The Deindustrialization of Detroit

Kevin Boyle describes two narratives of Detroit’s decline, one told by conservative whites, including Detroiters such as journalist Ze’ev Chafets in his lurid account, Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit, and the other by historians. Chafets regards the 1940s and 1950s as a golden age when industry boomed and workers, both black and white, lived the good life. This was destroyed by the 1967 riots, which led to white flight from the city and resulted in a rapid shift to a black city with black rule. Exacerbated by the oil crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent collapse of the domestic auto industry, Detroit’s decline accelerated. Boyle observes, “The popular story serves an obvious political purpose: black rioters and bad luck caused the city’s decline; whites bear no responsibility for its problems.”61

Historians, however, tell a very different story, tracing the city’s decline not to the events of 1967 but to white rule in Detroit and the institutions they controlled. As Thomas Sugrue demonstrates in his seminal historical study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Detroit deindustrialization began immediately after World War II. Far from being a golden age, white rule of the city created and enforced segregation in the 1940s and 1950s that had devastating long-term effects on housing, jobs, and industry, well before the 1967 riots. Although there was a great housing shortage for blacks, the city’s leadership, under Mayor Albert Cobo, opposed public housing because whites opposed building such housing in or near white areas. From 1950 to 1956 Detroit failed to take advantage of federal funds made available in the 1949 Housing Act, ranking eighteenth among the twenty-five largest cities in the ratio of low-rent starts to all housing starts. Detroit built less public housing in the 1950s than smaller cities such as Boston, Newark, Norfolk, St. Louis, and New Orleans.62 At the same time, whites opposed black home ownership in white neighborhoods. Sugrue details the terror black families faced when they had the courage to move into all-white neighborhoods, including fire-bombing, shattered windows, and other forms of intimidation and violence.

In the auto plants, under Walter Reuther’s leadership, the United Auto Workers union gave the corporations free rein to pursue policies regarding shop-floor discipline and privileges for white male workers that divided the workforce along racial lines. Blacks were the last hired and first fired; they were segregated at the bottom of the workforce, doing the dirtiest, most menial, and most dangerous work, and because they were concentrated in unskilled jobs, their jobs were the first to be eliminated through automation. Rather than laying off older workers, workforces were reduced by not hiring new employees, disproportionately affecting young black men. Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs; by the end of the 1950s black job seekers in the city were already demoralized.

Meanwhile, white workers followed the factory relocations to the suburbs and to small cities in rural areas, or to the Sunbelt South. More affluent whites also left Detroit to follow investments in the suburbs. The process of racialized suburbanization was supported by government-funded highways and federally guaranteed mortgage loans that disproportionately favored white homebuy- ers. With blacks largely shut out of suburban housing as Detroit’s depopulation began its unbroken slide, the city became increasingly poor and black. By 1960, the year in which Sugrue’s study ends, Detroit was already dominated by abandoned factory buildings, surrounded by blocks of boarded-up stores and restaurants, as the loss of industry and jobs rippled through the entire local economy.63 As Boyle notes, “White Detroiters thus reinforced African Americans’ ghettoization, trapping them in the center of the city as it was being rapidly stripped of jobs. By so doing, they forced black Detroiters to bear the burden of deindustrialization.”64

The factory zone that once surrounded the city, common to the model of a centralized metropolis, is a devastated brownfield, a zone of abandonment unparalleled by any in the nation, which runs right up to the northern border of the city at Eight Mile Road. The racial divide is stark, demonstrating the integral relationship between black oppression and capitalist exploitation. While Detroit is almost 83 percent black, the neighboring white working-class suburbs are less than 2 percent blacks With the departure of factories and white workers, in 1970 the three largest working-class suburbs of Dearborn, Livonia, and Warren, with a combined population of more than a hundred thousand people, had only eighty-six black residents^ Detroit never developed a rapid transit system centering on the downtown, nor does it have a unified bus system between the city and the suburbs. Although Detroit had streetcars at the beginning of the twentieth century, between 1936 and 1950 General Motors and other companies purchased and dismantled streetcar and electric train systems in forty-five cities.67 Instead, a tight ring of expressways cut off downtown from the rest of the city. David Harvey explains the logic of this kind of reorganized urban infrastructure as alert to the control of restive populations, just as Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s widening of Parisian boulevards made working-class barricade building more difficult: “The reengineering of inner cities in the United States in the wake of the urban uprisings of the 1960s just happened to create major physical highway barriers— moats, in effect—between the citadels of high-value downtown property and impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.’^8

These expressways were also designed to channel traffic between the plants in Highland Park and Dearborn and the residential suburbs. Detroit’s highway planners were careful to avoid disrupting white middle-class residential neighborhoods but felt no such compunction about destroying black neighborhoods, especially those closest to downtown.69 Used as an excuse to “raze slums" the Chrysler Freeway cut through the neighborhood of Black Bottom, named for the richness of the soil from the former Savoyard River, and destroyed Hastings Street, known for its black-owned businesses, social institutions, and night clubs. With the adjacent black neighborhood of Paradise Valley, both east of downtown, the neighborhoods were especially known for their contributions to American music, including blues, big band, and jazz.

