That picture is of a house in the city of Detroit. Surprised? Don’t be. Detroit actually contains numerous intact neighborhoods ranging from working class to upscale. These are seldom shown in the voluminous photo tours of the city that tend to focus exclusively on decay, and too often on the same handful of sites such as Michigan Central Station, a practice Vice Magazine dubbed “ruin porn.”
The decay is there. The collapse is real. That is the story. But it’s not the whole story. Amid the truly legitimate and titanic struggles of Detroit there’s another side, one that’s too seldom told. In the interest of completeness, I’ll share some of it today.
Most of this material is not original to me. It was created by two people I know only by their handles of “hudkina” and “LMichigan”. I don’t know who they are, though I get the vague impression they work for the state of Michigan. They seems to spend most of their time engaged in quixotic message board debates about Detroit. I’d suggest they start blogging instead. At any rate, credit to them for the ideas and picture links, though the data is mine.
Strange But True
Detroit is Big. When you hear about Detroit, a mention of its population collapse can’t be far behind. Detroit’s population fell by 50% from its peak and it was the first city to fall below one million in population after first exceeding it. The region has fallen out of the top ten metro areas in size nationally. But the other side is that Detroit is still big (perhaps too big, but that’s for another day). The city of Detroit has 912,062 people, making even the city still the 11th largest in the United States. Detroit has 100,000 more people than San Francisco and is 50% bigger than Boston.
Detroit’s metro area has 4.4 million people, making it the 11th largest in the United States. That’s about the same size as Boston or Phoenix. But wait, there’s more. Nearby Ann Arbor is technically not part of the Detroit MSA, but probably soon will be. That’s another 350,000 people. And Detroit doesn’t include anything on the Canadian side of the river because it is in another country. The Windsor, Ontario area adds another 300,000+ people.
Detroit is Dense. You’ve seen the pictures. I’ve even posted some. The miles of empty streets and “urban prairie”. A recent comprehensive survey recently discovered that fully one third of Detroit’s lots are vacant. But despite this, the overall density of the city is far higher than you might expect.
The city of Detroit has 6,571 people per square mile. That’s almost 60% more dense than Portland, Oregon (4,152)! Detroit’s density is roughly comparable to Seattle (7,136) and Minneapolis (6,969). It’s more dense (sometimes much more dense) than Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, or St. Paul.
And if one third of Detroit is vacant, then localized densities must be much higher.
Detroit Has Money. Detroit may be a very poor city, but with so many people in it, there are still a significant number of folks with money living inside the city limits. There are 18,140 households in Detroit with income over $100,000 per year. Milwaukee, hardly a basket case, has 19,297. Upscale Minneapolis only has 29,460, a mere 10,000 household gap vs. Detroit in high earning households. Now both of these cities are smaller (Minneapolis much smaller) and so are proportionately much richer. But the point is that in total, there actually are a material number of households in the city of Detroit with significant incomes.
The Detroit metro area also has numerous upscale suburbs that hold their own with any around the country.
Detroit Has Immigrants. Another thing that distinguishes Detroit versus other struggling cities is that it has been able to retain a significant foreign born population. Detroit metro is 8.5% foreign born, which does trail the US average of 12.8%, but it is well above places like Cleveland (5.8%) or Cincinnati (3.6%).
Detroit has also established itself as the hub of Arabs in America. Muslims frequently get a bad rap, but unlike Muslim populations in Europe, which are often stuck in marginalized ghettos, the American Muslim population is more educated and makes more money than the population as a whole, according to some reports. They range from Arab party store owners to Pakistani Ph.D.’s. Detroit’s Arab population is, like many immigrant groups, highly entrepreneurial.
While over 350,000 domestic migrants left the region, Detroit metro saw nearly 100,000 new international migrants move in during the 2000’s. For these people at least, Detroit is still a land of opportunity.
Detroit Has Real Assets
Detroit also has some legitimate and impressive assets. First is “Brand Detroit.” In one of the famous Cleveland tourism videos, the song ends with “at least we’re not Detroit.” Actually, Cleveland might actually be better off if it were. As with winning the NBA draft lottery, it’s better to be worst than second worst. Detroit has a powerful brand that literally resonates around the world. I think it’s fair to say that for people overseas with any familiarity with America, Detroit is one of the cities they know. Most other places are ciphers.
Detroit is the main gateway to trade with Canada. It also has a world-class airport that was just ranked as the most passenger friendly large airport in the United States by JD Power. Originally a Northwest hub, it is actually benefiting from that carrier’s merger with Delta. Detroit is the second largest Delta hub and its primary gateway to Asia. In an era where global connections are more important than ever, Detroit has or soon will have flights to London Heathrow, Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong among other destinations.
Detroit also has a globally important legacy of innovation in popular music, ranging from Motown to electronica to hip-hop. Artists like Eminem, Kid Rock, and the White Stripes still call Detroit home. Also, it is home to the well-regarded Cranbrook school of art, as well as the College for Creative Studies. If creativity really is key to the future economy, Detroit has it.
Pictures of the Other Detroit
Here are a selection of Detroit photos you aren’t likely to see in the latest “ruins of Detroit” survey.
A farmers market at Eastern Market:
Apartment buildings on the Gold Coast:
The Condon neighborhood:
Homes in the Grandmont-Rosedale Neighborhood:
A residential street in Norham, a heavily Muslim neighborhood where artists are also buying into the low cost housing:
Some Google Street View photos from Detroit’s Northwest Side showing a variety of neighborhoods, housing styles, and price points:
A home in the Palmer Woods neighborhood, which some have claimed is the wealthiest majority black neighborhood in the United States:
The photo at the top of this post is also from Palmer Woods. Here’s one in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood adjacent to Palmer Woods:
Some homes in the Villages:
Yes, Detroit has mega-problems and is a generational turnaround effort. All the bad stories you’ve heard are probably true. But there’s a lot more to it than the typical story, and I hope this gives you a flavor of it.
Previous Urbanophile Articles on Detroit
Detroit: Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier
Embracing the Ruins
A Plan for Detroit
Outmigration Devastates Michigan – and the Midwest
Detroit: Do the Collapse
Detroit: Not the Future of the American City