It is not uncommon for someone to liken the economic situation in Detroit to the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“To me, it’s like Katrina,” says Jeffery Elsworth, an associate professor at the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University. In Louisiana, “they lost over 200,000 people, too.”
Elsworth is referring to the problem of emigration in Michigan, which saw 278,000 people flee its borders between 2006 and 2009, many of them young and well-educated.
More than 62,000 residents left the six-county Detroit metropolitan area from 2007 to 2008, while Wayne County, which encompasses the city of Detroit, lost 41,140 residents to emigration during the same period.
Although the exodus might have alleviated another major problem—unemployment—by leaving a slew of job openings in its wake, local demographer Kurt Metzger says that hasn’t happened, making matters worse.
“More people have to leave the city to work than come into the city to work,” he says.
In October last year, Detroit’s official unemployment rate was 27 percent, about 17 percentage points more than the national average at the time. But that isn’t the whole story. Factor in the underemployed, part-time workers who want to be working full-time, and discouraged workers—people who want jobs but have given up looking for them—and even Mayor Dave Bing puts Detroit’s unofficial unemployment rate closer to 50 percent—meaning one out of two Detroiters can’t find enough work.
And there are other worrisome issues. For example, the 40 square miles of vacant land—a swath amounting to 30 percent of the city’s area—where houses and people used to be. In an inspired instance of turning lemons into lemonade, Detroiters have begun cultivating the empty space as gardens and farmland, and in time this grassroots agriculture movement may assume a significant role in the city’s economy. For now, however, nearly a third of the urban landscape is deserted, and harvest time seems a long way off.
But this side of the Detroit story is well-known. The demise of the Big Three car companies, not only the city’s biggest employers but practically its raison d’être, made Detroit the recession’s enduring symbol for many across the country. But there is another side of the story, and it centers on why, with Detroit in such bad shape, so many in the Motor City’s quick-service sector are talking about opportunity.