A Philadelphia-Detroit Comparison: The Populations

As part of our Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) program, the Economy League is convening a diverse cohort of 150 Philadelphia civic and business leaders for a trip to the Motor City this October. To gear up for GPLEX 2022, the next few issues of Leading Indicators will compare various socioeconomic attributes and trends of Philadelphia and Detroit. This will offer an opportunity not only for our GPLEX cohort to learn more about the city they will be visiting, but for readers to understand the major similarities and differences Philadelphia shares with Detroit.


What You Need to Know

  • In October 2022, the Economy League will take a diverse cohort of civic and business leaders from Greater Philadelphia to Detroit to explore socioeconomic issues and workshop solutions.
  • As of 2020, Philadelphia had roughly 2.5 times the population of Detroit.
  • By population density per square mile, Philadelphia outpaces Detroit by roughly 7,000 more residents per square mile. Both cities are roughly 142 square miles in area.
  • Both cities have a similar ratio of females to males, at 53 to 47 percent.
  • When comparing age cohorts, Philadelphia was home to more millennials (residents between 25- and 34-years old) in 2020 than Detroit, but Detroit had slightly larger middle-aged as well as youth populations.
  • While both cities have proportionally larger Black residential populations than any other racial or ethnic group, the proportion of Black Detroiters was twice that of Black Philadelphians in 2020.
  • As of 2020, Philadelphia was home to significantly larger proportions of non-Hispanic white residents (34 percent to Detroit’s 11 percent), Latinx/Hispanic residents (15 percent to Detroit’s 8 percent), and Asian residents (7 percent to Detroit’s 2 percent).


A Brief History of Detroit

Detroit’s founding as a city occurred 19 years after the founding of Philadelphia, in 1701. While continuously occupied for thousands of years by Native American peoples, the site that would become Detroit was permanently established by French explorer and trader Antoine de la mothe Cadillac [1]. Cadillac commissioned the French government to authorize the founding of a fort and outpost along le détroit (the strait) connecting Lakes Erie and Huron to protect France’s claim on fur trading in the region [1]. The area would remain under French control until 1760, when the British would take over after the Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). Detroit would remain under British influence until 1796 when it was ceded to the United States, although it alternated between British and American control during the War of 1812 [1,2].


Detroit would continue to grow as a major population center in the northern U.S. from the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, serving for a time as the capital of both the Michigan territory and state [2]. It also acted as a last stop on the Underground Railroad – with many refugee slaves coming to Detroit to cross the border into Canada [3]. Industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also attracted numerous European immigrant populations, formerly rural white farmers, and Black workers escaping the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration to northern U.S. cities [3,4]. Detroit hosted a diverse array of resident populations across its neighborhoods, but many of these groups—particularly Black communities—faced fierce prejudice and segregation. Like many other U.S. cities, Detroit saw its fair share of violent movements against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities [4]. Detroit real estate markets also utilized tools of racial discrimination like redlining and restrictive covenants.


Strong manufacturing seeded the growth of the automobile industry by the turn of the nineteenth century. The concentration and innovation of automobile companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler and a large network of parts manufacturers solidified Detroit’s reputation as the “Motor City” [5]. The agglomeration of manufacturing was not restricted to automobiles; the city was also a production hub for stoves, beer, railcars, and pharmaceuticals [5,6]. In the first half of the twentieth century the sheer density of manufacturing plants attracted tens of thousands of workers who could easily find foundational-level employment opportunities with family-sustaining wages. The population grew exponentially from 285,00 residents in 1900 to 1.85 million by 1950. The dense concentration of the automobile industry in one city made Detroit the Silicon Valley of its time [5]. By 1950, it was one of the wealthiest and largest cities in the country.


By the end of the 1950s, however, the racial composition of the city began to change with Blacks continuing to migrate into the city (as they had been since the end of the Civil War) and whites fleeing for subsidized cheaper housing in the surrounding suburbs. Faced with stiff global competition, many of Detroit’s manufacturing firms sought to recuperate revenue by agglomerating, and they too began to move out of the city [5]. Detroit’s residential population plummeted – a trend that would continue into the twenty-first century.


Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the trend of deindustrialization intensified as manufacturing firms and jobs continued their exodus from the city [5]. White residents continued to leave the city for the suburbs, or out of the state completely, in search of new employment opportunities. In fact, Michigan had one of the highest out-migration rates of any state in the U.S. from 1970 to 1990 [7]. The city suffered from extraordinarily high unemployment and poverty, a severely diminished tax base, abandoned and blighted buildings and infrastructure, and a high crime rate. In short, Detroit became the proverbial poster child for postindustrial decline [8].


Yet Detroit has remained a hub of arts and culture from the 1920s to the present day. Detroit’s Black community birthed the musical juggernaut called Motown in the 1960s, as well as vibrant R&B and hip-hop scenes in later decades [9]. The city has also contributed many rock and punk rock artists with global recognition [9]. Within recent decades, the city has welcomed new immigrant groups from the Middle East and Latin America while also cultivating a vibrant arts community working at the intersection of the creative economy and innovative land use practices [4].


From the mid-2000s to the 2010s, Detroit’s government worked to revitalize sections of downtown—with particular focus on the riverfront—but growing debt and political scandal led the city to declare bankruptcy in 2013 [10,11]. In a “grand bargain,” Detroit’s legacy philanthropy community, along with state support, paid off the city’s debt in a remarkably short period of time and stabilized the city’s finances. This paved the way for a handful of Detroit-born billionaires to make major investments in downtown Detroit and formulate their own plans for revitalization [12,13]. This largely manifested as new office complexes and condominiums in the downtown core that drew a new residential population (largely middle-income non-Hispanic white residents) where one had never previously existed [14]. Much of the downtown development has also spurred gentrification within the nearby Midtown and Corktown neighborhoods [14,15]. While many regional residents are happy to see signs of revival, the privately funded development of the city’s core has received mixed reactions from Detroiters in surrounding neighborhoods. Many believe the focus on the downtown area has only benefited newer white populations while ignoring the needs and desires of the low-income neighborhoods composed of largely Black and Brown communities [14,15]. A “New versus Old Detroit” tension permeates the city’s civic spheres. This tension has been exacerbated in the wake of the new remote/hybrid work capabilities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.


Despite Detroit’s well-known economic decline in the latter half of the twentieth century, many residents have proven themselves remarkably resilient to economic downturn. Their navigation through hard times has instilled an ethic of self-reliance and adaptability. This is evident in the vast array of community-led initiatives throughout the city focused on engaging residents as well as closing the gap on social services and resources. Urban farming, for example, has been a means for communities in Detroit to beautify previously vacant land in their neighborhoods, but also create a culture for learning new professional and business skills as well as provide quality food options within the city’s many food deserts [16]. Similarly, many anchor institutions have allied with low-income neighborhood community institutions to build communal spaces that provide business and professional development programming as well as cultivate local artists and entrepreneurs [17]. (We will be engaging with a few of these initiatives as part of our GPLEX 2022 program).


One of the reasons that the Economy League chose Detroit as a site for GPLEX 2022 is that in some ways the history of Detroit mirrors that of Philadelphia. Both cities were major industrial centers that grew rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century, and both experienced deep declines in their population and economic base from the 1950s to the 1990s. The tensions in Detroit among the central business district and outlying neighborhoods would be familiar to many Philadelphians. Both cities also faced severely depleted city coffers that led to major fiscal crises, and both have experienced revivals within the first two decades of the twenty-first century – although Philadelphia’s revival has been more pronounced. It is our belief that the cities can learn much from each other, whether it is navigating economic downturns, the importance of vibrant grassroots organizations, the capacity of business and civic leadership in charting paths to revival, or managing the inevitable tensions and strife that attend major socioeconomic changes. We are excited to learn more!


To better prepare our cohort in navigating contemporary Detroit, the rest of this brief uses interactive visualizations to compare the present populations of Philadelphia and Detroit. This will add more context to the major socioeconomic differences we will be further covering in future issues of this Leading Indicator series.


