One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

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.

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (24)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    Well-said, Darrell. It's enlightening to see overlaps and partial divergence in the perspectives of two native Detroiters from different generations, different sides of Woodward and different races.

    You and Dan share affectionate, clear-eyed memories of "the eastside of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s" and, in his case, of the northwest side in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Equally valuable, you recognize the necessity of regional responses for mutual success. No city or county is alone in a rowboat, to borrow Dan's vivid image for unhelpful autonomy.

    This kind of journalistic "oral history" -- today's He Says/He Says discussion -- is a great start to the Assignment Detroit Project.

  • 2

    Wow. Not sure if you saw my response to the Okrent feature under Steven Gray's last post, but... thanks. Well done. This is just the take I was looking for.

  • 3

    Not sure where to put this comment. I was born, raised & educated in detroit. My plan is to retire there.... so, so much potential. In the years of my absence, people would ask: where are you from? my response: Detroit, but i am currently living in (wherever is was). Seems I have never gotten it out of my system, never lost hope. I recently put a bid in on a detroit home, this is exciting not the florida sunshine! I am hoping that I can become involved once more to move Detroit forward. Anybody want to talk about opportunities and options for the, well, more mature.... let the dialogue start here.

    • 3.1

      Now there are two of us that are going to retire there! I echo your sentiments. I too tell people when they ask "where are you from", it is ALWAYS DETROIT, I just am living here for the moment. Funny thing is, I haven't lived there since 1972, but I still say it. Michigan is a giant hick town, nothing going on, no excitement...utter boredom. For all it's problems and all it's devastation, the people that are left in Detroit still have the coolest mojo and rock harder than anyone n the planet. They remain positive even standing in the ruins. Their sports fans are the greatest! My brother and I STILL refer to it as "The Great City"! So much for the positive my blog, which offers an insiders look at the root causes of the cities devastation.

  • 4

    Darrell, thanks for the eloquent piece. I think you nailed it. One of the most common notions about Detroit is that the 1967 racial insurrection triggered white flight. It's simply not true. Check the demographics and you will discover that the Motor City's population decline began in the 1950's as new superhighways gave easy access to the booming outer ring suburbs like Warren and Southfield. This migration continued in the early 1960's by which time Detroit's population dipped from it's peak of 1,849,568 to 1,514,063 in 1970. Certainly things got worse in 1967 but the exodus had been underway for twenty years. (Read the data here --

  • 6

    Thanks for posting this. Like many close observers of Detroit, I'm thrilled that Time has committed itself to covering the city in depth, but I think that pledge comes with a responsibility to do the story right. Too many media outlets have swooped in and out, only to repeat the same misconceptions (i.e., the riot caused white flight, when in fact it began fifteen years before) and shake their head at the city's decline. So I'm heartened to see you approach the city's history with respect and care.

    I look forward to your future articles. I'll be following along from my own blog on the city's revitalization, think Detroit.

  • 7

    Very glad to see that Time will have multiple perspectives on the city's past and future. This piece adds much to the cover story that should be required reading for everyone. Not sure where to post responses to the cover story on-line by Okrent, but I actually think it has several problems that need to be challenged. The politics of the writer seem obvious (Young and Dingell, both liberal Democrats, are essentially cast as in the wrong, L. Brooks Patterson is described as "exceptionally able". Huh?) Patterson is a notorious racist (one of the worst in the region) and a long-time Republican leader who had considered running for Governor in Michigan. In my view, he has a clear role in Detroit's decline over the years -- and this should be called out.

    Detroit's labor legacy and history are much more complicated too (someone over there at Time should look up an important man named General Baker -- and who is still active today).

    I'll end with a suggestion that everyone who stays at the Time House in Detroit be advised to read Thomas Sugrue's "Origins of the Urban Crisis" for the much longer story touched upon here in this blog post. Another book on Detroit's political and labor scene in the early 1970s by Heather Thompson, "Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City" should also be required.

    Glad Time is in my city; and I look forward to helping their writers understand the more nuanced and complicated history of this great city. I'm sure many others around here will join in too.

    • 7.1

      Along with Sugrue's book get a copy of Sidney Fine's unsurpassed in-depth study of the conditions leading up to the 1967 civil disturbances "Violence in the Model City."

      Also find a copy of Olivier Zunz's "The Changing Face of Inequality" which looks at the urbanization and industrial development of the city from 1880-1920. It provides the best starting point for all that has followed.

