Detroit: A Boom Town Goes Bust

For almost a half century last century, Detroit was a boom town. Between 1910 and 1950, few cities grew faster, were wealthier, were more attractive to those seeking success than what became known as the Motor City.

Detroit in its heyday

But for the past 60 years, the decline has been long and relatively slow — until the year 2000. Since then, Detroit has lost one-quarter of its population, as the 2010 census figures released on Tuesday showed. The decline was equal to one departee every 22 minutes, according to PBS Newshour.

The reasons for its decline are numerous, but can be summed up in two words: jobs, and demographics. In 1950, when Detroit had 1.8 million people, about 200,000 were employed in manufacturing, according to Kevin Boyle, the author and professor of history at Ohio State University, who is a native Detroiter. That was about one of out every 10 people in the city.

Now, fewer than 20,000 of Detroit’s remaining 714,000 people work in manufacturing, or about one in 50 residents.

Sixty years ago, car makers from Chrysler to Cadillac, Studebaker to Dodge had plants in or near the city limits. There were hundreds more parts plants, steel mills, foundries and parts depots, where the products built in Detroit factories were sorted and sent on to the vast networks operated by the auto companies across the country. People in all parts of the city could walk to work, or take a streetcar or bus. Some of them chose to drive, because they earned enough to afford to vehicles they were making (something their parents and grandparents might not have been able to do).

Professor Boyle says that in Detroit’s glory years, from 1910 to 1950, the city was a boom town, equal to any of the gold rush towns of the American West.

It has a mirror in Calumet, Mich., known as Copper Town, which swelled in population as high as 70,000 people between the late 1800s and early 1900s when people from all over the country swarmed there to work in the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula. (Legend has it that in 1910, one out of every 10 people in Calumet was a millionaire.)

Visit Calumet, now a town of 799, and the mansions built by those mining barons remain, as does the impressive opera house. But like Detroit, it is another ghost town with a glorious past.

Now, there are just two big car factories left in Detroit, Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant on the east side, and General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant just north of I-94. While some of those smaller factories remain, dozens are empty, their structures dotting the city’s landscape like dandelions on a spring lawn. All that  presents an enormous challenge to Mayor Dave Bing in his efforts to reinvent the city.

Some of that job decline actually was due to the auto companies’ growth strategies. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the auto companies branched out across the country, pursuing a strategy of building vehicles closer to their customers. The jobs that might automatically have gone to Detroit, or in G.M.’s case, to Flint, Mich., instead went to places such as Doraville, Ga., Framingham, Mass., Tarrytown, N.Y., St. Louis, Fremont, Calif., and elsewhere.

Many of those outlying factories are now closed, too, but there was a key difference. A car plant was part of those places’ economy, not its sole focus. In Detroit, the car plants and everything they fed became the dominant force.

Beyond the job loss, demographics played a role in the shift away from Detroit. A century ago, as planners were looking at where the city could grow, they envisioned three centers of commerce: downtown, the New Center area about 10 minutes drive north, and a third area in northwest Detroit, the area known as Palmer Woods.

The first two areas, and surrounding neighborhoods, filled in by World War II and the thought was that the third area, from New Center to the city’s northwest boundaries, would then come to life after the war.

But as veterans returned, and their families were born, the suburbs beckoned. Rather than move back to their city neighborhoods, they headed beyond Detroit’s borders. That demographic change, as much as the “white flight” so talked about after the Detroit riots of 1967, had an equally important influence on the city’s drop in population.

Mayor Dave Bing. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Those shifts were underway well before 2000. They help explain what led up to the latest, and stunning drop, in the city’s population. But why leave now? And where did those people go?

Those are questions we will be looking at over the next few weeks at Changing Gears.


TALK TO US: If you’ve left Detroit in the past 10 years, we’d like to hear from you. Where are you living now? Why did you leave? If you’re still there, tell us why, too, and what you’d like to see happen in your city. Leave your comments here or email us at ChangingGears at

Special thanks to Jalopnik for republishing this article.

6 Replies to “Detroit: A Boom Town Goes Bust”

  1. Spent quite a bit of time in the Detroit area (Royal Oak) on business during the late 80’s. Saw the decline of the city back then and thought it to be alarming.Never thought it would get to the point that it is now.

  2. My parents left the City for the suburbs in 1964 w/o regrets. I left the Metro area w/o regrets in the 80’s/90’s. Nowhere else where I have lived worldwide have I seen people scrambling to get out of an area without prospects-maybe except for parts of Central and South America. I know we turned our backs on the City during the Coleman Young years. He didn’t want us and made it clear to stay on our side of 8mile. The Carter Years wounded the auto industry and it never recovered. There have been two types of Detroiters as I was growing up, those who move up into the “Hills” (Bloomfield, Farmington and other affluent suburbs), and those who get the hell out of the State all together. I’m the latter.

  3. The unions are to blame as well as Democrat Mayors, and Governors. The PEOPLE of Detroit and Michigan build the greatness that was “The Motor City”, friggin greed, handouts, bureaucrats and corrupt politicians killed the golden goose…. Detroit is the poster child for not enough free markets, capitalism and too much union thuggery and too much Govt….you can’t handle the truth!

  4. it’s the culture the mentality the anti intellectual value system the weather the smokers tailgating drivers but mostly the masochistic worldview and low expectations and of course crime and corruption harkening back to Prohibition which ruined the city and laid the groundwork for corrupt mayors

  5. Free markets killed Detroit. The US automakers built an inferior product to those being imported from Japan, South Korea and anywhere else for that matter. The public moved away from wanting oversize wallowing gas guzzlers and the free market provided the public with what they want in the form of imports. Those who live by the market will also die by the market if they slack off like the US automakers did. Aint capitalism grand?

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