Class-Divided Cities: Detroit Edition

The final installment of our series exploring the economic divides across America's largest cities and metros.

Author's Note: This is the 12th and final post in a series exploring the class divides across America's largest cities and metros. Using detailed data from the American Community Survey, it examines the residential locations of today's three major classes: the shrinking middle of blue-collar workers; the rising ranks of the knowledge, professional, and creative class; and the even larger and faster-growing ranks of lower-paid service workers.

The map above shows the class divide for the Detroit metro region, which covers Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer, Livingston, and St. Clair counties, and includes the municipalities of Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Troy, Warren, and Bloomfield Hills to the north, Grosse Pointe to the northeast, Livonia and Dearborn to the west and Melvindale and Lincoln Park to the south (Canada and the lake are directly to the east). The Detroit metro is America's 12th largest, with a population of roughly 4.3 million.

The creative class lives in the areas that are shaded in purple, the red areas are primarily service class, and the blue are working class. Each colored space on the map is a census tract, a small area within the city or county that can be even smaller than a neighborhood.

The creative class is concentrated in the center of the metro in the upscale suburbs of Troy, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Grosse Pointe. Located along the old street-rail route that ran down Woodward Avenue and formed the metro's main commercial and development corridor, the communities of Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham are exemplars of walkability, with mixed-use downtowns and attractive older houses. For the past couple of decades, they have served as a sort of alternative urbanity to downtown.

Cities contributor Micheline Maynard described these areas via email: "Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills are the traditional suburbs for executives at the Detroit auto companies and major auto suppliers. Grosse Pointe was old money; Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills were new money." Birmingham is a classic turn-of-the-century, mixed-use walkable suburb, with two movie theaters, shops, restaurants, coffee-houses, night-spots and street cafes, and The Townsend Hotel, the metro's most upscale boutique hotel. Maynard adds, "Royal Oak and Ferndale have developed as hipper alternatives to Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills over the past 20 years; Ferndale is also a hub for the gay and lesbian community." There is a significant creative class presence in the cottage communities of St. Clair County as well, which curve around Lake St. Clair close to the St. Mary's River that runs between the U.S. and Canada. In the suburbs, the service class is located at the periphery of these creative class nodes, as it was the case in most of the other regions we've covered in this series. (See the end of this post for the complete list.)

What's striking from the maps is how few substantial working class concentrations remain in a metro that was once the nation's and the world's preeminent industrial region. The biggest blue clusters are in the far corners of the region, especially the north.

The second map (see right, click on the map for a larger image) charts the class geography for the city proper of Detroit. There are a few distinct clusters of purple (indicating the creative class) and just three small blotches of blue (indicating working class clusters) in a sea of red low-wage, low-skill service class locations.

The city of Detroit's economic decline has been well-chronicled. Once a booming hub for automotive manufacturing and a center for technological innovation, the veritable Silicon Valley of its day, the city of Detroit has endured devastating economic changes. Since 1950, it has lost more than half its population; in just the decade spanning 2000 and 2010, more than 285,000 residents left the city. In 2009, at the height of the recent economic crisis, Detroit's official unemployment rate neared 30 percent; Mayor Dave Bing asserted at the time that if discouraged workers were also taken into account, the rate would be "closer to 50 percent." In early 2013, the city's official unemployment rate remained at 18 percent.

Much of the city outside of the downtown core has literally been abandoned. More than 25 percent of the city's residential parcels (more than 90,000) are empty lots, and another 10 percent (33,500 parcels) are vacant homes, according to a comprehensive 2010 survey.

Detroit's creative class is located along the lakeshore in the city, as the map above indicates, in a narrow strip that runs north along Jefferson Avenue from downtown through historic Indian Village towards Grosse Pointe. Home to Wayne State University and major arts and cultural institutions, rapidly revitalizing Midtown has also drawn a growing creative class population.

