Few Southeast Michigan cities continue to grow


Green charts indicate increasing population in that decade

Red charts indicate declining population in that decade

Yellow charts indicate the population remained stagnant in that decade

In this post we show through a slideshow how the populations of cities within the Southeastern Michigan region have grown, and in many cases fallen. According to the Michigan Legislature, some cities within the state were formed through the Northwest Ordinance and the authority of territorial government before Michigan was admitted into the union. For example, the city of Detroit was founded in 1701 but it was until 1837 that Michigan became officially recognized as a state. Only after Michigan became a state did the Census start recording data.

In 1840 the city of Detroit and the city of Monroe were recognized as official cities by the Census Bureau. Detroit’s population at that time was 9,102 and Monroe’s was 1,703. Pontiac, Port Huron, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Mount Clemens all appear on the chart a decade later, in 1850.

By the early part of the 20th Century we see growth both within the city of Detroit and the areas surrounding the city. The Home Rule City Act was enacted in 1908, giving the opportunity for new cities to arise, so long as a city charter was created. Fraser, New Baltimore, Grosse Pointe Park, Ecorse, Hamtramck and South Lyon all appear on the 1910 map; they were not incorporated cities to be represented on the 1900 map.

Additionally, in 1910 the Highland Park Plant, located just outside Detroit on Woodward Avenue, opened, as did the Dodge Main Plant, also just outside of Detroit, in Hamtramck; both were automotive facilities. It was the opening of such automotive plants within Detroit and its outskirts that helped propel the city to a population of 1.5 million people in 1930. Just like Detroit’s population, Pontiac’s population had significantly grown up until this point, in part because of the Pontiac Assembly Plant.

It was in about 1930 that the region outside of the county seats and the inner-ring Detroit suburbs began to expand. This started to occur, according to Thomas Sugrue in “From Motor City to Metropolis: How the Automobile Industry Reshaped Urban America,” because the growing middle and wealthy classes (much of which was supported by the auto industry), were beginning to choose to build in cities like the Grosse Pointes and Birmingham.

Although many of the suburbs were experiencing rapid growth, when we move forward a decade to 1940, evidence of population loss in the inner-ring suburbs begins to appear. As can be seen in the red colored maps-which indicate population loss in that specific decade-both Highland Park and Hamtramck began to lose residents in 1940 and have yet to regain their 1930 numbers, which are nearly double current population estimates.

Moving forward to 1950 is when Detroit’s population peaked at about 1.8 million. Then, by 1960, the population decline began, and has continued ever since. As much of region was, and still is dependent, on the auto industry, we saw the building of about 25 new auto plants throughout Metro Detroit suburbs during the 1940s and 1950s, according to Sugrue (2004). This, along with the expansion of the federal highway system throughout the 1950s and 1960s, were all contributing factors to the start of suburbanization in the area (Sugrue, 2004).

While Detroit residents began to disperse from the city prior to its population peak, “white flight” also began to increase following the race riots that broke out in 1967. However, policies show that the footing for this type of out-migration began before those race riots. According to Sugrue in his book “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”, around the 1940s, as Detroit’s population continued to grow, federal policies around homeownership started to surface that kept African Americans in Detroit and within certain neighborhoods in the city (1996). For example, a majority of the predominantly “black enclaves” in Detroit were redlined on the Home Owners Loan Corporation maps, meaning these areas were not suitable for federal loans or similar aide (Sugrue, 1996). This, along with the combination of access to suburban auto plants because of vehicles and roadways, meant that by 1960 there were more African Americans in Detroit than Caucasians, who had flooded to suburbs (Sugrue, 1996).

As Detroit’s population began to decline, we see that the suburbs began to boom. Warren, Royal Oak, Pontiac and Livonia reached their population peaks in the 1970s. By the 1980s though there were more than two dozen cities in the Metro-Detroit region experiencing population loss, as denoted by the red maps. Everywhere from Farmington to Pontiac to Port Huron to the Grosse Pointes to Detroit to Monroe were all battling with population loss. Additionally, in 1983, the city of Auburn Hills was incorporated (it was formerly Pontiac Township) which is why it first appears on the 1990 chart with a population of 17,000.

Although the city of Ann Arbor was founded long before the last half of the 20th Century, it was one of the few that continued to grow, as did other communities such as Woodhaven, Riverview, Sterling Heights, New Baltimore and the area around Novi. In 2010, Sterling Heights, New Baltimore and Woodhaven were some of only a few cities in the region with increasing populations.

One noteworthy population increase in recent years is Dearborn, which recovered from its decades of population loss in 2000. Despite experiencing growth, the Census data shows that Dearborn has yet to bounce back to its population peak, like many of the red colored charts in 2010.

Dropping from a population of about 1.8 million in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010, we see people left the city of Detroit long before the recession of 2008. In fact, as the charts show, the population loss started about 50 years prior, as the suburbs grew more attractive, the highway system continued to expand and access to vehicles became more accessible to a wider range of residents, enabling many to increase their options for choosing where to live.



Census Bureau

Michigan Legislature

Sugrue, Thomas. (1996). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton University Press.

Sugrue, Thomas. (2004). From Motor City to Metropolis: How the Automobile Industry Reshaped Urban America. Automobile in American Life and Society. http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/Race/R_Overview/R_Overview1.htm