Black Detroiters are fleeing the city at an alarming rate

We spoke to 10 former Detroiters about why they left, where they went, and whether they have any regrets

Mar 29, 2023 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge In this article we use photos from March 2020, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, to visually convey the sense of Detroit’s continued population decline. - Shutterstock
In this article we use photos from March 2020, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, to visually convey the sense of Detroit’s continued population decline.

This is the first part of an ongoing series about racial and economic disparities in Detroit.

Marcus Carey feels “perpetually stuck.”

Despite having a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Howard University and plenty of experience in real estate, finance, and tech, Carey can’t find a good job in Detroit.

“It’s tough to find opportunities in Detroit,” the 32-year-old tells Metro Times. “You’re always working class if you stay here.”

Living downtown, Carey sees the “sprawl, abandonment, and lack of density in the neighborhoods” and isn’t surprised people aren’t building wealth.

Carey suspects he’s going to leave Detroit soon, and he’s far from alone.

Since 2000, Detroit has lost about 295,000 Black residents, or 37.4% of its African American population. No other American city has lost more Black residents.

While Detroit’s white population declined by 44,300 between 2000 and 2010, it has since grown by more than 5,100. Its Hispanic and Asian populations have also grown.

Black people now account for 77.2% of the city’s overall population, compared to 82.2% in 2010, when Detroit had the highest percentage of Black residents in the country.

Gary, Indiana, and Jackson, Mississippi, now have larger shares of Black residents.

The statistics show a tale of two cities.

Whether it’s income, home ownership, or education, Black Detroiters are lagging behind white residents.

Over the last decade, the median income of white Detroiters rose 60%. For Black Detroiters, the increase was 8%, according to Detroit Future City, a think tank that develops strategies for a more equitable city.

The average income of a white Detroiter is $46,650, compared to $32,290 for a Black resident. The unemployment rate for Black Detroiters is 1.5 times higher than white residents.

Whether it’s income, home ownership, or education, Black Detroiters are lagging behind white residents.

tweet this

In a recent report, Detroit Future City found that metro Detroit’s fastest-growing, well-paying jobs are disproportionately going to white workers. About 16% of Black workers in the region are in so-called growth occupations, compared to 26% of white workers.

Jobs are considered growth occupations if they are growing at the same or higher rate than the region as a whole, pay at least a middle-class salary, have increased wages between 2014 and 2019, and employ at least 300 people. Most of the jobs pay more than $73,000 a year.

“What we’re seeing pretty consistently unfortunately is that the highest growth for Detoiters in terms of workforce is lower-wage jobs, which means the jobs that you would think of as middle wage or higher wage are not being occupied by Detroiters,” Anika Goss, CEO of Detroit Future City, tells Metro Times. “The jobs are either going to people who are moving here from other places or suburbanites. They are not Detroiters.”

White Detroiters are also far more likely to own a home than Black residents, even though many new white residents are renting newly developed lofts and apartments in Midtown and downtown. The average value of a white Detroiter’s home is $46,000 higher than a Black resident’s.

Black Detroiters are also more likely to be denied mortgages, regardless of their income level. Higher-income Black residents, for example, were denied a loan at a higher rate than moderate-income white applicants.

This is especially troubling for future generations because home ownership is considered the most effective way to build generational wealth.

Since Black Detroiters are spending a larger portion of their income on mortgages, it’s more difficult for them to save money, and their chance of getting foreclosed is much higher.

A disproportionate number of Black residents are also living in neighborhoods dominated by blight, abandonment, and crime. Many white residents, on the other hand, are moving to newly developed areas that receive a bulk of the city’s tax incentives, like downtown, Midtown, Corktown, and New Center.

The number of middle-class neighborhoods in Detroit shrunk from 22 in 2010 to 11 in 2020, leaving longtime residents with fewer options to find a decent place to live.

“There is a lot of housing stock in Detroit, but it’s not always in neighborhoods that are stable or free from blight or crime. That’s a real challenge for us,” Goss says. “If you are surrounded by blight, it will detract from the value of your home.”

