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Detroit’s bankruptcy: a native son's lament

The historic Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit, c. 1910. Now up for sale.
The historic Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit, c. 1910. Now up for sale.
Detroit Publishing Company/Shorpy

Even as a pre-schooler, I felt the strength of Detroit, the city of my birth.  There were the downtown towers, of course — the Penobscot Building, the Fisher Building, the Union Guardian building, all lit and floodlit by night — Detroit’s “siren skyscrapers,” as one Canadian  described them, beckoning to the little Ontario border towns and South Michigan suburbs with their lure of primal urbanity.

There may have been taller office towers in New York, Chicago, even Cleveland. But we didn’t know those alien cities and these were our towers and our town was best. We had the best department store — the peerless Hudson’s — and the best apple pie — Awry’s Dutch Apple, with a spot of berry jam in the middle. And we had cars and cars.  Even at the end of WW II, when there hadn’t been a new civilian car built in over three years, and my father’s maroon '40 Ford Deluxe and the red '38 Plymouth belonging to our neighbor were  both showing their age, Detroit was like no other,  a city of cars.  But for the time being, we were simply a city giving fiery birth to the mighty necessities of battle.

I had never known a world at peace then. I was born into the war, smack dab in in the right ventricle of its industrial heart-- the Arsenal of Democracy. The streets of our little housing development, like many others, were paved with gray foundry slag chopped into pieces the size of my infant fist. It must have been hard on tightly rationed car tires, but otherwise it seems to me to have been a splendid surface, impervious to pot holes, little inclined to ice over.  Fighter planes, razor-back P-47s in olive drab paint, flew low over our home on their approaches to Selfridge Field. The  gray-painted Great Lakes Naval Squadron anchored of Belle Isle. And at night, glowing defiantly over most of Detroit, a huge red neon coach shown out over the glowing mouths of smokestacks and the gleam of the never-quenched furnaces of the Fisher Body plant.

Nearly 2 million people lived there then. Three times the number that live there now, in a Detroit that’s declared bankruptcy 67 years after my father, a pioneer in White Flight,  moved his family to the suburb of Birmingham in 1946.

Not that black people had moved in next door to us in Detroit. It was just the certainty that in Birmingham, a twee little town then and now, they absolutely couldn’t. This was the security of suburbia then and long after: white people could live outside the big city’s limits and black people and brown people (Detroit has long had a lot of them, too) couldn’t.  This fact was the key to Detroit’s decline, along with many other major US cities of over  a million in the last half of the past century.  Slums swelled. Poverty and crime were rife, the middle class fled along with the white working class. There seemed no end to this and no cure for it. Even the President of the United States told New York to Drop Dead.  

But most of these big cities recovered, or at least pulled up from their slumps.  New York is thriving and so is LA. Even Pittsburgh, Cleveland and St. Louis, Minneapolis and St. Paul are doing OK, relatively. Middling former one-industry places like Gary, Ind.; Bridgeport, Conn.  and Flint are still tragic zombies of their former selves, but Detroit alone of all the million-plus cities in the US has been on a steadily downward course ever since the riot of 1967—the event that completed white flight and nearly annihilated such Detroit retail as had survived the shopping-mall revolution of the late 1950s.

But in many ways Detroit had much more in common with cities like Flint than it did with Chicago or St. Paul. It was a single-industry city and that industry was cars, and this industry became gravely troubled. In the same year as the riot, the Motor Industry slipped into a 40-year decline that would only end with the forced bankruptcies of two of the Big Three. Detroit the Industry, smug and ingrown, had begun to lose track of its customers’ desires and even to show contempt for those who wanted something different. It took government action to make the Big 3 provide the safety and environmental features the public clamored for.   Meanwhile, in came VW and then Toyota and Nissan. We know the rest. Industrial Detroit moved more of its corporate offices, then factories, to the suburbs where most of its executives and white work force now lived.  Then it moved plants out of state, which was where the foreign competitors built theirs cars.

As the gospel puts it, "Without Vision, the people perish."

“Roger and Me” will give you a pretty good idea of what happened then. Once it could afford to, even Motown moved out of Detroit -- to LA. By the '80s, I began to hear stories about reviving Detroit, artists and hipsters drawn in by cheap, attractive housing and surviving cultural amenities like Wayne State University and the fine museums. You heard the same stories through the rest of the century, as the population kept falling by the hundred-thousands.  And the debt rose by the billion. If you call a Detroit cop now, you can depend on her taking an hour to get there.

So here is the new Detroit reality: bankruptcy. Partly, you can blame the industry that tried to desert it, partly you can blame it on a totally dysfunctional local government whose members have long tended to be no-shows when they were not actual criminals with their fists in the treasury.  And partly you can blame that local government’s ridiculous at-large council system, whereby the nine elected members were guaranteed absolutely no responsibility for any particular part of that dying city.

Or you can blame all the people who left, like my family, out of fear of people with dark skins. The tragedy, of course, is that it’s the dark-skinned people who have remained who have to pay the grueling price of bankruptcy.