Kevin Boyle: Requiem ... Detroit and the Fate of Urban America

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Kevin Boyle teaches modern American history at Ohio State University. His most recent book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age won the National Book Award for non-fiction, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Tolerance Book Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Book Award. ]

I saw the ad on a real estate web site a week ago. For sale: 3952 Chatsworth Street, Detroit, Michigan. A five bedroom, three bath brick home, built in 1926. Eighteen hundred square feet of living space. Now empty. Yours for $17,900.

$17,900. That house—that home—for the price of a cheap car.

Pick up a paper these days and you almost invariably see some mention of Detroit’s great crisis. But the stories aren’t about the city. They’re about the auto industry: how General Motors and Chrysler and Ford are hemorrhaging money; how they’re lurching toward catastrophe; how disaster must be averted.

The crisis in the streets of Detroit—the vortex of poverty that is consuming what once was the nation’s fifth largest city—that’s not news at all.

A memory

It’s a summer day sometime in the late 1960s, though precisely when I couldn’t say. I’m in the backyard of that house on Chatsworth Street, the Wilds’ place, two doors down from my own.

The five Wilds’ kids had some sort of fight, as they often did. In the heat of battle the two oldest boys, Mike and Pat, had decided to hog-tie their little brother Kevin, my age. There he is: seven, eight, maybe nine years old, writhing on the cement beneath the battered basketball hoop, his arms and legs bound behind him by a length of clothesline, his mouth gagged so couldn’t scream for help, his eyes wide and brimming with tears.

It was cruel and frightening and more than a little exciting. That’s why the neighborhood kids spent more time at the Wilds’ house than just about anywhere else. Because our families were staid and proper, while the Wilds’ kids were – well, wild. And we wanted to share in the freedom, the confidence, the limitlessness that coursed through that house. Truth be told, we envied the Wilds.

We were too young, too sheltered to understand the burdens our parents carried. All we knew was that we were safe. Like so many Detroiters, our families had wound their way to the city in circuitous, sometimes serendipitous ways. But in the end most of them had chosen Detroit for only one reason: work.

In the first half of the twentieth century the city was America’s great boomtown, pulsing with the fearsome energy of the world’s most innovative industry. Fordism [ click here for the 1994 Origins article on Henry Ford (pdf) ], the social critics called it: the perfection of mass production, carried out in the vast auto factories that sprawled across the landscape, from the legendary Ford Rouge on Detroit’s western edge to the warren of grim-faced parts plants on the east side.

A machine of a city, oiled by an army of working people. In 1950 there were 330,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit, enough to sustain a population of 1.8 million people. Enough to sustain a neighborhood like ours....

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