The purple blotch in the north is upscale Palmer Woods, noted for its large Tudor homes close to Detroit Golf Club. The neighborhood was founded in the early 20th century as an exclusive enclave for auto industry barons, including the founders of Fisher Body, and is where a number of Motown recording artists live today.

Greater Detroit's class divides overlay and underpin its long history of white-flight and racial cleavage. Reviewing the various causes of the city's decline, Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, recently pointed to race segregation as the most significant factor over on his blog "Understanding Society":

For decades Eight Mile represented a key racial division in the city, and a plethora of mechanisms of exclusion conspired to maintain this division. If the city could have settled into a racially and economically mixed pattern of residence in the 1940s, much of this story would have been different. Population exit would not have reached crisis proportions; businesses would have been less likely to relocate out of the city; and a schooling system that was very successful in the 1950s could have maintained its effectiveness. This implies that Detroit is victim to the continuing tragedy of America's inability to heal its racial divisions and antagonisms. 

The next map of the Detroit metro is interactive: Click on a tract to see its percentages of each of the three major classes.

The creative class includes the high-skill, high-human capital people who work in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture, media, and entertainment, law, and the healthcare professions. About 34.5 percent of the metro's workers belong to the creative class, a bit above the national average of 32.6 percent. Creative class workers average $73,097 per year in wages and salaries, also above the national average of $70,890. Of all the metros covered in this series, Detroit has the second lowest share of census tracts, just 14 percent, where 50 percent or more of residents are members of the creative class.

The table below shows the top 10 creative class tracts for the metro. All of them are in the suburbs. This is not surprising, as Detroit has witnessed some of the most pronounced white-flight of any U.S. city, exacerbated by heavy-handed efforts at slum clearance and urban renewal.

Top 10 Creative Class Locations in the Detroit Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Creative Class Share
Huntington Woods (1881) 78.2%
Troy (1966) 76.1%
Bloomfield Township (1506) 73.5%
Grosse Pointe Farms (5506) 73.2%
Huntington Woods (1880) 72.0%
Grosse Pointe Park (5503) 71.4%
Birmingham (1527) 70.7%
Bloomfield Township (1510) 70.6%
Bloomfield Hills (1520) 70.3%
Birmingham (1531) 69.6%
Metro Average 34.5%


Two of the top 10 creative class tracts are in Birmingham; two are in Bloomfield Township, and another is in Bloomfield Hills, home to some of the priciest real estate in the U.S. and the Cranbrook educational community.  Designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger called Cranbrook "one of the greatest campuses ever created anywhere in the world." University of Michigan's Little points out in an email to me: "Cranbrook graduates have added to the cutting edge design and creative communities of Detroit and the nation for decades."

Another top creative class tract is in nearby Troy, a sprawling middle-class suburb with excellent public schools, and the site of a high-end mall, the Somerset Collection. Two are in Huntington Woods, a leafy neighborhood that boasts such notable amenities as the public golf course Rackham and the Detroit Zoo. Two more are in the "Grosse Pointes" — Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Park — the communities of choice for many of Detroit's old industrial magnates, whose lakeshores are lined with sprawling Gilded Age mansions.

The Detroit area has a much larger concentration of lower-wage, lower skill service jobs. The service class, which entails low-wage, low-skill work in routine service jobs such as food service and preparation, retail sales, and clerical and administrative positions, makes up 44.8 percent of the region's workforce, just slightly below the national average of 46.6 percent. Service workers in the metro average $29,730, worse than the national average of $30,597 and just 40 percent of the average pay for creative class workers.

The table below showing the top ten Census tracts with the highest percentages of service workers reinforces the city maps above. Each and every one of the top ten tracts is located in the city, most of them surrounding the urban core. The service class makes up more than half of all residents in 30 percent of the metro's Census tracts.

