, the city had a financial and political stake in the numbers released Wednesday. Officials here say that the city will lose $300 in federal funding for each resident who leaves the city, or about $230 million over 10 years. And because Michigan's growth lagged behind that of other states, it will lose a congressional seat.

When Detroit reached its peak population of 1,849,568 in 1950, it was a bustling, racially mixed city, booming thanks to the many factories producing America's quintessential consumer toy: the automobile. Many demographers say it likely surpassed 2 million residents in the early 1950s.

Today, Detroit is an overwhelmingly black city, struggling to put itself back together after a devastating series of social and fiscal disasters.

"A whole generation of middle-class people walked away from this city," said Jerry Herron, a professor at Wayne State University who has written about Detroit's history. "It will never again be a city of 2 million people."

In 1940, Detroit was America's fourth-largest city, behind only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. In the 2000 census, it will likely be the nation's 10th largest, behind such Sunbelt locales as Houston, Phoenix, San Diego and, of course, Los Angeles.

The figures released Wednesday also showed that "white flight" continued during the 1990s. About half the city's white residents left during the decade, making the city's current population about 82% black and 12% white.

At the same time, Detroit did not benefit from the dramatic rise in Latino and Asian immigration that helped other American cities--most notably New York and Chicago--increase their populations in the 1990s after several decades of stagnation.

Latinos make up just 5% of Detroit's residents and Asians less than 1% in the current census.

Much of Detroit still presents a dramatic picture of urban desolation, complete with empty skyscrapers and vast stretches of vacant lots just a mile or so from the city center.

"If you think it looks bad today," Archer said in an interview this week, "you should have seen what it was like when I first started."

Archer was elected in 1993 as a low-key successor to the firebrand Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor. Archer struck a conciliatory note from the start. It is said here that property values in the city began to rise again on the day he took the oath of office.

The former state Supreme Court justice courted Michigan's business establishment. A trio of new riverside casinos, a new baseball stadium for the Tigers and a future football stadium for the NFL's Lions are among his many accomplishments.

Archer hoped the census would provide hard evidence of his administration's successes. His census campaign--called "Detroit: It's in Our Hands"--first took shape in January 1999, a full 18 months before the first form was sent out.

"Our victory will be expressed by a single number," Archer told a kick-off rally. "That number is 1 million." To make sure every resident was counted, the city checked lists of addresses against Census Bureau lists to check for "hidden" apartments and other residences.

The mayor's office had been anxiously awaiting the census results for a week, and on Wednesday, Archer canceled a trip to North Carolina when he heard the release of the numbers was imminent.

His press secretary, Greg Bowens, received the news of the numbers' arrival while escorting an out-of-town reporter on a city tour. He nervously lit a cigarette and rushed back to City Hall.

"There's a lot of great cities under a million," Bowens said, anticipating the worst. "Washington D.C., San Francisco. . . . "


Detroit's Drop

Detroit topped the 1-million mark in the 1920s.

In numbers released Wednesday, the city fell back below 1 million residents.

2000: 951,270

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Compiled by MALOY MOORE / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times Articles