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Why Detroit's Collapse Was So Much Worse Than Other Hard-Hit Cities

Why Detroit's Collapse Was So Much Worse Than Other Hard-Hit Cities
Reuters

The best CityRead of this month may be the New Yorker profile of L. Brooks Patterson, kingpin of suburban Detroit (paywall). Patterson wears a number of hats — chief executive of Oakland County, sprawl lover, political loud mouth, unabashed Detroit basher — and is a controversial personality, to put it kindly. He has faced allegations of racism in the past, and reading Williams's profile it's not hard to see why:

When I asked him how Detroit might fix its financial problems, he said, "I made a prediction a long time ago, and it's come to pass. I said, 'What we're gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.'"

Whatever you think of Patterson as a person, he's been a successful executive for Oakland County by fiscal standards. His current plan is to shift his suburban county from a manufacturing-based job center to a knowledge-based one. If he would cooperate with Detroit, there might be a good partnership here, because the city is trying to do the same thing. As Richard Florida has argued, the future of Detroit's economic growth may hinge on "its creative and knowledge industries."

Many, many factors played a role in the rise and fall of Detroit, but the collapse of the city's manufacturing sector is among the most important. Outlining a brief history of the city in an upcoming issue of Urban Studies, the economics scholar John F. McDonald puts Detroit's manufacturing woes into statistical perspective by comparing them to six other hard-hit cities in the region. We charted McDonald's data for your infographic pleasure:



 

The numbers here show us a few things. Obviously, Detroit was not the only city in the region to suffer from the decline of U.S. manufacturing. The sector's 2010 employment figures are well below the 2000 levels in all seven cities. It's also evident that the decline began before the Great Recession in 2008.

But it's clear that Detroit's manufacturing sector suffered more than the cities around it. From 2000 to 2010, the city lost more than 52 percent of its manufacturing jobs. The other six metros were also slammed, dropping an average of 38 percent. That's still nearly 15 points better than Detroit's drop.

Compounding the problem was the fact that Detroit placed so many of its employment eggs in the manufacturing basket. The mean total job loss for the six other cities in the 2000-2010 period was 6.5 percent. Detroit's job total, meanwhile, plummeted 21 percent — another 15-point disparity, and a sign of the city's poorly diversified economy.

McDonald ends on a positive note. The three big Detroit automakers not only survived the recession but are profitable again and have even added manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile the city center is reconstituting itself around a knowledge-based economy consisting of health, education, finance, and tech workers. "Is a major transformation of Detroit underway that will save the city?" asks McDonald. Everyone but L. Brooks Patterson sure hopes so.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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