Top 10 Service Class Locations in the Detroit Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Service Class Share
North Central, Detroit (5303) 82.5%
Morningside, Detroit (5020) 80.7%
Von Steuben, Detroit (5035) 78.6%
Detroit (5113) 78.5%
Barton-McFarland, Detroit (5351) 78.0%
North Central, Detroit (5364) 77.0%
West Central, Detroit (5378) 75.5%
North East, Detroit (5041) 75.1%
Northend/Central Detroit (5331) 74.9%
Grandale, Detroit (5453) 74.1%
Metro Average 44.8%


The working class — which includes workers in transportation, construction, and maintenance as well as direct production — comprises just one in five of the region's workers, in sync with the national average. In this once great manufacturing center, just 7.6 percent of workers are involved in direct production. Greater Detroit's working class averages $41,070 per year in wages and salaries, significantly more than the national average of $34,015, but just half of what the region's creative class workers make.

Top 10 Working Class Locations in the Detroit Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Working Class Share
Chadsey/Condon, Detroit (5263) 57.6%
Southwest Detroit (5243) 55.3%
Chadsey/Condon, Detroit (5262) 54.9%
Detroit (5260) 51.4%
Romulus (5855) 51.3%
Lapeer County (3310) 48.0%
Dearborn (5735) 47.2%
Southwest Detroit (5233) 46.6%
Michigan-Martin, Detroit (5257) 46.4%
Pontiac (1417) 45.5%
Metro Average 20.7%


The table above shows the top ten working class locations in metro Detroit. Six are in the city. As the map shows, the major working class concentrations that remain are in the southwest corner of the city, close to Dearborn.  Despite the economic trauma it has faced, this working class area remains home to some of the city's strongest neighborhood associations — a testimony to the power of community organization and social capital in stabilizing and improving neighborhood conditions.

The other four are in the suburbs. One is in Dearborn, home of Ford Motor Company's corporate headquarters (and the original home of Henry Ford himself) and the site of several manufacturing plants, including the original Dearborn Assembly Plant and the massive River Rouge Complex. Dearborn is also the hub of greater Detroit's large Arab-American population. Another is Pontiac, which was home to GM's Pontiac Motor Division as well as its Fisher Body unit, and one is in Romulus, home to the GM Romulus engine and power train plant. Two others are much further out in Lapeer County, abutting Flint.

In shocking testimony to how thoroughly the metro has deindustrialized, blue-collar workers make up more than half of all residents in less than one (0.4) percent of the metro's Census tracts. This compares to two percent in Los Angeles, four percent in Dallas, and five percent each in Houston and Boston. Maynard cites research by Kevin Boyle at Ohio State University, which charts the dramatic decline of Detroit manufacturing. "In 1950, Detroit had a population of nearly 2 million, and 200,000 manufacturing jobs within the city limits," she notes. "Now, the population has dropped to below 750,000 and there are only 20,000 manufacturing jobs left."

•       •       •       •       •

Despite the economic pounding it has taken, or maybe because of it, the revitalization of Downtown Detroit has gained significant momentum as I pointed out in the Financial Times today

With its fraying social fabric and the imposition of an emergency manager to cope with its collapsing finances, it would be easy to argue a city that was a global centre of carmaking and musical innovation 50 years ago has passed the point of no return.

Easy, yes; but wrong. Detroit’s days as a manufacturing powerhouse – like those of many industrial cities in America, Europe and elsewhere – are irrevocable. But its downtown is rebounding, thanks to the kind of central location, affordable property, improved efficiency and productivity also bringing people and businesses back to struggling former industrial hubs such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh. .

According to recent report, Detroit's Greater Downtown spans 7.2 square miles: across the city's riverfront from the central business district to trendy Corktown, home of Slows Bar B QAstro Coffee, Sugar House, Brooklyn Street Local, and the Honor & Folly inn; Mies van der Rohe's verdant Lafayette Park and Rivertown, north to the Eastern Market, Detroit's farmer's market; the Cass Corridor, with arts institutions; Midtown, home to Wayne State University and Detroit Medical Center, up Woodward Avenue to Tech Town and New Center. This corridor has a population of 36,550 people, or 5,076 people per square mile. It is more affluent, diverse, and educated than the city as a whole. College educated residents between the ages of 25 and 34 made up eight percent of the population for Greater Downtown, compared to just one percent for the city as a whole, three percent for the state of Michigan, and four percent for the nation.

