Last week the United States Census Bureau announced that in the past ten years Detroit’s population had fallen by a staggering 25 percent. The news swept through the national media, their stories almost always accompanied by suitably grim photographs: in the New York Times a shot of two derelict houses standing on an otherwise empty block; in the Wall Street Journal the shell of a long-abandoned Packard plant; and on Time’s website an entire gallery of boarded-up buildings, most of them glinting in the summer sun. A corpse of a city, its bleached-out bones on lurid display.
The images are real enough. Detroit sprawls over 138 square miles—six times the size of Manhattan—a space large enough to house, at its peak in the 1950s, almost two million people, most of them in single-family homes or two-family flats. Now that the population has plummeted to 713,000, stretches of the inner city have been hollowed out. On the lower east side, always Detroit’s poorest area, some neighborhoods have vacancy rates topping fifty percent. And that only counts the buildings that are still standing. Commentator after commentator has called it a ghost town. Drive along the desolate side streets that run off Van Dyke Avenue, near the old city airport, past rows of weed-choked lots where houses once stood, and you see what they mean.
Shift your focus just a little, though, and the story changes. Look at the last home standing on the block or the house tucked up against the boarded-up building; more than likely someone is living in it. Walk down the street from that Packard plant; you’ll find a neighborhood there, nothing elegant, not in the inner city, but a neighborhood nonetheless. Go a little further and you’ll see another like it; beyond that, another. And suddenly Detroit doesn’t look like a ghost town but something far more disturbing: a major American city, still more populous than Boston, Minneapolis, Miami or Las Vegas, rapidly turning into a reservation for the poor.
The mass exodus is to blame. Over the past sixty years Detroit has been devastated by white flight, which shifted a huge portion of the middle- and working-class from the city to the suburbs; there are only 55,000 non-Hispanic whites in Detroit, eight percent of the population, down from 1.5 million in 1950. But until recently the African-American middle class stayed in the city, living in the gracious homes of Rosedale Park or the new condos that had been built along the riverfront. Now they’re fleeing, too. In the past ten years 185,000 African Americans moved out of Detroit, the largest single racial bloc to leave. They came primarily from the middle-class, experts say. And like whites before them, they’ve left the poor behind.
The statistics are nothing short of startling. Officially Detroit’s unemployment rate is 20 percent, but local officials fear that it might actually be twice as high. About 35 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, almost 50 percent of its children, 110,000 all together. By seventh grade 60 percent of kids in the public school system are reading below grade level, while the high school dropout rate hovers around 67 percent. On average ten percent of teenagers attempt suicide each year. More than half the children tested in their schools had some degree of lead poisoning. Thirty-eight percent of toddlers are under-immunized. Forty percent of expected mothers receive inadequate pre-natal care. So it’s hardly surprising that Detroit’s infant mortality rate is barely better than Gaza’s.
In the current political climate, the situation is likely to grow worse. Michigan’s newly-elected governor, Rick Snyder, has unveiled a budget that would cut state aid to Detroit by $70 million in the next year. Education will be particularly hard hit: there’s talk of closing half the city’s schools and raising the average class size to sixty students. The pain doesn’t stop there. Snyder has also proposed abrogating union contracts in cities facing financial distress, a move almost sure to drive down the wages of Detroit’s public workers. He plans to eliminate an earned income tax credit meant to help the working poor, and a few days ago he signed a bill slashing unemployment benefits. This year the jobless can receive twenty-six weeks of support. Next year they’ll get twenty.
Yet when Detroit broke into the headlines last week, the dominant image was of emptiness, of ruin, as if there weren’t almost three quarters of a million people in the city, as if there weren’t anyone there at all. The media isn’t to blame. The poor have been invisible for so long, we’re conditioned to look right past them. But there they are, living alongside the burned-out buildings and the crumbling factories, struggling to get by in a polity that, more and more, thinks cruelty a virtue. That’s the real story of Detroit—and the shame of the nation.