Daniel Okrent: Detroit: The Death — and Possible Life — of a Great City





If Detroit had been savaged by a hurricane and submerged by a ravenous flood, we'd know a lot more about it. If drought and carelessness had spread brush fires across the city, we'd see it on the evening news every night. Earthquake, tornadoes, you name it — if natural disaster had devastated the city that was once the living proof of American prosperity, the rest of the country might take notice.

But Detroit, once our fourth largest city, now 11th and slipping rapidly, has had no such luck. Its disaster has long been a slow unwinding that seemed to remove it from the rest of the country. Even the death rattle that in the past year emanated from its signature industry brought more attention to the auto executives than to the people of the city, who had for so long been victimized by their dreadful decision-making...

... If, like me, you're a Detroit native who recently went home to find out what went wrong, your first instinct is to weep. If you live there still, that's not the response you're looking for. Old friends and new acquaintances, people who confront the city's agony every day, told me,"I hope this isn't going to be another article about how terrible things are in Detroit."

It is — and it isn't. That's because the story of Detroit is not simply one of a great city's collapse. It's also about the erosion of the industries that helped build the country we know today. The ultimate fate of Detroit will reveal much about the character of America in the 21st century. If what was once the most prosperous manufacturing city in the nation has been brought to its knees, what does that say about our recent past? And if it can't find a way to get up, what does that say about our future?...

... Detroit fell victim not to one malign actor but to a whole cast of them. For more than two decades, the insensate auto companies and their union partners and the elected officials who served at their pleasure continued to gun their engines while foreign competitors siphoned away their market share. When this played out against the city's legacy of white racism and the corrosive two-decade rule of a black politician who cared more about retribution than about resurrection, you can begin to see why Detroit careened off the road.

Who Killed Detroit?
Most of us thought Detroit was pretty wonderful back in the '50s and early '60s, its mighty industrial engine humming in top gear, filling America's roads with the nation's signifying product and the city's houses and streets with nearly 2 million people. Of course, if you were black, it was substantially less wonderful, its neighborhoods as segregated as any in America. On the northwest side, not far from where I grew up, a homebuilder had in the 1940s erected a six-foot-high concrete wall, nearly half a mile long, to separate his development from an adjacent black neighborhood. Still, white Detroit believed that the riots that ravaged Los Angeles in 1965 and a number of other cities the following summer would never burn across our town. Black people in Detroit, enlightened whites believed, had jobs and homes, and even if those homes were on the other side of an apartheid wall, their owners had a stake in the city.

Some did, but too many others, invisible to white Detroit, did not. The riots that scorched the city in July 1967, leaving 43 people dead, were the product of an unarticulated racism that few had acknowledged, and a self-deceiving blindness that had made it possible for even the best-intentioned whites to ignore the straitjacket of segregation that had crippled black neighborhoods, ill served the equally divided schools and enabled the casual brutality of a police force that was too white and too loosely supervised.

The '67 riots sent thousands of white Detroiters fleeing for the suburbs. Even if black Detroiters with financial resources wished to follow, they could not: the de facto segregation was virtually de jure in most Detroit suburbs. One suburban mayor boasted,"They can't get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in ... we respond quicker than you do to a fire."

Soon Detroit became a majority-black city, and in 1973 it elected its first black mayor. Coleman Young was a talented politician who spent much of his 20 years in office devoting his talents to the politics of revenge. He called himself the"MFIC" — the IC stood for"in charge," the MF for exactly what you think. Young was at first fairly effective, when he wasn't insulting suburban political leaders and alienating most of the city's remaining white residents with a posture that could have been summed up in the phrase Now it's our turn. But by his third term, Young was governing more by rhetoric than by action. These were the years of a local phenomenon known as Devil's Night, a nihilistic orgy of arson that in one especially explosive year saw 800 houses burn to the ground in 72 hours. Violent crime soared under Young. The school system began to cave in on itself. When jobs disappeared with the small businesses boarding up their doors and abandoning the city, the mayor seemed to find it more useful to bid the business owners good riddance than to address the job losses. Detroit was dying, and its mayor chose to preside over the funeral rather than find a way to work with the suburban and state officials who now detested him every bit as much as he had demonized them.

When Young finally left office in 1993, he bragged that Detroit had achieved a"level of autonomy ... that no other city can match." He apparently didn't care that it was the autonomy of a man in a rowboat, in the middle of the ocean, without oars...



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