As a result of the inequities, many Black children are facing long odds of succeeding later in life. More than half of the city’s Black children live in poverty. About 20% of young adults who grow up in poverty end up poor in their 20s, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Detroit’s Black population grew exponentially in the early and mid-1900s, lured by the bustling auto industry. But those fleeing Jim Crow laws in the south found themselves in similar situations in Detroit. They were largely relegated to substandard homes in segregated, overpopulated neighborhoods.

In the 1950s, when Detroit’s population peaked at nearly 2 million, Mayor Albert Cobo campaigned on a platform of “Negro removal” — a pledge to force Black people out of predominantly white neighborhoods and deny federal funding for Black housing projects.

In the mid-1950s, the construction of highways decimated the city’s historic Black communities, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

By the time federal civil rights laws banned racial discrimination in the 1960s, white people were fleeing the city for the suburbs, and the jobs followed, leaving behind a majority-Black population that lacked the resources to thrive.

Metro Times talked to 10 former Detroiters about why they left, where they went, and whether they have any regrets. Some moved to Detroit’s suburbs, but most landed out of the state in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., or Dallas. Some left because of violent crime or high car insurance. Many left for better job opportunities. They all found success elsewhere, and very few say they plan to move back.

Thriving in D.C.

Jessyka Faison was tired of watching the displacement of Black artists.

As a DJ who relied on a thriving nightlife, she watched in frustration as the creative space that catered to Black artists continued to shrink.

“I love my city and everything that came with it but I must say it’s been heartbreaking to watch the Black creative community lose their spaces to gentrification,” the 29-year-old says. “It really sucked the air out of everything I know. It’s heartbreaking. I feel really small. What can you do? Every time you take two steps forward, you have to take three steps backward.”

In August 2021, Faison, also known as DJ Lauren Jay, moved to Washington, D.C. Within three months, she was booking her first gigs as a DJ. Since then, she’s had DJ residencies at a club and a restaurant.

While she struggled to get consistent gigs in Detroit, she says she’s thriving in Washington, D.C.

For Faison, it was demoralizing to see an influx of new people at the expense of longtime Detroiters. She pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives to two white billionaire developers — Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family — at a time when the city’s neighborhoods are struggling.

It was too much for her to watch.

“Detroiters are paying for themselves to be displaced,” Faison says. “It’s really unfair. A lot of people don’t even realize that their tax dollars are being used to push them out of the city that they know and love.”

In the meantime, Faison hopes to help Detroit’s creative scene by connecting artists to Washington, D.C. and vice-versa.

“Now it’s a goal of mine to return to the city to play, reconnect with those creatives, and build bridges to expand Detroit’s culture beyond the city limits,” she says.

click to enlarge Detroit’s Renaissance Center. - Shutterstock
Detroit’s Renaissance Center.

Priced out of a high-rise

Carra Payne, a native Detroiter, moved back to the city from the suburbs in her early 20s with the goal of living near downtown.

It was 2006, and Gilbert and other developers had not yet gentrified downtown or the riverfront.

As a child, her mother often took her to downtown or Midtown to visit museums and other cultural institutions. Her hopes were high.

She abandoned her Ford Explorer and tried to rely on the bus system for transportation, which she quickly learned was underfunded and unreliable.

“It sucked. Let’s be serious,” she says.

For about $500 a month, she rented a studio apartment at the Pavilion, a highrise building in Lafayette Park. But after eight years, rent became too expensive, and like many Black residents in the building, she was forced to move.

She rented another apartment nearby, but rent was getting too expensive, so she moved back to Pontiac in 2015.

The experience frustrated her. She saw longtime Black residents leave and be replaced by wealthier, white people.

“When it finally came to a close, it really hurt,” Payne says. “It was aggressive. The message was resoundingly clear: I was no longer eligible to be there. It was a disgusting feeling. In five or six years, downtown became unrecognizable. I couldn’t see my people anymore.”

