Motor City Loses Steam

Mar 26, 2011 By Sri
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Detroit. Home of the U.S. automobile industry and symbol of U.S. manufacturing power for most of the 20th century. The 2010 census data shows that Detroit lost a quarter of its population in just 10 years.

What happened? Are such movements natural, or do we need to be worried?

It started in the 1950s

As you can see in this startling graph, the population of Detroit has declined from 1.85 million in the 1950s to around 715,000 now. Why have more than half the people moved away? To understand that, first notice the steep increase in population from the 1910s to 1950s - this was due to a huge influx of people into the city to feed the auto industry. This increased chaos and crime in the city, and many people moved to the suburbs - this was also a time where a lot of people were moving to the suburbs all over the United States.

But a more troubling reason was the fact that racial segregation was a major issue at that time. Influx of black population caused many white people to move to the suburbs (known as "white flight").

The Last Decade

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the auto industry started struggling, the population continued to decline.

In the last decade, the auto industry has suffered major losses, especially during the recession. Houses in the suburbs have became more affordable, and people in the city who wanted to move out could now do so. This included the middle-class black population as well. All this is causing Detroit to look like a ghost town - many schools, restaurants, public facilities, and factories have all been closed.

Will Detroit bounce back?

Movements like this happen all the time. Many cities in the world have had steep declines in population, while others have people pouring into them. Old industries die or require less people, and new industries (such as high-tech companies in California's Silicon Valley) come up.

Many of these cities do bounce back. Pittsburg, Pennsylvania experienced a similar decline in the steel industry and many people lost their jobs and moved out. But in recent years, Pittsburg has been revitalized with new high-tech companies, medical centers and biotechnology. The relatively low cost of houses in Pittsburg is attracting people back as well.

Is there hope for Detroit? Yes. Detroit's General Motors, once the biggest car company in the world, nearly shut down, but has come back. Ford and Chrysler, two other major car companies in Detroit are doing better as well. The city has plans to convert the abandoned factories and buildings into green open spaces and parks. This, and the low cost of housing, is slowly starting to attract a younger, more energetic population. 

Watch this inspiring Superbowl ad for Chrysler, featuring Eminem (who is from Detroit).