The real exit poll

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By now, just about everybody who has been paying the slightest bit of attention has heard about the folks packing up and leaving Detroit. The latest estimate is around 1,200 getting-the-hell-out-of-Detroiters per month, or about 14,000 per year. That means Detroit is losing roughly the population of a small city every year, which should be alarming enough. But if you really want to get a clear picture of this stampede — and just how much damage it’s liable to do to this city — then you need to take a good close look at who is leaving Detroit, not just how many.

In short, it’s the lower-middle class on up; every slice of the household income pie from $25,000-$30,000 a year up is shrinking. And, generally, the closer that middle gets to wealthy, the faster they’re running. These folks didn’t vote to give Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick four more years, and they didn’t vote for Freman Hendrix to dash in and valiantly save the day. These folks voted with their feet. You wanna talk about an exit poll? There’s your exit poll, pal.

I should point out that the original intention of this column was to show that, despite the outward flow, Detroit still possesses a sizable middle class. One of my editors thought it might be worthwhile to point out that perhaps things aren’t quite so horrific after all. Troubling? Worrisome? Distressing even? Yes. But not horrific.

Then we got the numbers. Any way you crunch them, scrunch them, whatever, the result is enough to make your breath come up short. The word “horrific” somehow seems sadly inadequate to describe our situation unless the newly re-elected mayor’s administration — and any and all other willing and able Detroit boosters — find a way to turn this thing around.

According to the 2000 Census there were 50,432 Detroit households where the income was between $50,000 and $75,000. By 2004, that number had slipped by an estimated 3,680 households to 46,752. That’s a decrease of about 7.3 percent, less than the 8 percent that the city fell overall. But look at the percentage drops in the higher brackets:

• $75,000 to $100,000: down 33 percent

• $100,000 to $150,000: down 15 percent

• $150,000 to $200,000: down 58 percent

• $200,000 and up: down 64 percent.

In all 14,000 households with incomes of $50,000 or more left Motown for Splitsville. The 77,000 households remaining in the $50,000-and-up range are the size of a large suburb, comparable to Southfield, Royal Oak and Oak Park combined. But the speed at which these householders are pulling up stakes makes your breath come up short — or can make you consider packing your bags. I’m not at all suggesting that this is what people ought to do — although I have speculated about that very possibility in this column — but I’d be lying if I said these numbers aren’t enough to scare the hell out of folks, me included. This isn’t about the politics of fear that Kilpatrick accused Hendrix of using during the mayoral campaign, this is simply about the cold hard facts. We cannot possibly survive as an economically viable community with those kinds of numbers. I was never good at math, but I don’t have any problem figuring that one out.

Having said that, I’m still here, even after blowing my top in frustration several months ago, and I have pretty much scratched any plans I had of leaving anytime soon. I know there are others who feel the same way, who just can’t quite yet allow themselves to turn this city loose, and then there are others who have no choice but to stick it out. The question, especially for those of us who choose to stick it out as long as we can, is are we stoned crazy or is there actually a chance that we could come out of this thing with all our limbs intact?

A big part of that answer will have to come from Kilpatrick, who engineered a political comeback miracle for which he deserves significantly more credit than some pundits prefer to acknowledge. During the third and final debate between the two candidates, Kilpatrick predicted that Detroit was on the verge of one of the most miraculous comebacks in history and that “you’d better get in on the ground floor now” while the getting is good. I suspect even some of those who supported the mayor’s re-election were raising their eyebrows and wondering if maybe someone had slipped something into the mayor’s water. Those who supported Hendrix flat out called the mayor crazy and accused him of misleading voters by portraying a wildly unrealistic portrait of the future. It’s fine to have faith, they seemed to be saying, but this is just ridiculous.

Maybe it is, but, well, a lot of those same folks were saying it was crazy to believe Kilpatrick would get a second term. They weren’t saying this a year ago; they were saying this a month ago. Hell, they were saying this the night of the “victory” celebration at Hendrix campaign headquarters on Nov. 8. By Nov. 9 there wasn’t anything left over there but whistling winds, tumbleweeds and echoes.

So what the mayor needs to do now is show the citizens of Detroit that he’s just as good at engineering the city’s comeback as he was at engineering his own. We’ve come to expect politicians to say and promise just about anything during a campaign, but this is at least one promise that the mayor is going to have to keep. We’ve seen the new housing starts, the new clubs and all the other accomplishments Kilpatrick hammered on time and time again over the last few months, and that’s great. We’ve heard speakers like the Rev. Al Sharpton come to town and tell us all how he managed to extract water from a rock as a Democratic mayor challenged with a Republican state Legislature, a Republican Congress, and a White House run by cowboys on crack. That’s good too.

But the people are still leaving. Although I am not one of those who blames Kilpatrick for this — Detroit’s decline has been in the making for decades — it really doesn’t matter whose fault it is at this point. What matters is figuring out a way to make Kilpatrick’s Comeback Detroit not just a dream or a campaign slogan but a reality, and the only way to get Detroiters to see this and believe in it is to provide the evidence. The one person everybody will be looking to for that evidence will be the mayor himself.

You promised us a miracle, right? So here we are. Show us.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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