Nov 20, 2019

Detroit's uneven comeback

A couple of houses in an illustration with stripes in the background.

Photo illustration: Jacob Boomsma; Aïda Amer/Axios

Detroit is coming back, but the bulk of that transformation has been limited to 7 square miles — the downtown core — according to recent research from scholars at Michigan State University and Wayne State University. For context, the city is 139 square miles.

Why it matters: Like Detroit, many laggard cities are beginning to catch up with the thriving metros, but often the transformation is uneven — limited to wealthier residents living in the richest neighborhoods.

"We've has some green shoots of progress, but there is a very commonly held sense that we aren't even close to done yet," Staebler says. "We won't be until we're inclusive about who gets to participate."

  • The city's poverty rate is around 38%, per the census. Compare that to the 12.3% national poverty rate.
  • In the downtown core, Detroit sees openings for new restaurants or shops or salons nearly every week. But outside of downtown, entire streets remain empty. The city has demolished about 20,000 blighted homes since 2014.
  • Student performance at the city's public schools ranked worst in the country in 2018, reports the Detroit Free Press. Among Detroit fourth-graders, 4% scored at or above proficient in math and 5% did so in reading. The nationwide figures for proficiency in math and reading at public schools were 40% and 35%, respectively.

But, but, but: The revitalization of any place starts with downtown, and Detroit is working to re-create what's happened within those 7 square miles across the city.

  • For example, city and county leaders are working on a big-ticket expansion of public transit, as lack of access to transportation is one factor that's keeping many away from job opportunities.
  • Says Staebler, "I'm optimistic that people won't just settle for, 'Downtown's looking good, so our work's done.'"

Go deeper: The new Detroit

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