Yes, it’s about racism. Cars. And Motown.
A few years ago, when the international airline for whom I was working announced that they would begin service to Detroit, I was appointed as the taskmaster for this new market. In all my years of traveling, including 47 of the 50 states, I had never been to Detroit. As the birthplace of my idol, Diana Ross, and a huge Motown fan, I was excited to see what it would feel like. But I already knew it was going to be heartbreaking.
The story of Detroit can only be told in the context of history. Here, I’m focusing on the city in the 20th and early 21st century. Much has been written, and no doubt there are many more stories to tell as each one of the below events affected thousands.
All we ever hear about Detroit is bad news. Here are some recent takes:
- #1 Most Hated City in the Country, with a “hate index” of 100 — V.S. Wells, Best Life.
- #2 Worst Cities to Visit — MapQuest Travel
- #3 Most Miserable US City — World Population Review
- #3 Most Miserable City — Business Insider
- #10 Most Violent City — Forbes
- #18 in Poverty Rate: 38% of the population (24/7 Wall Street/USA Today content provider.
- #143 Best Run Cities in America (of 150) — WalletHub.com
Where I grew up, our history books didn’t teach us about racism. Understandable, that being in Texas. My first memory of Detroit came from watching Walter Cronkite on the news coverage in July of 1967 of the Twelfth Street Riot. The visual was that of firemen blasting a full force of water out of their hoses onto some of the rioters, forcing them against a wall, unable to move. Forty-three died, 467 were injured, there were 7,200 arrests, and thousands of small businesses were destroyed. It was the costliest riot on record.
The Great Migration to the North began in 1916, bringing about six million rural blacks (and whites) from the South in search of higher paying jobs. They all competed with local whites for jobs and housing. The blacks were escaping discrimination and Jim Crow laws, segregation, racism, and lynching. Immigration slowed during World War I, but picked up again afterwards, bringing tensions to rise as more and more blacks were competing for jobs and scarce housing, mainly with white Irish immigrants. In the poorest parts of the city, large urban black communities began to form their own infrastructure in businesses, media, churches, jazz clubs, and political organizations.
The Great Depression stalled job growth in Detroit, especially for the black population, causing a sharp downturn in immigration. From the 1930s into the 1940s, mechanization in agriculture brought southern sharecropping to an end. With nowhere else to go, the migration continued.
About 1.4 million blacks moved north in the 1940s, and another 1.1 million in the 1950s.
Detroit had a master plan, designed by Augustus B. Woodward, the first chief justice of the Michigan Territory. He envisioned a geometric street plan with wide boulevards and radial avenues like those in Washington, D.C., and in Paris. Woodward Avenue became the place to build your mansion. It was in this area of Midtown Detroit that the Detroit Institute of Arts was completed in 1885. The museum features about 65,000 works worth some $8.1 billion.
The Ford Motor Company began business in 1903, followed closely by Dodge, Packard, and Chrysler, making Detroit the world’s automotive capitol. Labor unions were created that established an 8 hour day and 40 hour workweek. The unions prohibited segregation and blacks began to advance into more skilled and supervisory positions, even jobs traditionally known as “white collar”.
In June of 1943, Packard promoted three blacks to work next to whites on their assembly line. White workers — 25,000 of them — walked off the job.
Weeks after the protest at Packard, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 began. It left 34 dead, hundreds wounded, and massive property damage in settled black neighborhoods.
By 1950, the population of Detroit peaked at 1.85 million, making it the fifth largest city in the country. Additionally, Detroit was the wealthiest city in the US on a per capita income basis. With new freeways being built at a frenzied pace to ferry workers back and forth from rapid suburbanization, black neighborhoods were literally cut in half. Many families were forced into public housing projects. The focus on the freeways signaled the end of the heavily used electric streetcar system, further hindering the black community.
Continued housing scarcity (due in part to blacks’ inability to receive bank loans) restricted their ability to improve their standard of living. The practice of redlining encouraged whites to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. Blacks were in essence, trapped.
Immigration from the South continued, with 2.4 million more blacks moving north in the 1960s and early 1970s. And then it stopped.
Recession, inflation, high oil prices, and the oil embargo stopped automobile manufacturing in its tracks. On top of an already low tax base, the automakers began to lay off thousands of workers and shutter plants. White, middle class flight to the suburbs continued en masse. By 1970, the city’s population had fallen to 1.51 million, down nearly 20% from the peak in 1950.
What was once known as the Manufacturing Belt became The Rust Belt. In addition to the above, high interest rates forced many manufacturers overseas. Numerous other forces such as automation began to transform the economy, leaving many in its wake. What was once a bustling economy (though not without its problems), became riddled with a host of issues: population loss and it’s resultant declining tax base, an uneducated workforce, high unemployment and crime, drugs, welfare rolls and deficit spending.
Is “reverse diversity” a thing? According to the 2010 census, 83% of the citizens were black, with 11% being white. Detroit remains as one of the most segregated cities in the country.
The most significant population loss occurred from 1980 to the present count of 670,000, or a loss of about 55%. Once the fifth largest city in the United States, it now sits at number 24. But it gets better.
After emerging from bankruptcy, the largest city to do so, Detroit is beginning to make some gains. The population loss is slowing. Many neighborhoods in and around the downtown area are being gentrified (which unfortunately has displaced yet more poor, black residents). Some of the most beautiful buildings from the first half of the century are being saved instead of razed. Since 2017, all four professional sports teams play in venues that border the downtown area, having moved back to the city from the suburbs. There are myriad other reasons to like Detroit, but I’ll leave those to the tourism boards that produce the glossy brochures and inviting websites.