*Potentially the first in a series of posts mapping race and sprawl in American cities
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Detroit and how I found it to be ironic that the very thing that built the city in the first place – the car – is now slowly choking the life out of the place. Some commenters in that thread argued that racism, not the car, is what is causing the sprawl that prevents Detroit from having any cohesive sense of place (and therefore makes it a less attractive place to live for younger, creative, knowledge-sector workers).
The point of that post was not to argue that “white flight” played no role in the development of Detroit’s sprawl problems. I still think that Detroit’s history as a company town and its love affair with the automobile amplified that and other sprawl-causing factors to create the decentralized urban landscape we see there today. But there is no denying that the city has had a troubled past when it comes to race, and that those problems have contributed to the development of metro Detroit’s car-dependent, low density character.
We can get a good look at what has been happening in Detroit by using adjusted Census data on population density and racial distribution, and then mapping it. This first map shows the change in population density at the Census tract level between 1970 and 2010:
That’s a lot of red there in Wayne County, isn’t it? That’s where the city of Detroit is located. You can see a massive loss in population density for a significant chunk of the city – there are only a handful of green-shaded tracts inside the city limits. There was also quite a bit of concentrated depopulation in northeastern Monroe County, southeastern Oakland County, and southern Macomb County. The one thing these areas all have in common is their proximity to Detroit.
That tells us where people have been moving away from over the last 40 years or so. But it tells us nothing about anything to do with race. So I made a second map, based on 2010 Census data, that charts the concentration of African-Americans throughout the metro area. Deeper blues indicate Census tracts with higher percentages of African-American residents, while the lightest blues are tracts with few, if any, African-Americans:
At first glance, it’s hard to know what to make of this data. Clearly, the areas in these five counties that have been experiencing increasing population densities are in places where few blacks live. But that doesn’t tell us if race is actually causing Detroit’s sprawl problems. Similarly, neither does the fact that such a high percentage of the area’s African-American population lives in the city of Detroit itself.
But certain spots on the map give us a bit more information to work with. See that bit of deep blue that seems to spill into southern Oakland County from Wayne County? That’s Southfield, a city that has seen its black population increase dramatically over the last 25 years or so. If you check the first map of population density change, you’ll see that it’s also an area that has seen densities increase since 1970. So there is a larger population in Southfield, and it’s very strongly black.
Now look just to the east of Southfield, to that patch of pale blue. That’s Oak Park, Ferndale and Royal Oak. Those towns do not have large black populations, and they’ve also clearly lost population density since 1970.
So now we know where people have been moving away from, and where the more heavily African-American neighborhoods were in 2010. The final piece of our data puzzle will be a map based on demographic data from 1970:
Look at how much more concentrated Detroit’s black population was 42 years ago. Look also at southern Oakland County – in 1970, very few blacks lived in Southfield.
So here are some things we can say after looking at these maps:
For one thing, we know that the city of Detroit has lost a massive number of people since 1970. For another, we know that Detroit has become much more predominantly African-American during that time. It is therefore logical to assume that this increase in the percentage of African-Americans living in Detroit is not a result of more people moving in, but is instead a result of non-blacks moving out – as more and more whites left Detroit, those neighborhoods became more predominantly black, simply because they were the only people left.
We also know that something different was happening up in Southfield. That city actually added population since 1970, as we can see from the green Census tracts in the first map. The second and third maps tell us that Southfield did in fact switch from being a largely white area to a largely black city during that time, suggesting that once African-Americans also started leaving Detroit (for many of the same reasons that white residents left – high crime, urban blight, ineffective city services and little economic opportunity), many of them moved just to the other side of 8 Mile Road.
Now, let’s look at the area just to the east of Southfield – that Ferndale / Oak Park / Royal Oak zone I pointed out earlier. Like Detroit, that part of Oakland County has also lost a lot of people since 1970. But unlike Detroit, that zone was – and is – very strongly white.
What it looks like to me is that the depopulation of that southeastern corner of Oakland County was driven by the growth of the African-American population in Southfield, as well as the loss of the white population in the Census tracts just over the Detroit city line. You also see a similar depopulation process occurring in southern Macomb County, right alongside Detroit’s northern boundary of 8 Mile Road, which I think was driven by the loss of the “buffer” of northeastern Detroit’s white population.
Certainly that’s not the only possible interpretation of the data. This exercise may not conclusively prove anything one way or the other, but it does help clarify the historic relationship between race and sprawl in Detroit.
What do you think? Is sprawl caused primarily by “white flight?”