These intensified patterns of racial segregation and j ob loss that weighed disproportionately on the black population produced the extremity of Detroit’s ruination in comparison to other deindustrialized cities and paved the way for the anger and frustration that exploded in the rebellion on Twelfth Street in 19 67. Already suffering a housing shortage when Black Bottom was bulldozed, the Twelfth Street area became densely packed with apartments that were subdivided and had six to eight families living where two had lived before.70 Commercial businesses in the area gave way to “pool halls, liquor stores, sleazy bars, pawn shops, and second-hand businesses.’^1 The riot, which took place in the middle of a July heat wave, was triggered by the police who decided to arrest all 85 patrons of a “blind pig" (illegal drinking establishment) instead of the usual handful of owners and patrons. While waiting for reinforcements to arrive, a crowd of two hundred area residents gathered at 4 a.m., and by 8 p.m., the crowd had swelled to more than 3,000. It took 17,000 police, National Guardsmen, and federal troops to quell the riot after five days, leaving 43 people dead. Thirty of them were killed by police, including 25 African Americans. Over 7,200 people were arrested, more than 2,500 buildings burned, and over $36 million of insured property was lost, with much more uninsured property damaged.72 Riots had broken out in 1943 as well, when thousands of white workers had arrived in Detroit from the South and, along with second- generation Poles, were generally hostile to black rights at a time when the city suffered an acute housing shortage. Comparing the 1967 rebellion to the 1943 riots, Dominic Capeci and Martha Wilkerson note, “Both disorders came at a time of rising expectations and blocked opportunities" especially in housing and employment; both also occurred during periods of strained community relations with a predominantly white, racist police force"3

The devastation and decentralization of Detroit’s downtown resulting from city, federal, and corporate policies led to the urbanization of the suburbs, creating a proliferation of strip malls, shopping malls, and office parks and ultimately replacing Detroit’s downtown with what the design critic Robert Fishman calls “a linear city" sixteen miles away on Big Beaver Road. Fishman observes that the “specialized engineering, design, procurement, marketing, public-relations, advertising, finance, accounting, and law firms that comprise the collective ‘brains’ of the industry” for the Big Three automakers are all found in the hundreds of office suites and technical facilities along Big Beaver Road.74 The position of Big Beaver Road north of the metropolis inverts the traditional city design that locates the immigrant poor between the downtown and the factory zone, both of which should be accessible by public transit, and instead positions the wealthy residents of Troy, Birmingham, and Bloomfield Hills—among the wealthiest suburbs in the nation—closest to jobs and high- end shopping at the upscale Somerset Mall on Big Beaver Road, while the poor are the most isolated in the derelict city/5 A version of this has occurred in many cities across the country; yet with the proximity of great wealth and devastating poverty, the extreme contradictions of class and race in America are writ large in Detroit.

The literature on Detroit generally fails to detail how federal and corporate policy in the 1970s and 1980s further promoted the city’s deindustrialization through continued attacks on the working class and the continued gutting of public housing and transportation. But corporate policy emerges as the most significant factor in the unmaking of Detroit. By not updating their plants and instead stripping Detroit of the jobs that made it the Motor City, it was the corporations who turned one of the world’s most productive manufacturing centers into the premier example of urban decay. As Boyle asserts, “The ruins of Detroit—the weed-choked lots where houses once stood, the shells of factories, the blocks of boarded-up storefronts—thus stand as symbols not of decay but of power, the power of the corporations to shape the rise and fall of a great American cityT6

Nor was the city helped by its two-term mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and other officials, whose depth of corruption was staggering. Kilpatrick’s appointed city treasurer, his ex-college frat brother, Jeffrey Beasley, for example, used Detroit pension funds to buy some California strip malls for $3.1 million, without transferring the title of those properties to the pension funds. Beasley is accused of taking bribes and kickbacks as he made bad investments that ultimately cost pension funds $84 million. Kilpatrick effectively ran the city as a criminal enterprise and in 2013 was convicted on twenty-four federal felony counts of racketeering, extortion, bribery, and fraud. The unrestrained corruption and lax oversight that allowed these actions suggest that corruption had been the norm through many administrations. A Detroit Free Press investigation estimates that corrupt and incompetent officials and appointees in Detroit over many years are responsible for almost half a billion dollars in wayward investments.77

Although decades in the making, Detroit’s decline presages many more municipal failures across the country as well as credit downgrades, which raise borrowing costs for cities and put them deeper in debt. Since 2010 there have been at least thirty-six municipal bankruptcy filings, such as Jefferson County in Alabama, and Stockton, San Bernardino, and Vallejo in California. Cities are watching Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, and one of the most dangerous precedents that may be set is the evasion of pension commitments, which until recently were considered legally protected. In two recent bankruptcies, one in Prichard, Alabama, and another in Central Falls, Rhode Island, pensions were cut by as much as 50 percent. Pension funds, a form of deferred wages that are supposed to be held in trust until they are needed, instead became pots of money for bankers and hedge fund managers in league with state pension plan managers to make some of their riskiest investments, burning the pension funds when these did not pan out. The refusal to cover the pension funds in a city as large as Detroit as well as the slashing or elimination of hard-won medical benefits could therefore have a major ripple effect across the United States, affecting tens of thousands of people who are counting on those benefits.

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