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Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Continued Demise of Detroit

Yesterday, the US Census released a new set of figures that showed that Detroit has now dropped out of the list of America's ten largest cities:

The fact that Detroit is shrinking is nothing new. Detroit has clung to its position on the list of the 10 most populous cities since the 2000 census when it first dropped below 1 million people. That was a stinging blow for a city that was the nation's fourth largest in 1950. Since then, it has shrunk in every census. The latest figures recorded 900,198 people, half the population of 50 years ago.

Still, some city leaders say Detroit is just beginning its economic and social renaissance.

"Sufficient groundwork has been laid for new investment that will increase the housing stock, jobs, and it portends for a good future for the city of Detroit," former Mayor Dennis Archer said. "I don't think anybody, with all due respect, pays much attention to a city's population."

To walk around downtown Detroit is a lesson in contrasts. On any given summer afternoon, people fill cafe tables on sidewalks while construction workers hammer away at new loft apartment buildings. But past 6 p.m., with workers back home in the suburbs and the construction crews gone, the city becomes a ghost town.

Other industrial cities on the Great Lakes have experienced terrible upheavals over the last several decades, but Detroit is in a class of its own as to the depth and intractability of its problems. As the American population migrates south and west en masse the old industrial cities of the north and midwest are dying. In America, Detroit is perhaps the city most synonomous with urban decay, a shabby monument to the death of the old school working man's city. It is the bleak negative image in the national consciousness of sunny thriving centers of the new economy like Phoenix or Portland. Yet this was not always the case. In 1950 it was America's fourth-largest city, nearly two million strong, ground zero of the new automobile economy. By the middle of the 1980's it had hollowed out, its population halved, with rampant unemployment, poverty, and violent crime.

So what happened to Detroit?

In the aftermath of World War II America embarked on a new way of living: mass suburbanization. The G.I. Bill and Eisenhower's enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 created the conditions whereby millions of middle and working class white Americans could leave cramped urban apartments for single-family homes in the suburbs (black veterans were eligible for the home loans of the G.I. Bill, but were for decades shut out of the suburbs by local bylaws and the unwillingness of white homeowners to sell to blacks).

This was also the era when urban planners had the greatest power to remodel cities; it was a time when messianic builders like New York City's Robert Moses had a free hand to tear down entire neighborhoods to put in the highways and office towers of the new era. Detroit, as the center of the American automobile industry, was one of the cities to most enthusiastically shred its public transportation in favor of almost total car dependency.

Detroit was also a perennial tinderbox of conflict. As the home of one of America's most powerful unions, the United Auto Workers, it saw decades of industrial conflict between workers and management in the big automobile firms, including such major moments in labor history as the Flint Sitdown Strike. Ultimately, though, the success of the UAW in the 1950's and 60's in wrangling major benefits and good pay packages can be seen as one component of Detroit's ultimate collapse, as the lifestyle secured by the UAW under Walter Reuther gave many (white) workers the means to move to the suburbs.

Detroit had also long been a hotbed of racial conflict, despite the UAW's revolutionary stance on organizing black workers. Indeed, Detroit was the scene of a major, but often forgotten, race riot in 1943, where black and white Detroiters engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat on the streets of the city.

Like the American race riots before it — such as in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 — 1943 pitted community against community in pitched, brutal confrontations. But the 1967 riot was about looting. The 1943 riot was about hand-to-hand combat.

“With the ’60s it’s a whole different thing,” Klug says. “You’re dealing with pretty rigid segregation, cities that have been abandoned by a lot of white folk, in which people are really hopeless and rise up and rebel. It’s a real rebellion, still against whites, but often white authority in the form of white police departments typically. ... And when you hear stories about ’67 in Detroit, they’re predominantly about African-American involvement, but you do hear stories of white people involved. ... They’re all sort of in it together.”

Klug’s perspective is echoed by Detroiters who lived through both events and can compare them.