Payne now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but she hasn’t stopped thinking about Detroit.

“I miss it,” she says. “It was a dream to move to Detroit. Having experienced it was amazing.”

Following the money

Paris Dean had a big idea that could transform how people buy real estate. The 32-year-old founded Sparen Homes, which develops AI-powered software to improve the home-buying process.

All Dean needed was start-up money.

But when he began looking for investors in 2018, he wasn’t “getting any bites.”

After two frustrating years, Dean realized that the region’s deep pockets — predominantly belonging to white men — were either unwilling to invest in new people or were too focused on the auto industry.

“That was really my first taste when I realized it was difficult to do something different in Detroit,” Dean says. “A lot of those opportunities have gatekeepers. You have to know people. If you’re just the average, everyday person who is great at something, chances are you aren't going to get anything.”

So he packed his bags in October 2021 and moved to Baltimore, where he quickly found success. He started working with Techstars, one of the world’s largest startup accelerators, and found more funding “than I can ask for.”

In Baltimore, he said, there’s “more opportunities and intellectual curiosity” than in Detroit.

“It was day and night compared to Detroit,” Dean says. “It’s kind of scary. The people are way more open. We were brought into an accelerator-friendly environment that is much bigger than anything in Detroit.”

With the help he needed, Sparen Homes ran a beta test and facilitated more than $112 million in transactions in Oakland and Macomb counties. The company is getting ready to relaunch in Michigan, Maryland, and Florida.

Despite the early success, Dean says he still can’t find any interest in Detroit.

“Everybody knows that Michigan is automotive-driven,” Dean says. “If you’re not in or around the automotive industry, the number of opportunities you have plummet.”

click to enlarge Downtown Detroit. - Shutterstock
Downtown Detroit.

Downtown displacement

Callie Bradford left her job in the pharmaceutical industry to pursue her passions for healthy living.

She co-founded Go! Smoothies and eventually operated out of a small shop in downtown Detroit. But her dream was dashed as developers like Gilbert and corporate retailers began to gobble up space, forcing out small business owners that couldn’t afford skyrocketing rent.

Bradford’s monthly rent rose from $1,500 to $6,000.

“We didn’t have any recourse because we were first-time business owners,” Bradford says. “You can’t pay $6,000 a month making juice and smoothies.”

Back in the market for a job, Bradford moved to Atlanta in 2019, where she says the opportunities were plentiful. She now works for an agency that does training and development for pharmaceuticals, and on the side, she does health coaching.

“When I moved to Atlanta, I realized there was such a diversity in jobs that were available,” she says. “You have so many companies with headquarters here. You can work in any type of job you want, whether it’s health care, IT, pharmaceuticals, or government. The opportunities are endless.”

In Detroit, she says, “you worked in government, a hospital, or one of the car companies or a subsidiary of the car companies.”

Bradford says she’s always bumping into former Detroiters in Atlanta.

“There are so many people here from Detroit,” Bradford says. “It’s like the Great Migration is backwards now.”

Never coming back

When Ralston D. Caldwell was in high school in Detroit, his teacher showed the class a photo that would change his life.

It was a picture of Arizona.

“It was beautiful,” Caldwell recalls. “I had never seen a desert before.”

When he joined the military, he chose to station at Luke Air Force Base in Maricopa County, Arizona, in 2004.

Eight years later, Caldwell, a licensed therapist, moved from Detroit to Arizona.

He was tired of the violence.

Then in November 2022, he received the worst news a father could get: His son was murdered in the doorway of a bar in Detroit, shot twice in the chest.

He had tried to get his son to move, but “he loved his kids, and he didn’t want to leave them.”

“Now his kids don’t have a dad,” Caldwell says.

Nearly every day, Caldwell says, he reads news online about violent crime in Detroit, where 309 people were murdered last year.

“These folks out there, they kill and they are never caught,” Caldwell says. “Who wants to live like that?”

Caldwell used to visit Detroit at least once a year, but he won’t anymore.

