A long time ago in a country long since forgotten by most alive today, the city of Detroit stood as an example of all that was good about America. Gleaming factories filled with unionized workers led by far-thinking industrialists churned out automobiles gobbled up by consumers around the world. It was the motor city, a mecca of mass production, and it epitomized the American Dream – a place where anyone could find a job, work hard and get ahead.
This bustling industrial metropolis, fueled by auto-industry profits, was 1950s-America’s fourth-largest city and home to a fabulously prosperous working class that had the highest rate of homeownership in the country. Its unions led the political left, what was good for its companies was considered good for the country, and its burgeoning cultural life was to give rise to the music of Motown. For the city that had invented the assembly-line and helped win the Second World War by producing vast amounts of tanks, jeeps, planes, and guns, the future, just like its past, seemed bright.
That is no longer the case. Today, Detroit’s population has shrunk from its height of 1.4 million to barely 700,000, or roughly half of what it was a half-century ago. Whereas Detroit once boasted one of the highest median incomes in America, today sixty percent of Detroit’s children live in poverty. Fifty percent of the population is reportedly functionally illiterate. Thirty-three percent of the city, once filled with homes, schools, shops, businesses and factories, is now vacant – looking very much like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie. You can even take a tour of the ruins, as if Detroit was no longer a living city, but instead, to cite Kipling, is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
Now it seems that Detroit and its people are to suffer yet another humiliation. In March of this year, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared the city to be in a fiscal emergency as a result of a $327-million budget deficit and a long-term debt of $18.5 billion, with no conceivable way to pay. As a result of this declaration, Detroit’s people lost control of local government and all power placed in the hands of an unelected emergency financial manager appointed by the governor. Emergency powers, however, have not proven enough to save the city from its financial woes as this past Friday, June 14, Detroit defaulted on some of its bond payments in order to avoid a looming bankruptcy.
This last ditch effort to keep the police paid, fire trucks ready to go, and the lights on may not even be enough. The city, pushed to the limits by decades of industrial failure, white flight, high crime, and corporate disinvestment, may be forced sell off cultural assets that once made the city a tourist mecca and a place worth seeing. Detroit’s Art Institute, Museum of African American History, Belle Isle Park, and even its zoo and a collection of vintage cars might go under the hammer, sold off to the highest bidder.
Fall from grace
How did one of the most important cities in America, the beating heart of the American auto industry and a focal point for all of industrial America, fail so completely? How did this once gleaming city sink into such a pit of poverty and despair that it approaches third-world status? Detroit’s plight deserves an answer because where Detroit has gone could be where the rest of us, too, are headed.
The fall of the house of Detroit begins, as with so much that ails our country today, in the late 1960s and 1970s. The city, once a bastion of white political power, transitioned during the Civil Rights era to one dominated by black politicians mostly at odds with the white power establishment. While this struggle for control played itself out, mostly in battles over how federal money would be spent and what development priorities the city would pursue, middle-class whites – the economic backbone of the city – were simply unwilling to be governed by blacks, and fled in droves to the suburbs.
This racial animosity, which began in earnest when wartime labor shortages brought tens-of-thousands of black families to the city in search of jobs, higher wages and a better life, peaked in 1967 when rioting broke out for five days in late July. The riots, just one of many during the long, hot summers of late 1960s, was one of the most expensive in US history and forced Gov. George Romney to call out the national guard to restore order.
The origins of the riot, like most racial disturbances of the Civil Rights era, came in the form of overzealous, mostly white police officers too accustomed to using batons and brutality in African-American areas. At the same time, the dashed hopes of Detroit’s black citizens — that their perennially poor job prospects and crowded living conditions would soon be ameliorated– smoldered. All it took was a spark, and the tinderbox that was Detroit went up like a Roman candle – doing little in the end except to change the stream of white flight away from Black Detroit into a roaring flood.
Left in the dust
Whites may have been fleeing, but the city itself remained a manufacturing powerhouse and thus still had an economic raison d’être – at least until foreign competition and the energy crises of the 1970 drove a stake through the heart of the American auto industry. By the late 1980s the imminent collapse of the industry, Detroit’s lifeblood, was evident to all, and Detroit’s Big Three, burdened with unproductive factories and legacy union costs — and a hidebound corporate bureaucracy that fiercely resisted change — nearly went broke. Indeed, one of them – Chrysler – had to be bailed out by the federal government.
The go-go 1990s, with its roaring economy, low oil prices, and penchant for behemoth SUVs brought a brief respite for the industry that kept Detroit afloat, but the city never really recovered and by then the auto industry had fundamentally changed. No longer were Detroit’s unions able to compel the Big Three to do much of anything to improve the situation at home. Instead, these companies looked for their future first in low-wage labor in the southern U.S., then Mexico, and then beginning in 2000, China. Detroit and Michigan as a whole, which lost 48% of its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, have been left behind by the very companies and industry they gave birth to.
The broken, bankrupt, and bereft city of 2013 was thus a long time in coming – the end product of countless decisions by millions of people, made from corporate boardrooms to middle-class living rooms, to leave the city and its urban poor to fend for themselves. In many respects, it resembles the effect that Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans in 2005, only in this case it was the cruel logic of globalized market capitalism, racial animosity and subsequent political paralysis played out over many years, instead of one act of God, which caused the cascade of human misery.
The lesson here is that when the going gets tough, whether by a storm or changing socioeconomic circumstances, those with the means to get out, do so. With capitalism now unfettered and global, and with the most talented among us being actively recruited for lucrative positions around the world, we here in the United States would do well to remember that our place as the destination for the world’s poor migrants and educated wealthy alike is by no means set in stone. We, too, could become so bogged down in our own self-inflicted paralysis that serious problems – like Detroit’s crime-ridden neighborhoods and dinosaur-like firms – go unnoticed until it’s too late.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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