Population Sizes and Density

Figure 1 compares the total population estimates for both Philadelphia and Detroit from 1900 to 2020. Both cities saw sharp increases in their total populations from 1900 to 1930 - with an average increase of roughly 220,000 and 428,000 individuals every ten years for Philadelphia and Detroit, respectively. This aligns with the intense industrialization both cities experienced in the first half of the twentieth century. Both cities achieved peak population in 1950, with Philadelphia and Detroit seeing just under 2.1 and 1.9 million residents respectively. Yet with the movement of the U.S. economy away from manufacturing and towards more service-oriented industries, as well as the rise of suburbia, both cities saw sharp population declines from 1950 to 2000. Detroit’s population decline was deep and ongoing, with roughly a 14 percent average population decline per decade during that period. Philadelphia, on the other hand, witnessed population growth from 2000-2020, while Detroit’s population has continued to decline. As of 2020, Philadelphia’s population was 23 percent smaller than its 1950 peak, while Detroit’s is 65 percent smaller.


Graph instructions


SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau’s Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places In The United States: 1790 to 1990


By population density, Philadelphia largely lives more densely than Detroit. While both cities are roughly 142 square miles in area, Philadelphia’s density is about 11,300 residents per square mile while Detroit’s is 4,472 residents per square mile. This reflects each city’s unique planning and development trajectory. Philadelphia was laid out as a grid between two rivers in 1682, while Detroit expanded more organically from its initial fortifications into the surrounding countryside. With major population declines in the latter half of the twentieth century, both were left to contend with large swaths of abandoned and blighted buildings and land. With its far greater relative population decline, Detroit’s vacant property and blight issues are more severe and widespread than in Philadelphia.


Gender, Age, Race, and Ethnicity

The current populations of Philadelphia and Detroit bear some similarities across gender and age while displaying significant differences across race and ethnicity. Both cities are roughly 53 female and 47 percent male [18]. As shown in the population pyramids in figure 2, Philadelphia and Detroit share a similar distribution of age cohorts, though the City of Brotherly Love has a higher concentration of millennials, or those between the ages of 25 and 34, while Detroit has a larger contingent of both middle-aged and youth under 18.



SOURCE: Five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016-2020 American Community Survey.


Across measures of race and ethnicity, Philadelphia and Detroit are markedly different. Figure 3 breaks down each city’s 2020 residential population by the proportion identifying as a major racial or ethnic group. Both cities are ‘majority-minority’ cities, where a racial or ethnic minority makes up the largest proportion of the total population. At 76.6 percent, however, the proportion of Black/African American residents in Detroit in 2020 was almost twice that of Philadelphia. This reflects both Detroit’s long history of promise for Black residents as well as the intensity of its “white flight.” While many African Americans found new opportunity within Detroit during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they also faced intense discrimination. By the latter half of the twentieth century, most non-Hispanic white residents had abandoned the city; structural racism, overt prejudice, and unequal opportunities in the housing and job markets led to marked differences in economic conditions across racial groups, with many Black Detroiters being left behind.



SOURCE: Five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016-2020 American Community Survey.

NOTE: All racial categories exclude individuals who identified as Hispanic or Latinx.


Philadelphia’s population is somewhat more diverse than Detroit. The proportion of non-Hispanic whites in Philadelphia in 2020 was more than three times larger than Detroit’s non-Hispanic white population. Similarly, the proportion of Latinx/Hispanic Philadelphians was almost twice that of Detroit, while the share of Asian residents in Philadelphia was almost four times that of Detroit. There are a variety of reasons for these demographic differences. First, Philadelphia is likely the beneficiary of its geographic location between the economic and political capitals of the country (i.e., New York City and Washington D.C.). Additionally, its robust sector of educational and healthcare institutions as well as its economic development strategies at the turn of the twentieth century likely contributed to an influx of students, wealthier “white-collar” professionals, and new immigrant populations in search of new economic opportunities. Detroit is much earlier in its revival and may not see substantial population and economic turnaround for some time.


The Next Comparisons

As we gear up for GPLEX 2022, we will continue to compare the various socioeconomic attributes of Detroit with Philadelphia to better understand the context of our Midwestern counterpart. This will not only allow our cohort of leaders to prepare themselves to form new partnerships, address ongoing issues, and workshop new solutions at GPLEX, but will also provide a new perspective for our readers as we continue to cover issues related to employment, poverty, workforce development, economic trends, and supporting small and diverse local businesses.