“The one in ’43 was a real riot, and that’s frightening,” says writer Marvin Arnett. “Let me take you to the ’67 riot, OK — which always kind of irks me when they say ‘riot,’ because it wasn’t a riot, it was economic upheaval. And I’ll tell you what happened [in ’67]. I stood on my porch, I was an adult, and watched people looting Robinson’s Furniture Store down on Grand River, and they were taking out sofas and chairs, and there would be a black man on one end of that sofa and a white man on the other end. That doesn’t seem like a race riot to me. It was more economic, it was more the ‘have-nots’ giving the ‘haves’ some trouble.”

Retired Detroit firefighter Alec Bryce remembers both episodes too. He recalls the anxiety of being a white motorist driving through chaotic crowds in 1967, saying, “In ’67 they thought it was funny. They’d rock the car, you know. In ’43 they would have killed us.”

By the 1950's, with the brave new era of suburban living opening up to ordinary middle and working-class white Detroiters, white flight from the city to its satellites became a tangible reality. This process accelerated greatly in the late 1960's and the early 1970's in the aftermath of 1967's 12th Street Riot, the bloodiest riot in that decade of riots. In the years following 1967 white abandonment of the city turned into a flood, with the vast majority of Detroit's white residents fleeing the city limits for suburban areas in Wayne County and south-east Michigan. The segregation inherent in this process can be seen even today, with Detroit itself being America's second-blackest big city, while neighboring Livonia is the whitest city with over 100,000 people in America. With the big automobile firms following the majority of their workers out to the suburbs, establishing new headquarters and new plants in the process, Detroit's slide turned into a rout. The problems that Detroit faced were compounded by the 1973 OPEC oil embrargo and by the rise of the Japanese automotive industry, two events that combined to cause tens of thousands of layoffs of auto workers throughout the region.

By the late 1970's the city of Detroit had begun to morph into one of America's most violent urban areas, as black drug gangs like Young Boys Incorporated and Pony Down set new standards for ruthlessness and money-making acument (indeed it is estimated that at their height Pony Down were making a cool hundred mil a year from the crack trade). Detroit's well-earned reputation for violent crime has been a millstone around the city's neck, playing a huge role in stymieing efforts at resuscitation. Another problem for the city has been its enormous number of abandoned buildings, with whole neighborhoods left to rot. My dad, who has traveled to many countries around the world, including many 'third world' nations, still maintains that Detroit in the mid-80's was the eeriest, most unsettling place he has ever been; vast abandoned buildings hulking over flood-plain sized deserted avenues.

The collapse of Detroit, and many cities like it, raises many disquieting questions. How can a city whose tax base has been shredded, whose population is exceedingly poor, that is located in a region that is being increasingly abandoned, turn itself around? Despite many efforts at creating a renaissance, some good, some not so good, the situation in Detroit, while not as bad as during the nadir of the 1980's crack wars, does not seem to be improving much. Is there anything that can be done to reverse such a slide? Sometimes it seems like nothing can be done, particularly considering that Detroit itself doesn't hold the trump cards that allowed Rudy Giuliani to rip New York City out of its decline in the 1990's.

Update 7/4/2005, 1:09 PM: In the comments, Colin makes the case that the account of the 1943 race riot linked above is highly revisionist in its approach to the events of 1967. Here is his comment in full:

Please, please don't buy into this load of old cobblers that Detroit '67 really wasn't *that* violent, or that it was, in the ridiculous words of that guy, "an economic upheaval".

The *official* death toll was 43. My father was an inner city emergency room physician during the riot--and he stopped counting at 80 bodies, and that was at just *one* of the temporary emergency morgues set up. He realized that the city would only count gunshot victims in the toll. So people who, um, 'fell' out of tenth story windows, or people who were run over by cars (which then backed up and ran over them again) were all classified as "accidental deaths", and never made it into the riot statistics. My guess is that every community that has a riot does this sort of smoke and mirrors, which is why I actually give a lot of credence to the original belief that the 1863 Draft Riots in NYC probably did cause 1000+ deaths.
|| RPH || 7:24 PM || |