IT MIGHT BE a stretch to see anything more than Detroit's problems in Detroit's problems. Still, as the American middle class collapses, it's worth perhaps remembering that the East Side of Detroit—the place where Aiyana, Je'Rean, and Officer Huff all died—was once its industrial cradle.
Henry Ford built his first automobile assembly-line plant in Highland Park in 1908 on the east side of Woodward Avenue, the thoroughfare that divides the east of Detroit from the west. Over the next 50 years, Detroit's East Side would become the world's machine shop, its factory floor. The city grew to 1.3 million people from 300,000 after Ford opened his Model T factory. Other auto plants sprang up on the East Side: Packard, Studebaker, Chrysler's Dodge Main. Soon, the Motor City's population surpassed that of Boston and Baltimore, old East Coast port cities founded on maritime shipping when the world moved by boat.
"It is the home of mass-production, of very high wages and colossal profits, of lavish spending and reckless instalment-buying, of intense work and a large and shifting labour-surplus," British historian and MP Ramsay Muir wrote
in 1927. "It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress, to which I shall venture to give the name of 'Detroitism'."
European intellectuals wondered at the whirl of building and spending in the new America. At the center of this economic dynamo was Detroit. "It is the home of mass-production, of very high wages and colossal profits, of lavish spending and reckless instalment-buying, of intense work and a large and shifting labour-surplus," British historian and MP Ramsay Muir wrote in 1927. "It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress, to which I shall venture to give the name of 'Detroitism'."
Skyscrapers sprang up virtually overnight. The city filled with people from all over the world: Arabs, Appalachians, Poles, African Americans, all in their separate neighborhoods surrounding the factories. Forbidden by restrictive real estate covenants and racist custom, the blacks were mostly restricted to Paradise Valley, which ran the length of Woodward Avenue. As the black population grew, so did black frustration over poor housing and rock-fisted police.
Soon, the air was the color of a filthy dishrag. The water in the Detroit River was so bad, it was said you could bottle it and sell it as poison. The beavers disappeared from the river around 1930.
But pollution didn't kill Detroit. What did?
No one can answer that fully. You can blame it on the John Deere mechanical cotton-picker of 1950, which uprooted the sharecropper and sent him north looking for a living—where he found he was locked out of the factories by the unions. You might blame it on the urban renewal and interstate highway projects that rammed a freeway down the middle of Paradise Valley, displacing thousands of blacks and packing the Negro tenements tighter still. (Thomas Sugrue, in his seminal book The Origins of the Urban Crisis, writes that residents in Detroit's predominantly black lower East Side reported 206 rat bites in 1951 and 1952.)
You might blame postwar industrial policies that sent the factories to the suburbs, the rural South, and the western deserts. You might blame the 1967 race riot and the white flight that followed. You might blame Coleman Young—the city's first black mayor—and his culture of cronyism. You could blame it on the gas shocks of the '70s that opened the door to foreign car competition. You might point to the trade agreements of the Clinton years, which allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door. You might blame the UAW, which demanded things like full pay for idle workers, or myopic Big Three management who, instead of saying no, simply tacked the cost onto the price of a car.
Then there is the thought that Detroit is simply a boomtown that went bust the minute Henry Ford began to build it. The car made Detroit, and the car unmade Detroit. The auto industry allowed for sprawl. It also allowed a man to escape the smoldering city.
The Packard plant, where we came across this "fashion shoot," has been smoldering for decades.In any case, Detroit began its long precipitous decline during the 1950s, precisely when the city—and the United States—was at its peak. As Detroit led the nation in median income and homeownership, automation and foreign competition were forcing companies like Packard to shutter their doors. That factory closed in 1956 and was left to rot, pulling down the East Side, which pulled down the city. Inexplicably, its carcass still stands and burns incessantly.
By 1958, 20 percent of the Detroit workforce was jobless. Not to worry: The city had its own welfare system, decades before Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The city provided clothing, fuel, rent, and $10 every week to adults for food; children got $5. Word of the free milk and honey made its way down South, and the poor "Negros" and "hillbillies" flooded in.
But if it wasn't for them, the city population would have sunk further than it did. Nor is corruption a black or liberal thing. Louis Miriani, the last Republican mayor of Detroit, who served from 1957 to 1962, was sent to federal prison for tax evasion when he couldn't explain how he made nearly a quarter of a million dollars on a reported salary of only $25,000.
Today—75 years after the beavers disappeared from the Detroit River—"Detroitism" means something completely different. It means uncertainty and abandonment and psychopathology. The city reached a peak population of 1.9 million people in the 1950s, and it was 83 percent white. Now Detroit has fewer than 800,000 people, is 83 percent black, and is the only American city that has surpassed a million people and dipped back below that threshold.
"There are plenty of good people in Detroit," boosters like to say. And there are. Tens of thousands of them, hundreds of thousands. There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs, community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.
For years it was the all-but-official policy of the newspapers to ignore the black city, since the majority of readers lived in the predominantly white suburbs. And now that the papers do cover Detroit, boosters complain about a lack of balance. To me, that's like writing about the surf conditions in the Gaza Strip. As for the struggles of a generation of living people, the murder of a hundred children, they ask me: "What's new in that?"