The Census Said Detroit Kept Shrinking. The Mayor Begs to Differ.

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DETROIT — Once again, the Census Bureau reported, Detroit has gotten smaller.

For most Detroiters’ entire lives, census day has brought only bad news, a painful once-a-decade accounting of an exodus that has shrunk their city’s population by more than half since 1950 and left entire blocks abandoned.

Mayor Mike Duggan pledged to stop that decline when he swept into office eight years ago, telling voters they could measure his success based on whether residents returned. But when the latest numbers were released this month, they showed the population had fallen more than 10 percent since 2010, to about 639,000 residents.

In the ledger of the federal government, Mr. Duggan had failed to meet his goal, people were still leaving and Detroit now had fewer residents than Oklahoma City. In the mayor’s own view, he was succeeding, the city was coming back and the Census Bureau had just counted wrong.

Hours after the census count was released, the mayor fired off an indignant statement accusing the bureau of undercounting Detroit residents by at least 10 percent. Mr. Duggan said municipal utility data backed up his claims, but his office declined to provide localized evidence to prove that. Census officials mostly declined to discuss the mayor’s complaints.


Mayor Mike Duggan has told Detroiters they could measure his success based on whether residents returned to the city.
Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times

The unusual squabble between City Hall and the Census Bureau was only the latest sign that, under Mr. Duggan, Detroit has become America’s ultimate Rorschach test. Does your attention go to the many challenges that persist — the crime, the trash piles, the people struggling to pay rent, and, yes, the census tally? Or do your eyes focus on what has clearly improved during the mayor’s tenure — the livelier downtown, the clean lots where blighted houses once stood, the N.B.A.'s Pistons moving back from the suburbs, the new Jeep factory?

“People in Detroit know the difference,” said Mr. Duggan, a Democrat who is seeking a third term and who finished far ahead of his challengers in this month’s primary election. “If you came in from the outside, you would not go around saying how good this looks.”

On the west side, where well-kept homes are situated next to others with busted windows or fire-scorched frames, Cynthia A. Johnson, a state representative, said her district “hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot” since Mr. Duggan took office.

The mayor is a smart guy and a talented politician, she said, but his policies have benefited newcomers to the city and business interests more than the longtime Detroiters in her part of town. She found his complaints about a census undercount unconvincing as she went through a mental list of neighbors who had recently left the city.

The number of white Detroiters increased over the last decade after decades of flight, experts said, but the census counted tens of thousands fewer Black Detroiters than lived in the city in 2010. The city’s population of Asian and Hispanic residents also increased since 2010.

The vast majority of Detroit residents are Black. Mr. Duggan is the city’s first white mayor in 40 years.

“He has opened the door for gentrification — that is my belief,” Ms. Johnson, a fellow Democrat, said. “He has given companies contracts over the people.”

Looking at the same evidence, though, some reach the opposite conclusion about Detroit’s trajectory. As Ms. Johnson walked through her neighborhood, pointing out city-owned lots with overgrown weeds and sidewalks littered with liquor bottles, Willie Wesley emerged from his home with a more upbeat view.


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times

Mr. Wesley, a retired U.P.S. worker who helps mow his neighbors’ lawns, said Detroit was on the upswing. His block felt safer. Some long-vacant homes had new buyers. New industrial sites offered the chance for neighbors to earn a good wage.

“I like the mayor I have — I wouldn’t trade him for nothing right now,” Mr. Wesley said. “He’s bringing jobs back into the neighborhood.”

Detroit is a city caught in transition. Its distant past as the world’s manufacturing center remains a source of pride. The struggles of recent decades, including the city’s unprecedented journey through municipal bankruptcy, are spoken of with pain. And a vision of its future, though blurry and contested, comes into clearer view with every boarded-up home that is razed, with every coffee shop that opens, with every U-Haul truck heading in or out.

Once the country’s fourth-largest city, Detroit had more than 1.8 million residents at its peak in 1950. By the turn of the century, fewer than a million remained. And in the 2020 census, fewer than 640,000 people were counted and Detroit was barely among the country’s 30 most populous cities.

Those declines are more than a blow to civic pride. They lead to less political power when new legislative districts are drawn and less federal funding.

“I think that is the ultimate test of a city,” Mr. Duggan said. “Do more people want to move in or move out?”

Detroit was far from the only city where the latest census showed a populace in atrophy. Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Flint, Mich., were among several other industrial centers in the Midwest that saw their populations drop. In Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, almost every county lost residents.

But unlike most local officials who received bad news, Mr. Duggan reacted by engaging in a public fight with the Census Bureau and suggesting he might sue. He said the bureau, under former President Donald J. Trump, did not give on-the-ground canvassers enough time to do their work last year. The change to an online questionnaire also disadvantaged the city, he said. The pandemic did not help.

“The census is just factually inaccurate,” Mr. Duggan said in an interview, noting that he raised concerns about the process last fall, long before the numbers were published. “It was census malpractice and we’re going to get it reversed.”

Census officials declined to discuss the mayor’s specific claims, but defended their work in an unsigned statement and said local officials who thought there were errors could appeal. Any corrections would not affect the data used for political redistricting, the bureau said.

There is precedent in Detroit for census disputes paying off. After the 1990 count, Coleman A. Young, the mayor at the time, challenged the tally in court and got the bureau to acknowledge that it missed tens of thousands of residents.

Still, the latest drop in the population provided a political opening for Anthony Adams, who finished a distant second to Mr. Duggan in the low-turnout mayoral primary and who will face his fellow Democrat again in the November general election.

“We’re starting to lose our Black population in the city, and we’re losing it because the policies of this administration are harmful to the people who have been here through thick and thin,” said Mr. Adams, a lawyer who has focused his campaign on crime reduction, police reform and keeping longtime residents in the city.

Even some of Mr. Duggan’s allies were unconvinced by his census rhetoric.

Paul A. Garrison II, an urban planner and economic developer who leads the Osborn Business Association, credited Mr. Duggan with nurturing new businesses, addressing problems in neighborhoods and attracting educated newcomers to Detroit. He said he even had a Duggan campaign sign in his yard. But Mr. Garrison was not buying the claims of a massive population undercount.

“No mayor,” Mr. Garrison said, “wants to admit that the population of their city is decreasing and people are leaving the city. That’s not good politics.”


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times

Mr. Duggan is betting that Detroiters trust the direction he is steering the city. He says the city’s problems are on a smaller scale than when he took office in the throes of a bankruptcy and a crisis of city services.

“Eight years ago, the problems Detroit was facing were just Detroit — no other city was talking about bankruptcy or streetlights,” Mr. Duggan said. “Today, the challenges that we’re dealing with, every other city has.”

But the question of whether the census count ever officially goes up will be determined one resident, one circumstance at a time.

Earlier this month, at a senior apartment complex that was swamped during this summer’s devastating floods, Kenneth Robinson grew emotional as his belongings were loaded into a moving truck.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” he said. “I hate to even think about it. And I’ve got a sick wife with cancer.”

Mr. Robinson, 72, a lifelong Detroiter, had been staying with his wife in a downtown hotel since their unit flooded. Mold and mildew made it unsafe to return home, and financial assistance to stay at the hotel was running out. There was talk about moving temporarily to an extended-stay motel in the suburbs.

Mr. Robinson, who worked in the auto industry and as a janitor before retiring, wanted to eventually move back into his apartment. He wanted to stay in Detroit. But he did not know what would come next.


Credit...Nick Hagen for The New York Times
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