Blacks, Not Whites, Now Fleeing Detroit

In the 60’s and 70’s, many Caucasians fled the urban core of a lot of U-S cities, in favor of the suburbs. Detroit, however, is experiencing a different trend now as blacks are leaving the Motor City in significant numbers. Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Kellogg recently wrote about the significant number of blacks leaving Detroit. He discusses what factors could be leading to the ‘black flight.’ And Johnette Barham, who was profiled in Kennedy’s story, shares what prompted her family to leave the urban center for a new life in the suburbs.

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TONY COX, host:

Just as you've heard of the '60 and '70s phenomenon called white flight, when Caucasians fled the urban core of any number of U.S. cities in favor of the suburbs, you're probably aware of black flight. We spoke recently on this show about Dallas, where the school district is suffering from an outflow of African-Americans to the suburbs.

Let's move well north now to Detroit. Alex Kellogg of The Wall Street Journal is based there, and he wrote of the significant numbers of blacks leaving an already contracting city. He joins us now from member station WDET. With him is Johnette Barham, whom Alex focused part of his recent story on. She is a former homeowner in Detroit. Welcome to the show.

Ms. JOHNETTE BARHAM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Mr. ALEX KELLOGG (Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Thank you.

COX: So, Johnette, my first question is for you. Seven years ago, did you ever see yourself living outside of the city of Detroit??

Ms. BARHAM: No, I did not. I mean, it was my first choice to live in the city. So I really I had no idea what was around the corner.

COX: Are you from there?

Ms. BARHAM: I am.

COX: So, what made you move?

Ms. BARHAM: Well, I had a series of burglaries in my home. So it was, I guess repetitive victimization and I wasn't really protected, I guess, by the police department, in my view. And so it just left me no choice. I had to move to the suburbs.

COX: Did the police say anything to you that helped you come to that conclusion and decision?

Ms. BARHAM: No, it wasn't really anything they said. I just think it was a failure of action.

COX: So you decided that it wasn't worth moving to, say, another neighborhood in Detroit and that it was better just to get out of the city altogether?

Ms. BARHAM: Yes.

COX: Well, you're really clear about that. Alex, let me ask you, talk about what you have seen. Johnette obviously is not alone in her feelings about the city of Detroit. How many have moved out and what does it mean for those who stay?

Mr. KELLOGG: Well, something 150,000 people are likely to have left the city in the past decade. That's a rough estimate. But it looks like the city is losing a lot of people. It's losing them in large numbers and it's losing them right now. So there's an immediacy to the need to basically reinvent the city in a way that'll allow people to stay.

COX: Are you finding that the movement of black people outside of Detroit is unusual in any way? Although there are larger numbers of black folks in Detroit than in other cities like Los Angeles, for example. And people around the country have been moving out to the suburbs of all races for a number of years. But is there something particular or peculiar about the movement of African-Americans out of the city of Detroit?

Mr. KELLOGG: I don't think so beyond a sort of loyalty to the city. I think, well, anybody from a big city or any town, for that matter, has a great degree of loyalty to it. But in the case of Detroit, I think that it requires some loyalty to live there.

So I think what you see is a lot of people who believe that they should stay. They try to stay as long as they can and they make every effort to stay and ultimately sometimes people decide they have to go. And in Johnette's case I think, you know, obviously that's what happened.

COX: Johnette, tell us about your old neighborhood and briefly just what specifically was it that made you say, okay, I've had enough. I'm out of here.

Ms. BARHAM: Well, my old neighborhood, it's actually a beautiful neighborhood. It's filled with historic homes, nice families, but lurking underneath is just an element of crime. And with me living alone, I believe I was just an easy target. So the crux of what actually forced me to move was my final burglary also was an arson, so I lost my entire home. So I really didn't have a choice. And it was just more of a matter of a decision not to find another location in the city.

COX: So they burglarized your home and then set it on fire?

Ms. BARHAM: Yes.

COX: Did you lose everything.

Ms. BARHAM: I did. And a dog and a cat, unfortunately, as well. So it was pretty major.

COX: This was not the first time your home had been burglarized?

Ms. BARHAM: It was not. This was probably around the seventh or eighth time.

COX: Seventh or eighth time?

Ms. BARHAM: Mm hmm.

COX: Why didn't you leave before?

Ms. BARHAM: Initially I think after my first burglary, that was probably the only time I was fearful. After that, I just became more protective about my home. You know, I was angry and it felt like nobody's going to force me out of my home. You know, I put a lot of money into my home, you know, just making it a peaceful place for me, and I really didn't want anybody on the outside to force me out, you know. So I wasn't, you know, prepared for that until, you know, I guess something major happened.

COX: Alex, is crime what is primarily pushing folks out of the city in Detroit?

Mr. KELLOGG: I don't think it's the only thing, but it is one of the main things. But, I mean, there's a whole host of issues that tend to push some people out of the city. For example, people being perpetually underserved. But the fact of the matter is that people are leaving in large numbers and the city has to address that whichever way they can. Every city has to come to its own decision about how to handle that.

But in this particular case, if you look at Johnette's group of friends, they lost the battle, you know, just to be fair. So it's a tough situation that Detroit's in. But if they don't face it now, certainly they won't have the people that they need to move forward.

COX: Tell me about your new neighborhood, Johnette.

Ms. BARHAM: Well, actually, my new neighborhood is a temporary one. I'm staying in a suburb called West Bloomfield, Michigan and a condominium that's being paid for my insurance company. There was a long investigation prior to the arrest of the individual who set the fire. There was a long investigation of me. So during that interim, the insurance company paid for my housing.

COX: Is it an issue for you living whether to live around black people or to live around white people in terms of your moving to a new and safer location?

Ms. BARHAM: No. It is not. But I can't deny that I definitely feel like I have some post-traumatic issues relating to that, but for the most part, definitely not. I just want to be somewhere where I can feel comfortable.

COX: My last question for you, Alex, is you have a new mayor there, Dave Bing, who said that he was going to do all that he could to stop the slide of the economy. Is it not working?

Mr. KELLOGG: I don't know if that's the case. I mean, he hasn't had a lot of time to work on an agenda that he is still sort of putting together. But certainly he faces a lot of challenges. And one of the challenges he faces is keeping people, who the city needs to move forward in core neighborhoods that it's hoping that will survive so that the city can move forward. So...

COX: People like Johnette.

Mr. KELLOGG: That's right.

COX: Well, how do you see the city needing to be reinvented?

Mr. KELLOGG: Well, the city is in the midst of a downsizing effort and what they're hoping to do is basically shrink the city, anchor key neighborhoods and move forward by interconnecting those neighborhoods with parks and farms and there's this ambitious plan to move forward in Detroit because they don't want to continue to move backward.

I think that one thing they have to do is keep basically residents who can pay taxes, who can buy homes, who can, you know, live in blocks that will continue to be livable because there are people there that care about those neighborhoods. So, you know, clearly there's a connection between Johnette leaving and the city moving forward and that was kind of a comparison I was trying to draw.

COX: Alex Kellogg is a Detroit-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Johnette Barham is a clinical research coordinator at a Detroit Cancer Institute. She now lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Thank you both.

Ms. BARHAM: Thanks, Tony.

Mr. KELLOGG: Thank you.

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