Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Officially speaking, there are thirty-two American cities with a population greater than 500,000 individuals. Over the last five years, the ten highest ranking cities on this list
have remained the same except that San Jose replaced Detroit at number ten in 2005. Their placement on this list is as close as these two cities come to each other in almost all demographic respects, save one: Detroit and San Jose are the only two cities of greater than 500,000 people in America that actually shrink during the daytime hours.
With more news of closings and layoffs from both GM and Ford of late, many media outlets have devoted significant attention to Detroit's economic and social decline. Yet this decline has been in progress for decades. The city's population peaked in 1950 at approximately 1.8 million people, making it the fourth largest city in America. Since that time, it has lost about 10% of its residents per decade, except during the 1970s, when more than 20% of its people left. Since 2000, about 50,000 people have moved out of Detroit, roughly in line with the 10% per decade trend.
The class and race inequalities made so viscerally apparent in the wake of hurricane Katrina have been present in Detroit for decades. If urban evacuations were styles of band-aid removal, New Orleans would be the quick rip to Detroit's slow pull. In the end, though, the result has been the same: 26% of Detroit residents live below the poverty line; 85% of them are African American; almost half can't read. Half.
In some sense Detroit is not alone in its decline. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore (perhaps worst of all), Milwaukee, and Washington D.C. have all shrunk over the last few decades. Even San Francisco has lost people. But none of these cities shrink during the typical workday: Pittsburgh is 42% larger during the day than it is at night. Baltimore grows by 14%, and Cleveland by 24%.
Why does any city change size during the day? Daytime population movement is, of course, related to jobs and school. And according to the Associated Press, "Nearly half of the jobs in Detroit in 1970 no longer exist, while the suburbs experienced an employment boom of 900,000 jobs." Statistics like Cleveland's are indicative of the oft-mentioned "white flight," where upper middle class families move to the suburbs and commute back to the city for work. In Detroit, though, the upper middle class has taken its jobs with it, and the consequences have been profound.
There's a scene in Bowling for Columbine
where the mother of a six-year-old boy
who shot and killed one of his classmates gets on the bus each dawn to ride to her minimum wage job at The American Bandstand Grill in a suburban mall. Filmmaker Michael Moore unwisely obscures the point of the scene by chasing down Dick Clark, a major stakeholder in the restaurant, and confronting him about the little girl's murder. But in an interview
Moore gave long after the release of Bowling for Columbine
, he is more on point: "What I'm doing is putting out a belief, which is this: Had [the mother] been able to be a real mother and be around her kids, had she worked a job where she was paid a living wage instead of having to work two minimum-wage jobs and was still being evicted because she couldn't pay the rent, then she would have been there with her son."
Clearly, this is not what's going on in San Jose. Median household income in San Jose is over $70,000 compared to Detroit's less than $27,000. Less than 6% of San Jose's residents live below the poverty line. San Jose is the safest city in America over 500,000 people, Detroit the most dangerous. The people who leave their homes in San Jose every day are doing so for jobs far different from those the people of Detroit are leaving their homes for. While Detroit is the heart of the declining Rust Belt, San Jose refers to itself as the Capital of Silicon Valley.
San Jose was primarily an agricultural community until World War II, when a number of canneries there received contracts from the military to feed our boys overseas. IBM moved to town in the mid fifties, sealing the city's high tech fate. At about the same time, City Manager Dutch Hamann instituted an aggressive policy of annexation in which the city of San Jose was legally able to swallow up the small towns and neighborhoods that were developing at its outskirts. Between this policy and the dotcom boom, San Jose has done nothing but grow, grow, grow over the last fifty odd years. When Detroit was at its peak in the 1950s, there were fewer than 100,000 people in San Jose. Now San Jose is bigger than San Francisco. A lot bigger.
Today San Jose has become a monstrous, overgrown suburb. And as it turns out, this phenomenon of shrinking during the day time is not at all uncommon amongst suburbs. In fact, it almost defines them. Greater than half the people who live in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Riverside, Oakland, and Long Beach don't work in those towns. The same goes for places like Aurora, Colorado; Arlington, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; and Mesa City, Arizona. San Jose -- and the exodus that occurs there every weekday -- is more like these places than it is like Detroit.
It's ironic: the very thing that made Detroit is now killing it. The city that built its fortune on America's fondness for the daily commute is now losing it one resident-turned-commuter at a time. But this type of thing -- people leaving one place to settle in another -- has been going on for hundreds of years. How did Detroit get so big in the first place? The same way San Jose did: by waves of immigrants leaving their homes and moving there.
In 2003, NPR's Noah Adams rode with Marzs Mata
as she commuted from her house in southwest Detroit to her job answering phones for Comcast in a Detroit suburb. Getting to work in the morning required three buses and three hours. Suburbs -- even when, like San Jose, they're larger than most cities -- are dependent on cars. And when the people who live in the suburbs are the ones who have to go elsewhere for work, the wheels of commerce can keep turning. From a social, environmental and educational point of view, it is far from ideal. But it can work. When the arrangement goes in the other direction; when the commuters are the city-dwellers, it is impossible.