Making the census count

Apr 4, 2001 at 12:00 am

Well, we finally got the census results last week, and local newspapers obligingly printed great masses of data. Most fussed over was the result — entirely expected — that Detroit’s population had finally fallen below a million people, to 951,270.

Mayor Dennis Archer who, virtually alone, had insisted there was a chance of hitting the magic seven-figure mark, predictably refused to “accept” the census count, whatever that means.

Likely there was some undercount, yes. But that’s not the real story of this census. Even had they unexpectedly found another 49,000 mostly black, mostly very poor people in the city — so what?

The census shows that Detroit, more than ever, has moved outside of the jurisdictional boundaries of “Detroit.” What’s wrong with the city and the whole area is largely due to our failure to admit this — and do something about it.

Consider: The vast majority of the 124,471 folks who live in Sterling Heights probably would indignantly reject the notion that they owe something to Detroit, which many see as a nest of lazy black folks, welfare cases and criminals. Ditto most of Oakland County.

Yet virtually all those places are “Detroit,” which means the businesses and the people there wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the pull of the now-forlorn city of the straits, which has been the magnet since 1701.

Taken as a whole, the tri-county area — the real Detroit — has 4,043,467 people, more than the population of the entire nation when the first census was taken in 1790. By and large, the donut is doing just fine … except for the hole, which has been getting steadily worse.

Lost in the shuffle, and behind the ridiculous puffery from the mayor’s office, is that for the first time, Detroit city experienced “black flight” during the 1990s. The African-American population declined by 6,000. What happened with the whites was also far more dramatic than the first round of numbers indicated.

How completely and drastically whites have abandoned the city was masked by an influx of Hispanics, largely from Mexico and Central America. In fact, non-Latino whites seem on the verge of extinction within Detroit. The census found only 99,921 of them — fewer than half as many as in 1990. Fifty years ago there were 1.5 million!

Yes, we can lament racism. And frankly, most white folks appear not to want to live where black folks do. Consider Southfield, which had less than 1 percent black population in 1970. That jumped to 9 percent in 1980 and 29 percent in 1990.

Nimrod Rosenthal, the city’s spokesman, has been saying for years that Southfield’s ethnic population was stabilizing, which is absolute bullshit. The census found it was 54 percent black last year. I’ll bet a bundle it will be 75 percent next time.

Yet is all of the flight truly racism — or historically justified fears that the tax base, and hence services, will decline when a city becomes majority black? Suburban chambers of commerce are filled with firms who used Detroit like a disposable diaper and then split for greener pastures, moving a little farther out every few years.

Eventually, this will have to stop. You can only commute so far, and we seem to be in for another round of gasoline price hikes. But even if it weren’t for that, our future prospects are all tied to Detroit. You may think you live in Farmington Hills, but the home office and the guy you meet on the airplane thinks of it as Detroit.

And they are right. What we need are ways to bring down the walls between city and suburb. Archer, love him or hate him, has at least attempted to make suburbanites feel less hostile to the city. But that isn’t nearly enough. What we need is some form of metropolitan government designed to work for the good of all.

Whatever form that might take is bound to be a very hard sell. Suburbanites (aka whites, mostly) aren’t going to want to pay to revitalize the city. Detroit residents (aka blacks) may not be willing to see their political power diluted.

Yet any politician who really has the public good at heart ought to be trying to work toward this with his fellow leaders on the other side.

Then, someday, we really might be great again.

Otherwise — well, you can see it now.

♦ ♦ ♦

Margaret and Al Fishman, two of those 99,000 remaining white Detroiters, have done more than almost anyone in the whole megalopolis to make this a better place.

Al is a longtime national board member of Peace Action, and has been working for peace, justice and a better life for all in Detroit since at least 1948, as those in progressive circles are well aware. Less well known is that Margaret, who speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian learned from her immigrant parents, has, in the last decade, helped dozens of bewildered immigrants from the war-torn former Yugoslavia land on their feet in Detroit.

Sometimes she helps them with housing; in one case, she drove a man to a job interview in Plymouth. When he got the job, she called the employer and demanded he pay a better wage. The boss sized Margaret up. And paid it.

Last month, the Fishmans celebrated their 50th anniversary. Margaret, who has been fighting health problems, isn’t giving in. “It’s nice if I can do a little something for society. I don’t feel I have done anything more than most of the people who knew us.”

Take it from me, Margaret: You’re wrong. On June 10, those who know better will honor them at Vladimir’s Restaurant in Farmington. There isn’t another couple who deserve it more. For details, call 248-548-3920.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]