  • 8

    Darrell, props to you, sir, for responding to Okrent's cover piece. I really hope that cover story isn't the angle Time is going to push.

  • 9

    At the outset, The Detroit Blog is a great idea. Kudos to the editorial leaders at Time for devoting significant resources and energy into covering Detroit with a real emphasis on Detroit. This will be a great forum to highlight from time to time the real stories of Detroit that will point to our city's coming rejuvenation. Notice I didn't use renaissance, a word that has failed to adequately capture the essence of Detroit in over 30 years. I hope others will do the same because out of this great idea, surely something else can that will have a tranforming effect on Detroit.

    As a Detroiter (i.e., I grew up in the city limits since 1974), I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and its current downturn notwithstanding is one to cause enough consternation and concern that the President took the most outrageous measure ever and took over both GM and Chrysler. Whodathunkit? As a transplanted New Yorker, it is with a great level of disappointment and sadness that the city in its' latest incarnation is indeed, seemingly, in a death spiral.

    As a result of all the things that are wrong about Detroit, I am inclined to agree with Mr. Okrent, for a number of disparate, yet similar reasons.

    For starters, no one can argue that what is wrong with Detroit is really wrong--double-digit unemployment, a proliferation of the crack economy that continues to wreak havoc on Detroit's neighborhoods, a sub-standard public school system, significant holes in its', public health delivery systems, an ineffective public safety strategy compounded by real violent crime that continues unabated, and the continued blight that no one can stop, it seems. All of this combined with our region's serious racial divide promises that it will require more than just hopes and dreams to make Detroit a better place to live and work again. And this is just a preliminary list of the wrongs I have known and can reference about Detroit my entire life.

    And while it's time to draw attention to what's right about Detroit, unfortunately, it is a long way off. In the mean time, the artists must be given room to grow their experiments with life in Detroit's roughest hoods. I commend you. I mean, it's cute, and all, but is it really going to create and or replace the 20-50,000 new jobs that were lost in the Big 3's most recent fire? Is it going to reverse the currently absurd foreclosure rate predicated by one of the most rapid job declines in recent memory? Is it going restore local control of the public school system (of which I am a product)? Is it going to reverse the very negative images that continue to come out of a city that is currently giving up on itself? Let's not lose sight of the facts of what brought our town to its' current situation, and why it is going to take a whole bunch of effort, both within and externally, to bring it back to basic respectability. By respectability, I mean socially and economically, let alone politically.

    As I have told anyone who knows me, when the city gets to these starting points of reversing the negative, I will be right there to help the city I love in anyway I can.

    Electing Dave Bing Mayor is a great first step. He can get the ear of powerful business leaders like Roger Penske and others to kick off the major capital reinvestment the city and the region so desperately needs to get back on the road to recovery. Keeping school control in the state's hands, even temporarily will also help with reinstituting some accountability among teachers, adminstrators and students to restore the system back to a competitive level with other districts in the state first. Cities and their economies cannot recover uless the educational infrastructure can sustain any potential growth. Most importantly, GM, Ford and Chrysler's unified commitment to green cars and an improved global business model will provide dividends of the seeds for renewal in Detroit, only, and this is big, only if the residents of the city insist upon it. Finally, with all the engineering wizards our great state and city possess, can't we finally go green with a zeal and passion surpassing that of T. Boone PIckens? Forcrissakes?My friends in Southfield, Ferndale, West Bloomfield, Dearborn and yes, the Pointes will have a part to play, but a true rejuvenation will be born of the people of Detroit.

    It's still a great place. Hollywood is coming to town in a big way. Hung is one of the funniest things HBO has done in years. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Get Clint Eastwood and Alexander Payne to shoot some spots on the cinematic virtues of Detroit, a la Robert De Niro here in New York. Maybe then the filmmakers will use more than shots of the old train station and Mack Ave. for background intro shots. make sure the Ilitches bring champions to town soon. Last year almost killed me with the Red Wings. This is the October that we can really make a push against the dreaded Cardinals and Yankees. (Wish me luck, I'm 5 minutes from the Bronx and the hated Yankee Universe.) I could go on and on, you get the point. These things that are right only prove to me how nice the rejuvenation will be.

    Go Tigers and Go Green!!!