“I have no desire to ever go back,” he says. “Detroit is nowhere to live. It’s only somewhere to die.”

click to enlarge Another scene of downtown Detroit. - Shutterstock
Another scene of downtown Detroit.

From bullets to Birmingham

The summer before Harriet Hardeman fled Detroit, a gunman on a bike opened fire a block away.

“I heard a bullet whiz through the trees above where my sons were playing,” she says.

Her two children weren’t even safe in the public schools, where she says fights were all too common.

In 2008, she and her sons packed up and moved to Birmingham in the suburbs, a decision that “improved our lives exponentially,” she says.

Their neighborhood was safe, and the school district helped her children excel.

The price of housing was more expensive than in Detroit, but everything else was cheaper, including her car insurance, which “went down hundreds of dollars a year.”

“I paid more in rent, but I paid less in everything else,” she says. “I would rather pay more for a house or apartment and have the amenities of a safer environment, and everything else I need is here. It’s worth it.”

“If we’re really striving to make the world a better place, we have to start by making a better life for our kids.”

tweet this

Her youngest son, Jherrard, who showed promise with the violin shortly before they moved, began to shine. In his first year at Birmingham Public Schools, he won a scholarship for the summer music program. He met other musicians — young and old — and even started a band, Integrated Strings Perfection, which played at coffee shops, the Birmingham Historical Museum, and other spots.

“It’s been a place where he formed positive friendships that will probably last a lifetime,” Hardeman says. “He always had a safe place.”

He later earned a degree in music composition from the prestigious Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last year, he graduated from The Juilliard School, a world leader in performing arts education in New York City.

He’s now an assistant conductor at Chicago Sinfonietta and lives in Kansas City.

Harderman can’t imagine her son succeeding in the same way if they had stayed in Detroit, where the resources are far more scarce.

“If we’re really striving to make the world a better place, we have to start by making a better life for our kids,” she says. “We can’t give them the same horrible life we had.”

Hardeman still loves Detroit and hopes future leaders will work to improve the city for everyone, not just the newcomers and wealthy developers.

“Someone has to make the decision that this is not how we are going to live, and they are going to need the support of the people who are in office,” she says. “I’m praying that someone steps into power and will step up for the people who are there.”

Getting her hustle on

Corzann “Cozy” Sailor remembers exactly when she decided to move out of Michigan.

It was November 2007, and she was pumping gas.

“It was really cold, and I had to stand outside,” Sailor recalls. “My fingers were frost bit. I said, ‘Hell, no, this is it. This is my last winter in Michigan,’ and I meant it, and it was.”

After receiving a degree in secondary education from Eastern Michigan University in 2003, Sailor returned to Detroit and had a hard time finding stable work. She began selling houses and condos for Pulte Homes, but the market was too unstable to provide a steady income.

In 2008, she moved to North Carolina and found plenty of job opportunities. She worked as a business consultant with AT&T until she decided she wanted to live in a bigger city.

She moved to Atlanta and worked as a franchise marketing consultant.

Now Sailor lives in Washington, D.C., working in real estate management and community development. She has three side gigs, which she credits to her time growing up in Detroit.

“Detroit builds up a hustle in you,” she says. “I always have a hustle going on.”

No matter where she lived outside of Michigan, she says she never had trouble finding a good job.

She doesn’t miss the crime, potholes, or high insurance rates.

Sailor isn’t the only member of her family to leave Detroit. When her sister was 19, she moved to New York City.

“That planted the seed for me that you can find better for yourself and more for yourself,” Sailor says. “She moved out because of crime. Her friends were killed. She was going to funerals every week.”

click to enlarge Detroit’s prestigious Cass Technical High School. - Shutterstock
Detroit’s prestigious Cass Technical High School.

Where are the good jobs?

Employment was a constant frustration for Christopher Currie.

A native of Gary, Indiana, his relatives convinced him to move to Detroit in 1992 for better job opportunities.

But for the first few years, he could only find seasonal work. He finally caught a break in the late 1990s as an administrative assistant for a local nonprofit. About 12 years later, he was laid off.

