In the 1950s, more than 1.8 million people resided within the 140 square miles that comprise the city of Detroit. Some sixty years later, the city’s population has tumbled to 713,777, according to 2010 U.S. census figures.
The geography hasn’t changed.
From deploying police officers to demolishing vacant structures, the mechanics of governing a spread-thin population have become a central challenge for the city’s mayor, Dave Bing. He doesn’t sugarcoat the glum news for remaining residents: The city must shrink.
“We cannot continue to support every neighborhood in the city of Detroit,” he said last week while speaking at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum. “We don’t have the funding to support everybody.”
Far from using grandiose rhetoric, Bing has delivered unpopular sound bytes on a regular basis since taking office in May 2009. Halfway through his term, one of his biggest accomplishments just might be tempering expectations.
Among his constituents, sobering reality might be a hard sell. To outsiders, it’s a more pragmatic course. Last week, a report released by IHS Global said Detroit may not regain the 323,400 jobs lost during the recession until after 2021. Media reports have already sounded the alarm on the potential for what’s been dubbed another “lost decade.”
Even as Bing touts the addition of 8,000 new jobs to downtown Detroit, he concedes they’re a drop in the bucket. “It’s not to be this quantum leap all of the sudden where we have 50,000 jobs,” he says about the prospects for a Detroit recovery. “It’s not going to happen like that.”
Rather, the mayor foresees slow-and-steady growth, aided by a resurgent auto industry and efforts to diversify the Motor City’s economy. One such effort is TechTown, a 43-acre small-business incubator that houses 220 companies and 500 jobs adjacent to Wayne State University.
It’s a long-term solution for an immediate problem, one which Bing has confronted while simultaneously tackling a $330 million budget deficit
On that topic and others, the mayor buffets the optimism that other boosters exude. His administration will have “miniscule” effect if he cannot achieve health-care and pension reforms, he says. Of the 80,000 vacant structures in the city, Bing notes 3,200 have been torn down, but that’s “the tip of the iceberg.”
Reversing 50 years of decline in one term may not be a realistic expectation for Bing’s administration. So what is?
“You have to stabilize our city first, before we do anything,” Bing said.