Saturday, January 29, 2011

GR: City with a Bleak Future?

Newsweek published something on America's Dying Cities last week using the most recent census data on population loss to examine those cities with the most total population loss and loss of those younger than age 18.

On this list is Grand Rapids, which happened to upset a bunch of people, prompted the mayor to write a response, and created a mini-firestorm on my Facebook homepage... I get it. Being from the Grand Rapids area helps me understand those angry people and the fault of Newsweek.  By simply using the census data, they only see a total population loss over a ten year period, but they fail to notice the low point was four years ago and the city is now rebounding.

Pittsburgh is on the list too in a similar situation, and I think what is written for it gives better insight that could be used for GR than the general stuff about Michigan that was actually given.  Since the populations have gone down, especially in the younger age groups, these cities will have a harder time moving forward than others like San Francisco or Portland that are attractive simply by existing...

I really like that Grand Rapids and Mayor Heartwell stepped up and pointed out Newsweek's flaws and the strengths of the city.  It needs to be done.  Negative media portrayal leads to situations like Detroit's where the good gets totally overshadowed by the bad.

However, we shouldn't just say Newsweek got it totally wrong and stop there.  We did lose population, and we have not gotten back to where we were before.  In terms of income on the metro level (suburbs included) taking a class in economic development last semester informed me the median income in Metro Grand Rapids is lower than the median for Metro Detroit. Yes. Worse than Detroit.

Obviously, Detroit is skewed upward by Oakland County, but Grand Rapids is probably affected in a similar way by EGR, Ada, etc.  Plus, we should also look at the low end of the spectrum where Detroit probably (extrapolating from its larger population) has a higher number of individuals and families with lower incomes.  Therefore, some kind of balance may be expected between the two.  In total dollars and wages for employees, our region is not anywhere near the economic power we may think.

ArtPrize"green" building, and sustainability are great (I love them all), but they are just a start.  Success includes so much more than that.  In some ways we may be "thriving," but the opposite still exists too, and we need to continue working hard on making Grand Rapids the best city it can be.


  1. Very well stated. It bugged me that the Newsweek article only stated the bad statistics about GR, while the description for Detroit included:
    "In recent months, however, businesses and community activists have begun to brainstorm ways to rebuild the city so that this coming decade ends up better than the last one."
    That one sentence can make all the difference between a city that is left for dead, and one that is re-inventing itself.
    However, Heartwell's letter only stated the good (Artprize, green building, and sustainability as you noted). Neither side really owned up to the other side's truths.
    Do you know how the mean (not median) incomes compared between GR and Detroit?

  2. I'm not sure if mean household income would be easy to come by, but maybe I can practice in R with some census data for my quantitative methods class.

    More numbers:
    Median household income for cities proper without suburbs - Detroit $29,526
    Grand Rapids $37,224

    Per Capita income - Detroit $14,717
    Grand Rapids $17,661

    Average Annual Salary MSA*
    Detroit-Warren-Livonia $47,218
    Grand Rapids-Wyoming $38,109

    Average Annual Salary CSA**
    Detroit-Warren-Flint $46,367
    Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland $37,275

    *Metropolitan Statistical Area
    **Combined (Metropolitan and Micropolitan) Statistical Area
    Income data from Census 2000, Salary from Bureau of Economic Analysis 2008

    For perspective on data skewing look at the list of Michigan locations by per capita income on Wikipedia. EGR is the highest in the Grand Rapids metro at #22, but 17 of the spots above it happen to be in the Detroit metro.

  3. What areas does the "Per Capita income" include? Because that seams like it would be:
    (total income)/(number of people)
    which would be a mean that included the unemployed (and children?). Given the numbers above, either there are a lot of unemployed (and children?) or the total income is really low.

    Either way, the median income for cities proper clarifies everything. Detroit proper is poor, and it's metropolitan stats are carried dominantly by the suburbs. That is, Detroit has a larger separation of wealth.

    So which city is better off?

  4. Per Capita is also just on the city level w/o suburbs. Should have clarified that better.

    Presently, I would say GR is better off, but *I think* its upper limit on growth potential is lower than Detroit's...and a whole other discussion can be had about that.