Rethinking his career choices, Currie received a radio broadcasting certificate from Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield in 2011, but he later discovered that “radio jobs were hard to break into locally.”

He began working for the city’s health department but was laid off as Detroit faced bankruptcy.

In 2012, he received a bachelor's degree in mass communication and thought his string of bad luck would end. But finding a good job — even with his degree — was difficult.

“I had a rather horrible time finding more sophisticated and better paying work,” Currie says. “I rarely had interviews, and even when I did have them, I was never offered the job.”

In 2018, Currie received a graduate degree in social justice studies but could only find work as a civilian desk assistant with the Detroit Police Department.

Despite sending out dozens of resumes, he couldn’t find better work.

Then a niece living in metro Dallas encouraged him to apply for a job where she worked. He ended up taking a job at the Texas health department. It was his first job that required a bachelor’s degree.

“I almost wanted to say it was a tough choice to leave Detroit and go across the country to Texas, but at the same time, I was experiencing so much career frustration over the years,” Currie says. “My mom would occasionally nudge me about trying to go for different auto jobs, and I would occasionally keep my eyes open. But assembly line work didn’t appeal to me that much. Those jobs weren’t something I seriously pursued.”

Currie says the exodus from Detroit will continue until the region begins relying less on the auto industry.

“I’m hoping for the best for Detroit and for the folks who are still there,” Currie says. “I do hope the city and regional leadership do get more corrective about employment and entrepreneur opportunities.”

click to enlarge A sign for Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s famous border. - Shutterstock
A sign for Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s famous border.

Safety of the suburbs

Born and raised on the city’s east side, LaToya Thomson calls herself a “die-hard Detroiter.” The 47-year-old loves the city’s restaurants, concert venues, and museums, but living in Detroit came at a heavy cost.

Crime, gas, and car insurance were too high, and getting groceries required a long trip to the suburbs.

“I wanted to be somewhere I felt safe and somewhere my parents weren’t worried about my safety,” she says.

On the hunt for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house, Thompson discovered that homes in Macomb County were about the same price as the ones in Detroit.

In 2003, she moved to Warren and now lives in Harrison Township. Now, she lives close to two Meijers, a Kroeger, and a gourmet grocer.

She has no regrets.

“When I moved, I couldn’t believe how much my car insurance decreased,” Thompson says. “It dropped so much. It’s unbelievable.”

She still visits Detroit for the restaurants, concerts, and museums, but she loves the safety and solitude of Harrison Township.

She even convinced her parents to move to Macomb County.

Pursuing the dream

MuSHAD Moore is an actor with a dream of making it big.

And he knows he can’t do that in Detroit — not since former Gov. Rick Snyder ended the state’s film incentive program. Signed into law in 2008 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the program ushered in a wave of Hollywood productions in Michigan, including the Transformers films, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, among others. Snyder ended the program in 2015.

“That killed everything,” Moore says.

After acting in local commercials, plays, and movies, the 29-year-old moved to Woodland Hills, a community on the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains in the San Fernando Valley of northern Los Angeles.

He’s since auditioned for Nope, Star Wars, and Disney shows.

“That’s why I came out,” Moore says. “That is what made it worth it. I would not have had that chance in Detroit. Out here, everyone is an actor.”

Moore says he doesn’t see a lot of opportunities for creative types in Detroit.

“Usually the career you want is not in Detroit,” Moore says. “If you want to work in a factory, you’re in the right spot. But if you’re doing artistic or entertainment stuff, that’s not really in Detroit.”

A Detroit native, Moore still misses the city, where his friends and family live. Getting used to California has been an adjustment.

“When you grow up in the hood, you get comfortable with hood stuff,” Moore says. “I’m used to being around my people and joking and laughing. Around here, I’m more of an outsider.”

But that’s the price of pursuing your dreams, he says.

“You move where you see bigger things happen,” Moore says. “Everybody wants to do something that Detroit is not known for, so they leave.”

Coming soon: Metro Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Detroit stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter