Now That Detroit’s Gone Bust, Is Your City Next?


Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is one depressing read. Poverty, crime, blight – you name the malady and there’s plenty of data to back it up. And unfortunately, Detroit’s not alone. You may be wondering which city hits the wall next.

I’m not making predictions, but I’ve looked at one indicator that may offer some clues: population loss.

As any good Ponzi Schemer will tell you, your future looks much better when there are more people moving in than moving out. Once the population change turns negative, a vicious circle can take hold, and that’s exactly what we saw in Detroit.

In addition to spending excesses and mismanagement, the city’s financial problems stem from the challenges of downsizing infrastructure as quickly as the tax base contracts. Here are a few lowlights from the bankruptcy declaration:

  • The average cost to demolish an abandoned building – of which Detroit has about 78,000, or 20% of the housing stock – is approximately $8500.
  • Of about 11,000 to 12,000 fires each year, approximately 60% occur in abandoned buildings.
  • The city closed 210 parks in fiscal year 2009 and recently announced that 50 of the remaining 107 parks were slated for closure.
  • The city’s Public Lighting Department is able to keep only about 60% of the approximately 88,000 street lamps in operation.
  • The Detroit courts’ case clearance rates have been running at only 18.6% for violent crimes and 8.7% for all crimes.
  • Only 10 to 14 of the city’s 36 ambulances were in service in the first quarter of 2013.

And now for a look at other cities that are battling severe population loss. Here are the top 15, ranked by the decline from each city’s population peak, according to the decennial U.S. census:


And here are the top 15 ranked by the percentage decline (for this list, I required a population of at least 125,000 in or before 1960):


Nine cities have the dubious distinction of making both “top 15” lists. For these cities, I’ve added charts showing population histories using all of the data I could find. There’s one chart each for the Midwest, Northeast and South (and if you’re looking for St. Louis, I went with the last Missouri accent that I’ve heard – definitely a drawl):




The rate of population decline in most of these cities was at least slower from 1980 to 2010 than it was from 1950 to 1980 (Detroit was one of the exceptions). Nonetheless, they’ll need to manage the exodus more carefully than Detroit did to avoid the same fate.

Other links

Here are links to a few interesting Motor City photo galleries, from Time, Zero Hedge (via the NY Daily News) and the BBC (where I sourced the photo above).

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