One of the things that nearly killed downtown Detroit was the misguided notion that its function as a location for offices and headquarters could be transplanted to its suburbs. The region can no longer afford the outmoded and incorrect notion that it can build an alternative "downtown." As I pointed out in a recent talk to the Detroit Regional Chamber's Policy Conference, "Anyone who believes you can build an alternative core out there in the suburbs need a head examination."

A new generation of business leaders understands this, like the billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, who has moved more than 3,000 jobs from the suburbs to downtown, purchasing millions of square feet of office and residential space to accommodate them. (Gilbert owns 15 buildings with 2.6 million square feet of commercial space and two parking garages with some 3500 spaces). Compuware has brought thousands of professionals, techies, and creatives into downtown Detroit as well. "[W]e realized we needed to control the hardware, or the buildings -- the real estate," is the way he put it.

University of Michigan's Little points out in an email: "The influx created more racial and ethnic diversity in the center of the city as 20- and 30-somethings are moving into office buildings retrofitted as rental housing." This was not just based on community altruism, it was also good business. Gilbert realized that locating his business in the center of the city was more attractive to many employees and cheaper. "The good news was there was a skyscraper sale going on in Detroit at the time," he added.

One of the buildings owned by Dan Gilbert in downtown Detroit on January 30. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

A major new initiative by the highly regarded Project for Public Spaces has outlined plans to animate the district with dozens of pop up food markets, cafes, and shops. It is based on PPS's landmark "Power of 10" framework that proposes "a great city needs at least ten great districts, each with at least ten great places, which in turn each have at least ten things to do." PPS describe this strategy as a "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategy that will include installations, pop-ups, and other activities in key public spaces like Cadillac Square, Capitol Park, and Grand Circus Park." The aim is to reorient downtown Detroit from its historic focus on streets for cars to a place for people and pedestrians. As PPS's Fred Kent put it when presenting the vision in Detroit: "We want to create a city where you don't drive through the center, you drive to it."

Detroit's Greater Downtown district is home to the region's major arts institutions — the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Max M. Fisher Music Center, the Bonstelle Theater and the Fox Theatre. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, founded in 2006, is part of the Sugar Hill Arts District. Midtown is also home to the vaunted music venue The Magic Stick. Writing in the New York Times, Maynard described it as the veritable epicenter of the contemporary Detroit music scene, where acts like The White Stripes and The Von Bondies among others got their starts. 

Long home to a cutting edge music scene which spanned soul, jazz, rock, pop, electronic, and techno, downtown Detroit also features a world class design community, which we profiled in our "Detroit Rising" series.

In an email to me, Christian Unverzagt, a Detroit-based architect who lives in Lafayette Park and teaches at the University of Michigan's Taubman College, pointed out the transformation that the Cass Corridor has undergone. Long home to activists and artists, its gritty, windowless galleries and practice spaces have given way to a variety of renovated spaces including Green Garage (a co-working space), Great Lakes Coffee, and small retail shops such as City Bird, Nest, Hugh, and Nora, along with several yoga studios.

The area has become so attractive, Unverzagt adds, that there is now a shortage of rental housing. As a further signal of how far its transformation has progressed, a Whole Foods (the standard bearer for gentrification)  will open there, a few blocks from Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, another market that opened in 2012. Unverzagt notes that even hard-hit Hamtramck, a diverse working class community, has more recently become a destination for artists who are buying homes to both live in and experiment on. Its downtown has seen an influx of several storefront galleries and restaurants, and the artist-initiated Ride-It Sculpture Park and the skateboard shop Chiipss, relocated there from Plymouth, a suburb 25 miles to the west, have become the hub of a local skateboard culture.

