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Why Detroit's Population Rebound Matters

To guess at the Motor City’s future, look to its past.

Credit: Seth Herald/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions have not won a football championship since 1957. That same year, Detroit’s population grew for the last time—until last year. The Lions still haven’t won a Super Bowl, but they’re gaining momentum. And, for the first time since 1957, Detroit’s population is growing

Mayor Mike Duggan has knocked down over 25,000 blighted houses, aiming for a goal of “next to zero” abandoned homes by the end of next year. Since 2013, when Duggan first ran for mayor, he claimed that Detroit would gain population under his leadership.


The increase has been modest; the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported a 1,852-person bump in the Motor City’s ranks.

Still, that’s more than can be said for cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans, where populations declined over the same period. Whether Detroit’s growth is a one-off or the beginning of the comeback often forecasted but never imminent, only time will tell. Detroit will have to prove itself capable of overcoming the factors that led to its demise. 

Founded by French fur traders and missionaries, Detroit has long been subject to demographic change. The once-small city was a bargaining chip for great powers through the latter half of the 18th century, traded from French to British to American hands, often with incursions from regional Native American tribes. Located along the waterway connecting Lake Huron to Lake Erie, Detroit was well-positioned for the growth of the young nation’s industry. 

Over the next century, European immigrants came to Detroit, mostly from Poland, Ireland, and Germany. Unlike residents of most major American cities, Detroit’s citizens lived mainly in single-family homes rather than tenements or row houses—immigrants included. But, as was common, immigrants settled in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods, giving rise to Poletown, Germantown, and Greektown within the city limits.  

When Henry Ford transformed Detroit into Motor City, he hired factory workers from among the city’s immigrant population, attracting labor with the generous $5 workday. But the growth of Ford Motor Company soon outpaced the growth of Detroit’s immigrant population. The automobile industry needed more factory workers, but fewer Europeans were moving to the city due to several restrictive immigration bills in the 1920s. Looking for workers domestically, Ford began hiring black Americans who had moved north in search of work and a reprieve from the Jim Crow South. 


Ford’s continued expansion would not just change Detroit economically but demographically, culturally, and geographically. By 1930, Detroit’s black population grew 25-fold to 150,000. Like European immigrants before them, black Americans lived in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods in the city. 

And as both money and workers poured into Detroit, rapid industrialization heightened racial tensions in the city. Searching for available land and lower prices, companies began building new factories on the outskirts of Detroit. And as companies moved out of downtown, so did their employees. A 1932 population survey concluded that “the outward expansion of the city has pushed suburban development farther and farther away from the down-town section. As a result…Detroit is deteriorating within the heart of the city itself.” 

But the deterioration was slow—for a while, at least. Detroit residents moved to subdivisions on the city’s outskirts, many of which advertised themselves as havens from the city’s ethnic integration. Some new neighborhoods offered buyers assurance that, “ten years from today, the neighborhood will be just as desirable as it is today,” not so subtly hinting at race occupancy restrictions for the new developments.  

Property owners in Detroit were concerned about the same thing. Those who didn’t, or couldn’t afford to, move away became wary of fluctuations in property value. With the financial disaster of the Great Depression still in recent memory, white, working-class homeowners were skeptical of anything that could jeopardize their property value—including racial integration. Where suburban homeowners had recourse to realtors, urban homeowners often took matters into their own hands, heightening racial tensions.

By 1957, more people were leaving Detroit than were moving in, and the black population remained fairly concentrated in central neighborhoods. Then, a decade later, came the summer of rage. 

Of the 158 race riots that exploded in cities across America during the summer of 1967, Detroit’s riots were the bloodiest. Over five days, 43 people were injured, 7,2000 arrested, and more than 2,500 buildings were looted or destroyed.

The hemorrhage of white residents to the suburbs turned into abject flight. In 1967, 47,000 people left Detroit, headed for the suburbs. The following year, 80,000 people left. In the next decade, Detroit public schools saw a 74 percent decrease in the number of white students enrolled. Following white flight, Detroit became a majority-black city. 

As Detroit’s population plummeted, neighborhoods were abandoned, and once-bustling subdivisions became blighted. Crime spiked, heroin use grew, and gun violence became commonplace. For decades, Detroit went up in flames every Halloween when arsonists torched hundreds of homes on “Devil’s Night,” as it became known.

By the time deindustrialization created the Rust Belt, Detroit had already fallen. Ironically, the very industry that built the city had also served as a vehicle for displacement and inflamed racial conflict. 

As the city’s demographics shifted, so too did its politics. Activists looked to profit from stoking racial tensions, like lawyer and black labor organizer Kenneth Cockrel Sr. In one case, Cockrel was able to convince a jury that his defendant — who had taken an M-1 carbine to his shift at a Chrysler plant and killed two foremen and a fellow worker — was “not guilty by reason of insanity as a result of racism and conditions inside the plant.” As Bill McGraw wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “With such unlikely victories, much of white Detroit was incredulous — and angry — that black radicals were overthrowing the old order downtown.”

In 1973, Coleman Young, a former black radical, ran for mayor against police commissioner John Nichols. Young won the election by three points, supported by the majority of black voters but only 10 percent of white voters. 

As time went on, white residents weren’t the only ones who left Detroit. From 2000 to 2020, Detroit lost a third of its black population, undergoing the greatest loss of black residents in any American city. In 2010, 82 percent of Detroiters were black—the highest ratio in the nation—compared to 77 percent today.

Detroiters left, but their houses still stood, creating long stretches of neighborhood blight. Houses in the city sold for as little as $100 in 2011. Whether Duggan can sustain the new growth—or ameliorate frustrated Detroiters who accuse investors of racist gentrification—is another question. As small numbers of white residents return to the city, some black Detroiters feel displaced by new commercial and residential investments. Some are still resentful that white flight to the suburbs crippled Detroit’s tax base, throwing the city into decades of poverty and underfunded resources. 

But white people certainly aren’t the only ones moving to Detroit. As mayor, Duggan established an office of immigrant affairs headed up by Fayrouz Saad, who was tapped by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to run Michigan’s immigration policy. Saad’s department administers Whitmer’s Newcomer Rental Subsidy program, which provides up to $500 a month in rental assistance for immigrants and refugees in hopes of reversing Michigan’s decline in population. Program applications can be completed in English, Arabic, Dari, Haitian Creole, Kinyarwanda, Pashto, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

In the years since white flight, Detroit has experienced a new wave of immigration. Immigrants from Middle Eastern countries have flocked to the region in recent years, giving the Detroit metro area the largest Muslim population in the nation. Dearborn, which lies just outside of the Detroit city limits, recently became America’s first majority-Muslim city. 

Inside Detroit, too, Arab-Americans have moved into the neighborhoods founded by European immigrants. For years, Polish-Americans lived in Hamtramck, creating a small enclave of Polish culture. In 2021, however, Hamtramck elected a completely Muslim city council, and Amer Ghalib became the first mayor of Hamtramck in 100 years without Polish heritage. 

Demographic change has long been the story of Detroit, but the last seventy years have shown the perils of that change. An increase in population could be the harbinger of urban renewal, though it’s ultimately more likely to bring about heightened ethnic tensions. And if Dearborn and Hamtramck are indicators, the future of Detroit could be shaped less by black-white dynamics and more by the burgeoning conflict between Americans and anti-western values.