Detroit: The Fall of A Great City

The Downfall Of Detroit

            The fall of Detroit and other industrial cities similar to it seems like an absolutely amazing and profoundly insuperable  phenomenon. To just read up on it in on paper won’t prove good enough, one must see it to believe it. To drive through random neighborhoods in Detroit leaves an unsuspecting person in culture shock. Some parts of the city look like war-torn pictures viewed on CNN.  A new term in the American lexicon called “ruin porn” puts a label on such images.


    detroit-abandoned-buildings        Detroit stands with 60,000 vacant houses according to then mayor Dave Bing in 2012. Detroit lost 25% of its citizens in the decade following the year 2000 and around 38% of Detroit’s current residents live under the poverty line according to a 2011 article in The Economist (So Cheap). The problems Detroit faces in 2014 appear insurmountable.

            Detroit started the 20th century as a moderately industrial town with under 286,000 people living there (Martelle 71).  Henry Ford boosted the manufacturing industry however, with his obsession with the automobile and the hyper-manufacturing of the same, ushering in the era of rapid assembly and changing the operation of manufacturing forever. Mr. Ford invented the modern assembly line giving his company the ability to churn out automobiles at an incredible pace, and by 1923 had rolled 2,000,000 units off the line (Watts 135). Other car companies followed Ford’s lead and by the 1930’s Detroit’s population swelled to 1,569,000 people (Sugrue, 23).  

            The entire world took notice. The ability of the assembly line to accelerate a war effort was of course on the minds of world leaders.  Adolf Hitler, so impressed with the ability to manufacture machines on a mass scale set out to build a plant that would make more automobiles than Ford (Shirer 266-67).  During World War II the U.S. government put Detroit’s expertise in manufacturing and man-power to use making war machines; a practice Mr. Ford resisted until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the United States drew the auto-maker out of his isolationist views (Watts 508).  The war made the city an employment powerhouse and by the 1950’s the population was 1,849,568 (Sugrue 23). The auto industry and the United Auto Workers union created the middle class in Michigan and Detroit was conspicuously on the map.  

            Fast forward to 2013 and the population counts down to around 700,000, nearly as low as the 1910 numbers (Mirviss 31). The obvious questions becomes what happened to cause this incredible decline in Detroit’s population, and what actions can the city and the surrounding metro area employ to remedy it?  The former seems easy to account for until one adds political ideology into the mix reducing the facts of the matter down to arguable points of view.  The latter will prove just as difficult if not more so, and easier said than done.

            Conservative political ideology make the problem and its causes easy to figure; it all boils down to culture and social engineering. With many of these theories the decline of Detroit and most other industrial cities start just after the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In many cities this time frame coincides with the elections of black mayors and the takeover of cities by the Democratic party.   Detroit hasn’t had a Republican in the mayor’s office since 1962 hasn’t seen a white mayor since 1974.


The Conservative Theory

            The combination of the Democratic Party and African American leaders running these major cities fuel a racist political theory full of right-wing talking points based mostly on coincidence rather than solid and complete facts. These theories include un-proven ideas including the inherent laziness of the urban population only too willing to take whatever hand-outs given to them in place of employment. The Democrats and black leaders helped create a nanny state in which the government takes care of the wants and needs of the people with very little expectation compensation in the form of work. Urban people now re-enforced by these socialist policies believe they are entitled to free or subsidized housing, free healthcare, free food, and free education all without paying into the system, all without contributing in any useful way to their own communities. The people of Detroit have no incentive and consequently no desire to make things better; they therefore elect the leaders who will most likely continue the socialist nanny state while the population dwindles and the city decays into complete ruin.  

            Another popular conservative view focuses attention on the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.  Conservative think-tanks like The Heritage Foundation for example, routinely attack labor unions and their members, blaming them largely for society’s economic woes. The demand for higher wages and better benefits naturally sends companies looking for cheap labor. James Sherk, a writer from The Heritage Foundation sums it up this way:

“Union wage gains do not materialize out of thin air. They come out of business earnings. Other union policies, such as union work rules designed to increase the number of workers needed to do a job and stringent job classifications, also raise costs. Often, unionized companies must raise prices to cover these costs, losing customers in the process. Fewer customers and higher costs would be expected to cut businesses’ earnings, and economists find that unions have exactly this effect. Unionized companies earn lower profits than are earned by non-union businesses” (Sherk).