Works Cited

[1] Detroit Historical Society. 2022. “Founding of Detroit.” Detroit Historical Society: Encyclopedia of Detroit. Retrieved from: (https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/founding-detroit).


[2] Detroit Historical Society. 2022. “Early American Detroit (1787 – 1820).” Detroit Historical Society. Retrieved from: (https://detroithistorical.org/learn/timeline-detroit/early-american-detroit-1787-1820).


[3] Detroit Historical Society. 2022. “Boomtown Detroit (1820 – 1860).” Detroit Historical Society. Retrieved from: (https://detroithistorical.org/learn/timeline-detroit/boomtown-detroit-1820-1860).


[4] Berkowski, Neala. 2015. “Detroit’s culture and growth shaped by immigrant communities.” The Michigan Daily, 1 February. Retrieved from: (https://www.michigandaily.com/uncategorized/detroits-immigration/).


[5] Thompson, Karl. 2017. “The Rise and Fall of Detroit.” ReviseSociology, 20 September. Retrieved from: (https://revisesociology.com/2017/09/20/rise-fall-detroit-industrialisation/).


[6] Detroit Historical Society. 2022. “Industrial Detroit (1860 – 1900).” Detroit Historical Society. Retrieved from: (https://detroithistorical.org/learn/timeline-detroit/industrial-detroit-1860-1900).


[7] Brown, David L. and John M. Wardwell. 1980. New Directions in Urban-Rural Migration: The Population Turnaround in Rural America. New York CIty, NY: Academic Press, INC.


[8] Renn, Aaron M. 2011. “Detroit: A New American Frontier.” Truthout, 26 July. Retrieved from: (https://truthout.org/articles/detroit-a-new-american-frontier/).


[9] Chilton, Martin. 2021. “Detroit Rock City: A History Of Motor City Music.” UDiscoverMusic, 9 July. Retrieved from: (https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/detroit-music-history/).


[10] Gallagher, John. 2018. “Remaking of Detroit's riverfront is a story that started 30 years ago.” Detroit Free Press, 15 April. Retrieved from: (https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/john-gallagher/2018/04/15/detroit-riverfront-future/506561002/).


[11] Reindl, JC. 2019. “5 years out of bankruptcy, can Detroit avoid another one?” Detroit Free Press, 9 December. Retrieved from: (https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/2019/12/09/detroit-bankruptcy-anniversary/2586744001/).


[12] Rafter, Dan. 2017. “Downtown surge doesn’t miss Detroit: Rejuvenation continues in city’s center.” REjournals, 8 June. Retrieved from: (https://rejournals.com/downtown-surge-doesnt-miss-detroit-rejuvenation-continues-in-citys-center/).


[13] Gallagher, John. 2018. “Downtown Detroit on the right path to revival but has a long way to go.” Detroit Free Press, 13 August. Retrieved from: (https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/john-gallagher/2018/08/13/downtown-detroit-projects-revival/949445002/).


[14] Aguilar, Louis and Christine MacDonald. 2015. “Detroit’s white population up after decades of decline.” The Detroit News, 17 September. Retrieved from: (https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2015/09/17/detroit-white-population-rises-census-shows/72371118/).


[15] Carlisle, John. 2020. “Detroit neighborhood group sees gentrification as the enemy.” Detroit Free Press, 24 May. Retrieved from: (https://www.freep.com/in-depth/news/columnists/john-carlisle/2020/05/24/detroit-neighborhood-gentrification-protest-carlisle/4954702002/).


[16] Adams, Biba. 2019. “In Detroit, A New Type of Agricultural Neighborhood Has Emerged.” YES! Magazine, 5 November. Retrieved from: (https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/11/05/food-community-detroit-garden-agriculture).


[17] Live6 Alliance. N.d. “Live 6 Alliance: The Crossroads of Culture, Commerce, and Community.” Live6Detroit.org. Retrieved from: (https://live6detroit.org/live6alliance).


[18] U.S. Census Bureau. 2022. 2016-2020 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Retrieved from: (https://www.census.gov/data.html).