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Been A Long Time Coming

Detroit native Dan Okrent over at the Time mothership serves up a smart and wonderfully heartfelt look at how Detroit wound up in such dire straits. As he rightly notes, decades of divisive political myopia and an overreliance on a single industry have conspired to put us behind the 8 ball in a major way.

But though this insightful piece definitely takes the long view, I wonder whether there is an even longer view — or at least one from a slightly different angle — to be considered. Detroit's troubles may have been accelerated by the '67 riots and increased white flight in the wake of Coleman A. Young's rise to the mayoralty, but that's hardly when the deeper-rooted structural problems began. Our tax base and population began dwindling in the late 1950s, early '60s, when our city was facing many of the same troubles it confronts today. Consider this paragraph from a 1961 Time piece on Detroit:

Detroit's decline has been going on for a long while. Auto production soared to an alltime peak in 1955—but there were already worrisome signs. In the face of growing foreign and domestic competition, auto companies merged, or quit, or moved out of town to get closer to markets. Automation began replacing workers in the plants that remained. In the past seven years, Chrysler, the city's biggest employer, has dropped from 130,000 to 50,000 workers. At the depth of the 1958 recession, when Detroit really began reeling, 20% of the city's work force was unemployed. Even today, the figure is an estimated 10%, and the U.S. Government lists Detroit as an area of "substantial and persistent unemployment.''

How much did the encroaching uncertainty in the manufacturing sector back then worsen anxieties (racial and otherwise), fears that surely swelled even more as blacks began to assert more social and political influence in the succeeding decades? Although the riots jumped off in the late 60s, it seems the table for the explosion -- and Young's subsequent ascent -- had been set at least a decade before.

As for Young himself, I won't argue that voters left him in office too long, but I'm loath to agree with the contention that he "cared more about retribution than resurrection." I came of age on the eastside of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, and I remember well the resentment and outright race hatred directed at Young, the city's then-nascent black political leadership and its growing black and brown population. Although much of the real power and money in Detroit remained in the hands of white pols and business leaders -- and still does today -- white residents felt that Young's win meant they'd somehow lost ground. Many wouldn't even give Young a chance before they started putting up the "for sale" signs. Everything he said and did was racialized and usually opposed. For instance, when Young first took office and warned criminals in the city to "hit Eight Mile Road," it was seen as a directive by the mayor for black crooks to start preying on suburban whites. To blacks, though, the comment didn't suggest "retribution." It was about keeping their neighborhoods safe.

As Young himself was later quoted as saying, "White people find it extremely hard to live in an environment they don't control." What seemed to whites like defiance and dismissal from Young was usually interpreted by black folks as, "Well, with or without you, we've got to go on."

Though Dan's piece certainly avoids it, a common, short-form narrative of recent Detroit history goes like this: Great manufacturing town experiences riots, swelling of black clout, white flight and utter collapse in the hands of unruly Negroes. But to those on the other side of the "apartheid wall" Okrent mentions, this is a profoundly inaccurate and unfair line.

I never met black folks who were trying to drive whites out. (As the story notes, many blacks were trying to leave right along with whites after the riots, but couldn't.) The African-American homeowners I knew were decent folks far more interested in better jobs, schools and homes for their families than with making any kind of racial statement about their "arrival." People like my mom, grandmother and uncles came to Detroit for jobs, not to run a city -- and certainly not to run it in the ground. But when so many people and businesses fled, taking a hunk of tax base with them, my parents' generation found themselves holding the bag and being forced to soldier on anyway.

And I think this reality informs a lot of the feistiness Detroiters -- black, white, Latino, Asian and Arab -- harbor today. Yes, smart Detroiters know we need to foster greater regional cooperation. If the area -- and this means you, too, Oakland County -- is to ever rebound from a half-century tumble into the abyss, none of us should try to go it alone.

Through it all, though, we've got to go on.

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