  • 10

    Thank you Darrell. I'm a lifelong Detroiter,dating back to 1941. I have seen the city change in many ways; some good and some not so. Growing up on the westside of Detroit where many black professionals were educated and moved on to great careers, forms the foundation of my present day thoughts about about this city of ours.

    I am non-plused to express a way to display the cards which were dealt to us during our formative years, without playing a race card. The reason for that is the deck was stacked with them. For example; the neighborhood theaters were segregated until the early and late1950s. Even the recreation facilities, such as Kronk, had designated days set aside when Blacks could use the facilites. Tne neighborhoods were segregated by streets, delineating boundries across which Blacks were unwelcome and where Blacks could neither rent nor own homes. Some downtown resturants would not seat and serve Blacks. Major hospitals would not staff Black doctors. The Detroit Police Department enforced segregation and would not hire a representative number of Black officers. The Fire Department would not hire Blacks. Property Deeds in many neighborhoods contained restrictive covenants prohibiting the sell of houses to Blacks and other minorities.

    Major business operations, other than the auto industry, did not hire Blacks. It was not until 1962 that the Detroit News, a voice of the community, hired a group of Blacks into its Circulation Department at an entry level position known as "Jumper." I cite this as an example because of my own personal knowledge. Race in the City of Detroit can be viewed as the base of Detroit's decline. All other factors, while importatnt, are secondary and can be more easily addressed.The media played no small part in the debasement of this city. Attitudes regarding race are readily apparent in the historic archives of the media. One need only research the News' editorials on South Africa's Apartheid system and read the position that was taken in the 1960s and forward.

    While it is true that the city experienced significant population declines in the late 1950s due to industrial shrinkage, those declines paled in the face of what happened as a result of open housing and the elections of Black representatives. The clarion call of "The Last One Out Of Detroit, Please Turn Out The Lights" further galvanized the exodus from the city by feeding our historic racial divisions as well as a quest for new and obstensively better surroundings in the suburbs.

    Understand me, if you will; I am not a racist. In fact I don't even believe in the theory. Nevertheless, I am compelled to expose the race cards that were dealt. I too call for a new deck; one that contains the cards of cooperation, respect, and honesty. Until that happens, this beloved city and region will continue to suffer.

    Incidentially, I too could have headed north across Eight Mile years ago, but for my hope that the region would embace a more comprehensive spirit of compassion and cooperation, I am still here and hopeful.

  • 11

    I get your point, and we certainly do not need race baiting etc....but, take a protractor and draw a circle around anywhere in America with 850,000 people and you will not find another place that replicates the 400 to 500 murders a year that Detroit gives us. Certainly no white area comes close.

    Saldy, we must face it. The blacks are killing a lot of people (again sadly, they mainly kill other blacks) the question is; Does the poverty and lack of jobs cause the crime or Does the crime cause the poverty?

    I think most folks like Darrel would say yes to the first and no to the second. I think most whites would say no or "possibly a factor" to the first question and absolutely yes to the second. Therein lies the rub.

    One thing is for certain, 400 murders a year for 40 years is an awful lot and that should be addressed first rather than whether Coleman Young was mainly interested in retribution. C'mon now, 16,000 murders is about 5 or 6 9/11's. WTF?

    Instead of defending the black political class, perhaps a good long look should be taken at the criminality that we are dealing with.

    Regardless of the race issue, the Michigan budget for prisons is 20%, (Number 1 in the nation) and the entire state is sinking under it, both black and white. So we are all in this together. We better figure out how to stop 400 murders a year or no sane businessman will ever put a penny in this city (unless he gets a 200 million dollar bribe....errrrr "tax incentive" like Peter K and Dan G.

  • 12

    John, the two questions that you posit are relevant, but they contain an assumption that may not lead one to the conclusion that they are mutually exclusive or can provide the answer. Proverty, in the black community of Detroit, as I recall, has always been greater than that of the white community, due to historic circumstances. The crime rate, whether here in Detroit or elsewhere, rose (as you point out) in the sixties. Perhaps what you do not realize is that the rise occurred following "riots" that took place across this country. I attribute the rise in crime to the wholesale introduction of drugs into the black community. Anyone, who was present and observed it, will tell you that. That is not to say that the community should be excused for becoming complicite in the distribution and usage. There was no force feeding. There were however civil servants who turned their backs and closed their eyes, and allowed it to happen.

