Patchwork Nation: Census Raises Questions About Detroit’s Future

BY Dante Chinni  March 24, 2011 at 1:32 PM EST

For as long as anyone cares to remember, Detroit has been Michigan’s center of gravity. There have been challengers from time to time. Lansing is the capital. Grand Rapids is a power base in the west. But ultimately, the state was really driven by its industrial, brawny big brother in the southeast corner.

The latest data from the census, however, shows a 25 percent drop in population and raises some questions about the role of the Motor City in Michigan’s future. Big brother may still hold the most people, but 40 miles west there is a sense that the Michigan of the 21st century runs through Ann Arbor.

To be clear, Detroit isn’t just going to go away — 700,000 people isn’t chump change. But the city, an Industrial Metropolis community in the Patchwork Nation, has had a difficult time transitioning to new economic realities. Nearby Ann Arbor, a Campus and Careers locale that is home to the University of Michigan, has not only kept up with the new economic realities, it has tried to follow the economic tide.

Although big brother is likely to stay big brother for quite some time, it truly does seem that a power shift is happening. No transition will happen overnight, but down in the southeastern corner of Michigan you can see the story of a changing country from up close.

From Gears to Grads

Wayne County, the home of Detroit, sits just next to Washtenaw County, the home of Ann Arbor. But it is hard to overemphasize the different directions they have moved in the past 30 years. As factory jobs have waned in Detroit, Ann Arbor has become richer and more powerful, and the university has extended its research aims.

When Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, closed its 170-acre Ann Arbor facility in 2007, the University of Michigan swooped in and bought it to create a research center and business incubator. Google opened an Ann Arbor office in the past few years. And the university captured more than $100 million from the 2009 federal stimulus bill. And remember, this all took place while the U.S. economy was in a very bumpy period.

Since 1980, the median family income in Wayne County has declined by almost 10 percent, while the median family income in Washtenaw County has climbed by more than 10 percent.

What you see when you look at those numbers is the triumph of education as the key to economic success in 21st century. Campus and Careers communities such as Ann Arbor are well-positioned for what is to come. Industrial Metros such as Detroit are not.

Of course, Detroit’s case is somewhat unique. Other big industrial cities have not only managed to survive the economic changes of the past 30 years, but they have found a way to thrive — think of New York or Boston or Washington.

The difference is those cities have used their cosmopolitan backdrops as draws for young, educated people and, in the process, they have essentially de-industrialized and become commercial business centers.

And Detroit is not alone in its predicament. There are a lot of other Industrial Metros that have taken big hits in income over the past 30 years and that are seeing big losses in population — St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore, just to name a few.

Detroit does have one thing going for it. Ann Arbor is close by and has been using its research know-how to aid the auto industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured in for auto battery research alone. People in the community tell us the goal is not to leave Detroit behind but to become the new gravitational center for the state by creating technologies that can help the city.

Any kind of turn-around won’t be easy, but the loss that had made Michigan’s big brother much smaller may offer a few positives.

Detroit, a city built for almost two million people that now houses less than half of that, is ripe for dramatic experimentation — like urban farming on blocks now full of empty homes. Some will fail, but some may succeed.

And if little brother Ann Arbor really can become the new gravitational center of the state, the city it wants to help turn around may become more manageable as it shrinks.

More from the NewsHour:

Detroit: A Boom Town Goes Bust

Detroit’s Population Decline: 1 Person Departed Every 22 Minutes

Photo Essay: Desolate Detroit – The Forsaken City