History Proves Otherwise

            In reality Detroit’s woes stem from a much more complex set of problems.  Big city problems are a real study in social science. What made Detroit how it appears today turns out to be an entire chemistry of social ills, a poison cocktail of racism, union busting, white flight to the suburbs while systematically excluding the same opportunities for blacks to make the same choices and many other elements. Even throughout the 40’s and 50’s when blacks thought moving to Detroit would provide some form of security they found huge obstacles. Financial institutions and real estate brokers considered the black community a high risk pool and used what’s become known as housing segregation and as a result, confining the black community to certain poor neighborhoods;  areas destined to get worse since obtaining loans to improve properties were hard to come by (Surgue 34-36). When the city and the US Housing Authority tried to build 200 public housing units the proposal was met with strong opposition from white homeowners living in nearby neighborhoods and in a strange twist the USHA announced it would no longer insure new mortgages in the surrounding area, only reinforcing the fear housing value will go down (Martelle 150). The seeds of Detroit’s demise where being planted.

1945 saw the end of World War II and the U.S. as the only un-wrecked country on Earth. Europe and Asia were destroyed having no industry anymore; the U.S. had zero competition on the world stage. Throughout the 1950’s the U.S. auto industry  enjoyed huge sales moving 8 million units in 1950 alone (Martelle 159).    

            In 1950 mayor Albert Cobo made it his policy to deter any public housing within his power by vetoing any pending housing proposals, refusing Federal money and stacking the Detroit Housing Commission with elements of the private developing industry (Martelle 171). 

            Jobs for a variety of reasons fled Detroit for the suburbs and for other cities. One strategy for doing so was to fight the unions. The Big Three believed by spreading out the UAW would find itself too weak to recruit members. It was also a matter of space; auto companies found spreading a plant out over a larger area was more efficient than building the plant upward into floors.

             Moving most of the jobs to the suburbs became problematic for blacks for many reasons including there was no public transportation in and out of the city and banks were less than likely to give loans to blacks for automobiles for the same reasons as mortgage loans. Add to this the resistance to allow blacks to purchase property in white neighborhoods and the decline of the city starts to take shape. Perhaps the biggest irony of all shows Henry Ford found no problem hiring blacks and encouraged it. Mr. Ford kept a good relationship with local black churches and used them as a recruiting ground for workers. A solid one half of all black workers in the auto industry worked for Ford Motor Company in the 1940’s.    

            Detroit made its fortune in the steel and auto industries, and the workers shared in the wealth.  As the companies grew and the labor unions took hold, the companies started to make policy out of escaping the cost of labor in Detroit and indeed Michigan. In the 1950’s the Big Three spent billions relocating to the Detroit suburbs and to other cities. In 1950 Michigan was home to 56% of all auto employment in the country, reduced to 40% by 1960 (Sugrue 128).  In this period 163 auto-related factories leave Detroit along with 70,000 jobs ( Kurth 2S).  Detroit deteriorated like this for years while the auto industry moved steadily into the suburbs. Soon the foreign competition started kicking into high-gear. The formerly defeated and literally destroyed Japanese came back, the Big Three didn’t see it coming.

            The oil crisis in the mid 70’s hit the Big Three and their gas-guzzling cars hard, while Japan started exporting their fuel efficient Toyotas and Hondas to America. Detroit’s auto companies responded with less than desirable cars setting them further behind in the minds of the American consumer. While American car companies spent energy fighting the government over fuel and emission standards, Honda generally embraces the regulations and met them without a fight (Maynard 75).    

            All of this cannot become interpreted to in sinuate African American democrats performed a stellar job of saving Detroit, indeed the city seems lifeless; but the city found itself on life support by the time the first black mayor, Mayor Colman Young took office in 1974. This new mayor continued, instead of stopping, the time honored practice of corruption in Detroit by using the cities resources to reward loyal supporters, friends and family members over the course of his twenty years in office (Sugrue 269). The cities demise however began decades before; the result of years of corruption.  Mr. Young presided over the city during a time when it’s foundation was already deeply compromised. When Colman Young took office Detroit was already known as the Murder Capital of America, crime became out of control, the Detroit school system still had segregation issues, jobs were becoming more and more scarce and shortly after the end of Young’s first term 414,000 whites continued their exodus out of the city putting blacks in the majority for the first time (Kurth4S).

            In 1980 when the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act was signed into law the auto company started building their new line of cars in Windsor Ontario. No regard given to Detroit where the unemployment rate was nearly 40%, much higher than the statewide average of 17%. The UAW made concessions to the tune of $720 million in wage and benefit cuts as part of the deal (Kurth 4S).  According to the U.S. Census Bureau Detroit’s total workforce diminished nearly two-thirds from 1970 to 2011 (Kurth 5S); one example of the auto industries policies defining the next quarter century in Detroit and in 2008 the crash of the nation’s financial institutions dealt the final deadly blow to the Big Three and the Detroit Metro region.