    Detroit's murder rate has much to do with turf wars resulting from the voids left by exiting drug lords who felt theatened as a result of the "insurrection", nee, "riot". The media portrayed the riots as black while in fact a sizable number of people who participated were other than black. People residing in metropolitan Detroit, on the whole, unlike those residing in L.A. did not feel any great responsibility to reinvest in the city and help restore what was lost. Indeed, neither the issue of proverty nor the relationship of durgs to proverty was ever addressed in a meaningful way. I maintain that the issue of proverty embraces issues of power; political, economic, and social. The black community, as evidenced by its initial deficits and the restrictions put upon it to assure that the deficits remained, lacked the requisite power to control its own destiny without help from others.

    It is dangerous to extrapolate an erroneous conclusion from an 850,000 person population base that appears to be different from any other base. There was a period of time when the Chicago housing projects housed nearly a million minorities. I would wager a bet that the statistics would reveal something akin to those that you mention. I also submit that like crime statistics can be found elsewhere. Note however that Detroit, for a number of the past few years, shed the top spot in the number of murders per-capita. Perhaps the turf wars are dying down and/or drugs are not flowing into the community as easily as they once did. Note, too, that other cities that took over the top spot, saw investments continue or increase. New Orleans is a prime example.

    The sooner, we all realize, like you, that we are all in this together, the sooner we will be able to address the problems.

  • 13

    Not to beat a dead horse because I do agree with you about the systemic denial of jobs etc in the 40's , 50's and even today.

    However, when we have a murder rate that is ten times that of New York City or LA, and we are the tenth largest city, comparing is certainly valid. They have ten time more people and less overall murders.850,000 is a big enough pool to do a valid comparison.

    One has to understand that capital is indeed risk averse. This is simply a fact of business and capital. Where we get off track is attempting to "understand" or intellectualize the situation. Many academics do this and too many educated people do this.

    Perhaps, instead of looking for a "why", we can just look at the "scoreboard baby" (as Al Davis used to say). By any measure Detroit's record is abysmal.

    Investment will not and does not occur when things are unsafe. Grocery stores will not locate when they have to deal with theft and robbery. Look at any metric and we can see the scoreboard does not look too good.

    If business could safely make profit, they would not care what happened in the 40's , 50's or 60's. They would simply open shop. They reason they do not do this is that it is unsafe.

    Even if we agree there are valid historic reasons for certain things, why does it keep occurring ? The 12 year old's currently murdering people in Detroit were born in 1997, when things were looking up, during the Clinton years. Yet today's crime is because of what happened in the 50's?

    There is no reason today's young ladies have to keep having babies out of wedlock, when we know it is a disaster (from a variety of studies). There is no reason for dropping out at this rate. And there is no reason the community should apologize or excuse this level of murder. If it was the deep south and this level of murder was happening under Jim Crow, there would not be an acceptance based on some type of historical intellectual reasoning.

    Final note, New Orleans is a lot smaller and the fact is a lot of their poorest citizens left and went to Houston (exactly what the powers that be wanted) or elsewhere. Additionally, a lot of the money invested was Federal money, not private capital. I see no increase of investments in other top murder cities such as East St Louis etc. Nor do I believe Detroit has shed the top spot "per capita". If they have, they are still second or third.

    Stop the crime and the the place will start to flourish, regardless of racial makeup.

    Thanks for your posts, very interesting and illuminating.

  • 14

    [...] the U.S. Government lists Detroit as an area of "substantial and persistent unemployment.'' And there is a current article that had that paragraph in it. The auto industry lost work to [...]

  • 15

    [...] since we all love Detroit history, I want all my fellow LionsDetroit fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

  • 16

    […] more about retribution than about resurrection.” Though Young’s tenure is caught up in racial divisiveness that some believe make him misunderstood, it’s clear he stayed in office for far too long, […]

  • 17

    […] cared more about retribution than about resurrection.” Though Young's tenure is caught up in racial divisivenessthat some believe make him misunderstood, it's clear he stayed in office for far too long, did […]

  • 18

    […] cared more about retribution than about resurrection." Though Young's tenure is caught up in racial divisiveness that some believe make him misunderstood, it's clear he stayed in office for far too long, did […]

  • 19

    […] resurrection.” The Washington Post, similarly, has described Young as someone who promoted “racial divisiveness” and “did little to try and mend fences broken down along racial […]

  • 20

    […] resurrection.” TheWashington Post, similarly, has described Young as someone who promoted “racial divisiveness” and “did little to try and mend fences broken down along racial […]

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.