The common story is that Detroit’s suburbs have done great while the city fell apart and just now is coming back. And a common storyline I’ve heard is that Detroit wants a “free ride” off of the successful suburbs.

Locally, people look at the city of Detroit’s decline as somehow separate from the suburbs. That after 1967 it all went to hell (although you should by know now that the city’s population peaked in 1950).

But what if I told you that the suburbs aren’t truly successful? That although the city of Detroit did decline, so did the entire region?


Although it may have felt like success to many in suburbia, which has seen more development since 1970, in fact, the entire Detroit region hasn’t been keeping pace with the rest of the nation for nearly half a century. Turns out it’s not just Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan who’s dealing with a population decline.

The reality is, according to the U.S. Census, the entire Detroit region has lost people between 1970 and 2016.

In 1970, the Detroit region’s population was 4,490,902. In 2016, it was estimated at 4,313,002. That’s a net drop of 3.9 percent.

The entire region has seen a decline while the rest of the country’s population grew 57.6 percent. In 1970, there were about 205.1 million people in the United States. In 2016, 323.4 million.

If metro Detroit was just keeping pace with the growth the rest of the country saw, our region would now have about 7 million people.

There are many reasons for this, but people haven’t been choosing our region to live or invest in for a long time. We need to look in the mirror and ask why. I don’t think we have far to look for one of the causes.

Up at the Mackinac Policy Conference, I heard squawking that Detroit’s becoming too powerful. That we’re back to animosity across 8 Mile. I was reminded (and inspired to write this) by a recent blog post on New Geography.

That animosity reminded me that many elected leaders and some businessmen know the numbers that I write above is true. That people have been voting with the feet for decades, so leaders (and many residents) feel we have to play a zero-sum game. That we need to steal pie from our neighbors instead of making more pie for everyone.

And back to the old, divisive tactics folks went. The attitude of “I’m gonna get mine” instead of looking to see how they can build something bigger. 

I believe a strong city of Detroit also means a strong Detroit region. We should be about lifting each other up, pulling ourselves out of the hole we’re all in. This hole that stretches across decades, across city, county and party lines.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve been on a losing path for longer than I’ve been alive — with many more years of insanity ahead unless we realize where we really are and make changes in our hearts and minds — and demand those changes of those we put in charge.

Why do I bring this up? Not to bring you down, but to bring us to action.

After all, loving Detroit means more than buying the T-shirt. The “brand” of Detroit seems to mean to folks that you believe in the power of hard work and making something.

Everyone has their own opinion, but in my mind, you don’t deserve to wear “Detroit” on your chest unless you’re willing to do work and take action for your community to make it better.

Working together seems to be the best way to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. And if we’re going to work together, we need to demand that action of our leaders — and if they don’t do it, change our leaders.

One way to do this? We have a key set of elections coming up in cities, counties, the state legislature and yes, all the way up to the governor’s office. The registration deadline for the August primary election is July 9 — and there will be many more after that. It feels like a lot of folks on both sides are taking our votes for granted lately. Let’s make them earn it.

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