The interior of City Bird in Detroit. (Courtesy of Google Street View)

As Roy Strickland, a leading urban designer who heads the urban design program at the University of Michigan (he was previously director of the urban design program at Columbia University and a faculty member at MIT), pointed out in an email, downtown Detroit is being powerfully revitalized around four key legs: higher-ed, health, arts and culture, and technology. The confluence of these forces has brought considerable revitalization to a core that was once virtually hollowed-out. Put a rectangle around this area, he adds and "Detroit looks pretty healthy."

On top of that, the greater Detroit region broadly remains economic powerhouse. Even with its diminished population in the city, the metro area's population puts in the same league as San Francisco and Boston. With $200 billion in economic output, its economy is the same size as Ireland's, Hong Kong's, or Singapore's. It is connected to the world through its airport. On top of this, the region is home to an incredible cluster of universities and knowledge based institutions, the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor, long a center for top researchers and now an emerging nexus for tech start-ups, Michigan State in East Lansing, and Wayne State in Detroit. The region's talent base is especially deep in engineering, design, and industrial know-how. Before all those assets can be fully-leveraged, suburban interests must come to the table, and transit must be extended outside the core to the suburbs and ultimately all the way out to Ann Arbor.

•       •       •       •       •

Detroit's nascent turnaround is different than slum clearances of the past; its impetus comes from a very different place than the redevelopment programs of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, that staked huge sums of public money on ill-conceived mega-projects. The initiatives that are making the difference today are more market-driven and less top-down; they are organized not by the federal, state, or local government but by a unique coalition of profit-driven entrepreneurs, old-line philanthropic foundations, and grass roots neighborhood groups.

consortium of companies and foundations including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the Detroit Three, Quicken Loans, the Kresge Foundation, Penske Corporation, and Platinum Equity have announced plans to purchase 100 police cars and 23 ambulances and lease them to the city of Detroit.

The Kresge Foundation's Complete Neighborhoods program has channeled millions of dollars to "[f]oster sustainability, increase economic opportunity and stabilize property values and the city's tax base by investing in neighborhoods that are magnets for new residents and that sustain existing residents," while its Detroit Future City initiative will provide $150 million to create more concentrated economic development, reuse the city's 100,000 vacant lots, add much needed parks and green space, and create more economically viable and healthier neighborhoods. With backing from local businesses, foundations, and the federal government, a new light rail system will help connect and consolidate development across the several distinct creative class clusters that have developed across this corridor.

Such dramatic change has stoked considerable demographic shifts, which mirror the region's class and racial divide. "On one hand, you see a 'new' Detroit. Young, white, educated, and employed are the characteristics of those who are taking a chance on the city," argued Karen Dumas, former press secretary to Mayor Bing in the Detroit News this past summer. "They stand in stark contrast to native Detroiters — most of whom are African-Americans and many who are undereducated and unemployed — who have stayed and stuck it out over the years, through challenge and controversy." The challenge for the city and region moving forward is to spur further urban economic revitalization while bridging this class divide. That will require greater cooperation between the city and its suburbs.

Still, what's happening in and around downtown Detroit should not be minimized: It is a critical step, if only a first step, toward creating the jobs, economic activity, and tax revenues that are needed to underwrite broader recovery and building. As is the case in most of America's older industrial cities, Detroit's days as a manufacturing powerhouse are irrecoverable; its future economic growth will turn on its creative and knowledge industries — and the transformation of its low skill, low pay service jobs into higher-wage, family-supporting jobs by involving workers in continuous productivity improvement. A new urban social compact is desperately needed to make this happen: to upgrade its underfunded schools and to train and connect more workers and residents to the new economy that is emerging downtown. The same kind of compact is needed in cities like New York, San Francisco, and even London which, while more affluent, suffer from the similar if not worse inequality.

All that said, the new developments downtown, taken together with the broader region's economic assets, put Detroit on a much better economic footing than has been the case for a couple of generations. While the jury is out on the city's long-term future, "the resurgence at its heart," as I note in the FT, "provides grounds for real hope tempered with cautious optimism."

Prior posts in this series:

All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here