            In 2008 the greatest financial failure since the Great Depression happened in the U.S. and rippled around the world, destroying the U.S. economy and taking the auto industry with it. The auto industry in fact took a huge hit with GM and Chrysler accepting a tax-payer funded bailout.  The government spent 49.5 billion to save GM alone and according to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, the U.S. stood to lose 1 million more jobs without the auto bailout (Lestch).   

A New Beginning

            On July 18, 2013 the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection putting into question the fate of such things as pensions earned by retired city workers and other assets like ones found at the Detroit Institute of Art. Detroit becomes so far, the largest municipality to file for such protection at more than $18 billion in debt, half of which comes from unfunded health insurance and unfunded pension payouts for current and retired city workers (Dybis 22). Every other major city reeling from similar pains will watch Detroit now with great interest. On December 3rd, just weeks after Detroit elected Mike Duggan its new mayor, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved another form of life support by ruling Detroit will go ahead with Chapter 9 bankruptcy paving the way for financial restructuring.(Bomey).

            The idea of a bankruptcy started as a black cloud looming over the city, but now it’s done the concept almost seems closer to a new beginning than a funeral. Leaders involved in the management of Detroit like Governor Snyder, city emergency manager Orr and mayor-elect Duggan want to see the re-organizing and Chapter 9 re-structuring wrapped up in 2014, which will clear the way for a new Detroit, and both camps express an optimistic eagerness to work together in the better interests of the city.

            One cannot overstate the importance of education in a crisis such as this, a fact not lost on Governor Snyder. Only 11% of the city’s residents earned a college degree according to a 2011 article in The Economist (So Cheap).  2013 graduates of city high schools will become eligible for tuition-free enrollment into local community colleges in the metro area for the fall. This program, promised by the Governor in 2011 gets support from local business and foundations, bearing the $1 million price tag (Troop). However education and available employment go hand-in-hand, educated people with no job prospects will seek those opportunities somewhere else. Detroit and indeed the State of Michigan suffered the effects of an educated migration since the financial crash in 2008. Without the jobs the region looses the talent. The state of Michigan at least found a slowdown if not a slight turnaround in the hemorrhage of educated people to other states; up to 63% of college graduates stay in the state compared to numbers found in 2007 (Troop).

            Giving people the financial opportunity however doesn’t address the drive, or lack of drive maintained by the students attending these institutions. One problem recognized by higher education becomes the drop-out rate among Detroiters. Wayne State University for example reports 23% of students from the city will not attend a second year at WSU, a ten percentage point difference in the negative compared to students from other places (Kiley). Indeed Detroit suffers among the worst cities in America in terms of public schools. This presents a complex cocktail of problems including but not limited to lack of funding in the public schools on all levels from state to federal and the lack of interest or ability from parents.

            Another encouraging statistic from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows homelessness decreased in Michigan at the rate of 11.7%  since the same time last year, thanks in part to a federal program called Opening Doors (Laitner 4A).   This along with a slow but steady decrease in the national unemployment rate, down to its lowest point since 2008 at 7% and a healthier, stronger manufacturing environment creates a modicum of hope.  The U.S. Government sold its share of stock back to GM so the company stands now on its own.  Five of the major auto companies, which includes two of the Big Three, enjoyed record sales in recent years adding up to a combined 50 billion per year  in profits (Macaluso).  GM stock, in fact reached  $40 per share for the first time since the company went bankrupt in November 2010 (Bomey).  

            Detroiters want to get rid of Governor Snyder’s emergency manager and they expect the new mayor to get it done. For now however, the city and Mr. Duggan will need all the help they can get.  In a city where even the most rudimentary of functions like streetlight repair require a judges stamp of approval, mayor elect Mike Duggan’s work will seem never ending.  Duggan must reduce the physical area of services the city provides, the exodus of citizens out of Detroit left the 139 square mile city, enough real estate to fit Miami, Minneapolis and San Francisco with room to spare, without the tax base to cover the cost of operating in such a large area (So Cheap).  This means reducing the number of miles of road repairs, the square miles in which garbage pick-up activities proceed, reduce the number of areas in need of street lights, reduce the response areas of emergency services like police and fire.                      

