The numbers game

Sep 8, 2010 at 12:00 am

So how many people does Detroit really have?

The U.S. Census bureau counted us all on April 1, except for the millions they had to spend time and money hunting down afterward. We'll learn how many people each state has around Christmas. But it will be next April before we get detailed population data for Michigan's cities. Meanwhile, I see stories in the newspapers every day that refer to Detroit as having a population of "913,000."

Anyone who knows the city knows that figure has to be absurd. Ten years ago, the census counted 951,270 people. Clearly, there's been considerable emptying-out since then. So I decided to pay a visit to the Great Demographer, Kurt Metzger, who now runs a two-year-old nonprofit population study center called Data Driven Detroit (

Originally from Cincinnati, Metzger has spent most of his life studying southeast Michigan, first with the Census Bureau itself, then at Wayne State for years before leaving for United Way. Now he's running his own shop. I know from experience that if you need to find the number of left-handed immigrants of Nepalese extraction in Roseville, he's your man. So, I asked: What's your best estimate of Detroit's actual population? He frowned, staring at his turkey sandwich at the Roma, perhaps the only restaurant still around which was in business when Detroit last had so few people.

"Something less than 800,000, certainly. Perhaps between 750,000 and 775,000. SEMCOG [Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments] is using 772,000 as their figure.

"Of course, they may not even find that many. There is always an undercount." Indeed there is, especially in a dilapidated urban area. It is hard to count people who have no fixed address, who live on the street, who fear any authorities.

There are also, of course, those right-wing kooks who have encouraged people not to fill out all or part of the census form, on the ground that it is an outrageous invasion of their privacy, something that would have come as news to the Founding Fathers.

Eventually, however, there will be an official population count for Detroit and its surrounding communities, inexact as those may be. But there's a lot more urgently needed data that is just not available, or hard to come by.

That's because of the age-old atmosphere of distrust, much of it racial. Back in the Coleman Young era, Metzger told me, there was sometimes resistance to even collecting, let alone sharing, information. "They had a saying: 'Data can only be used against you.'"

Today, even when information is known, it is too often tightly held. "People tend to live and work in their own little silos," Metzger told me. "They keep the information they collect close, and don't like to share it." 

Data Driven Detroit was founded to counteract that mentality. Its goal is to collect or uncover all sorts of information we need and our leaders need to make policy decisions. That will be critical next year: The state Legislature will be drawing new boundaries for their own seats and also, however many seats Michigan gets in Congress. Every seat has to have the same number of people, so knowing where folks live is essential. Additionally, if the Charter Commission ever finishes its work, Detroit City Council will be moving to a system where most members are elected by district, not at large.

Detroit could use help constructing these districts and trying to keep like-minded people together — though so far, planners are showing little interest in working with their hometown experts.

Naturally, there's lots of other data of interest to health care and public health professionals, sociologists, etc. Data Driven Detroit, now in the process of becoming independent from another nonprofit organization, City Connect Detroit, has already put a fair amount of stuff on its website.

The hope is they will get enough grants to continue to mine and share data, and that firms and governments will hire Data Driven demographers to help with projects. Metzger's shop is rigorously apolitical and nonpartisan, though there is an ideological requirement of sorts: "We request that those who work here have a sincere love for the city of Detroit, and want to help bring the city back," he said.

By "Detroit" he means the entire community. Metzger knows numbers, but there is something he finds utterly impossible to understand. "How have our leaders allowed the city to fall apart the way it did? How did we let the jobs go? How did we get away from seeing Detroit as so essential to the success of this region?"

Metzger shakes his head. "The tri-county area has 300,000 fewer people than 40 years ago. Detroit has lost three-quarters of a million. Yet developers keep building new homes, further and further out, in the northern suburbs."

We'd have a better shot at sound decisions if our so-called leaders would invest in Data Driven and use its findings to help make decisions. They would, too, if common sense were a common thing. 

Too clever by half: Earlier this spring and summer, mysterious petitioners showed up collecting signatures to put something called "the Tea Party" on the November ballot.

Members of the so-called "real" Tea Party squalled like a feral cat in a trash compactor. They are, after all, really Republicans, and the last thing they want to do is split the right-wing vote. So just who were these teabags who wanted on the ballot? Well, the leader of the "party" was a shadowy blue-collar UAW retiree from near Saginaw named Mark Steffek. There was evidence that the money for the signatures had come from groups that usually donate to liberal/Democratic causes.

Nobody could prove anything, but it smelled to high heaven like a Democratic/Mark Brewer operation. They got the signatures, all right, but the Board of Canvassers — voting on party lines — denied the Tea Party a place on the ballot. Their lawyer, Michael Hodge (gee, who is paying him?) appealed, but this was rejected unanimously by a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals. They weren't doing this — they said — on political grounds, but largely because of "technical errors" on the petitions. Evidently, in some cases they left off the word "the," as in "the Tea Party." 

Naturally, (the) Tea Party immediately appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court — but that presented a new problem for the Democrats. The Dems have an unexpected 4-3 majority on the court, since Republican Betty Weaver suddenly resigned and Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Alton Davis to take her place.

Republicans, already claiming Davis is a political hack appointee, will try hard to defeat him in November. If the new justice had voted to put the Tea Party on the ballot, it could easily have given Republicans the ammunition needed to defeat him. Instead, on Friday, he and fellow Democrat Michael Cavanaugh prudently and properly voted with the court's three Republicans to deep-six (the) Tea Party. So somebody wasted many thousands of dollars on a futile effort that accomplished nothing and got the Democrats some bad press. Strange, but I could have sworn we've seen this movie a few thousand times before. ...

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]