             The most obvious solution of course becomes available employment but many more solutions must present themselves.  Education, public transportation, urban renewal, government oversight and enforced affirmative action will make a difference.  In reality the local communities must get involved and the government must enact and enforce policies to encourage industry back into the city, bring back the long missing tax base the city needs to function, encourage better education in the city which again will require working with the governor, and find a way to reduce the vast areas of blight plaguing the neighborhoods and hindering sharply any chance of repairing Detroit’s destroyed image. 

             All things considered however, possibly the most important element in the entire chemistry of solutions will constitute the diligent nature-or lack thereof the people who live in Detroit.  The residents will become effected by their own actions and indeed inactions; only 25% of the eligible voters in Detroit bothered to vote in the new mayoral election, the contest between the now mayor-elect Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon on November 6, 2013 (Meyer 7A).

             Some precincts waited for hours for any voters at all to show up while others, like Precinct 109 with only two registered voters and Precinct 105 with a total of four, saw no voters what-so-ever (Riley 5A).  The cynical observer will deduct the lethargic 75% who won’t even come out to vote for the mayor of their town, certainly will perform very little other activities to better their communities. Mr. Duggan seems all too aware of this saying, “Detroit’s turn around will not occur until everyday Detroiters are involved in this effort” (Helms 6A). Perhaps the two issues most unifying in terms of the public became the possible selling of treasures from the DIA and the city’s looming pension cuts; charitable foundations targeting the public for donation with the goal of reaching $500 million began recently (Gallager 1A).   Detroit seems like a city in a coma, it will take not only the citizens of the city but the entire region; as well as the state the federal government to resuscitate it.  






Works Cited

Bomey, Nathan. “GM Stock Busts Through $40 Barrier.” Detroit Free Press. 7 Nov. 2013: 1A-    8A. Print.

Bomey, Nathan, Brent Snavely, and Alisa Priddle. “Detroit Becomes Largest U.S. City to Enter Bankruptcy.” USA Today 3 Dec. 2013: n.pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.                            Dybis, Karen. “Resurrecting Detroit.” Corp!  Sept/Sept. 2013: 22-26. Print.  

Gallager, John. “Fund Lets You Help DIA, Pensions.” Detroit Free Press. 7 Dec. 2013: 1A-9A.   Print.

Helms, Matt and Joe Guillen. ” Detroiters To Duggan: Turn Our City Around.” Detroit Free         Press. 6 Nov. 2013: 1A-8A. Print.

Kiley, Kevin. “Wayne State U.’s Stark Graduation Gaps Reflect Detroit’s Struggles.” The             Chronicle of Higher Education 57.09 (2010). Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.                                                                                                                                                             Kurth, Joel, Mike Wilkenson, and Louis Aguilar. “Six Decades.” The Detroit News 4 Oct. 2013:   1S-8S.             Print.

Laitner, Bill. “HUD Finds Number Of Homeless Falling.” Detroit Free Press. 22 Nov. 2013:        1A-9A. Print. 

Lestch, Corinne. “Bailout of General Motors Cost Taxpayers $10.5, Treasury Dept. Says.” New    York Daily News 10 Dec. 2013: n.pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Martelle, Scott. Detroit: A Biography. Chicago: Chicago Review Press Inc. 2012. Print. 

Maynard, Micheline. The End of Detroit. New York: Currency Doubleday, 2003. Print.

Macaluso, Grace. “Major Carmakers Enjoy Decade-High Profits.” The Windsor Star. 13 Dec.        2013: n.pag. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Meyer, Zlati. “In Detroit, Weather Good, But Just 25% Cast Ballots.” Detroit Free Press 6 Nov. 2013: 1A-8A. Print.

Mirviss, Laura. “Rebuilding Detroit piece by piece.” Architectural Record Oct. 2012: 31.   Academic        OneFile. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

Riley, Rochelle. “Biggest Worry? The Residents Who Don’t Care.” The Detroit Free Press. 6        Nov. 2013: 1A-8A. Print.        

Sherk, James. “What Unions do: How Labor Unions Affect Jobs and the Economy”. The Heritage Foundation.  The Heritage Foundation. May 2009. Web. 06 Dec. 2013. 

“So cheap, there’s hope; The parable of Detroit.” The Economist 22 Oct. 2011: 31(US). Academic             OneFile. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Sugrue, J. Thomas. The Origins Of Urban Crisis: Race And Inequlity In Postwar Detroit.   Princeton.  Princeton University Press. 1996. Print.

 Troop, Don. “Detroit, Bankrupt, Looks to Colleges as Partners in Recovery.” The Chronicle of     Higher Education 60.02 (2013). Academic OneFile. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.    

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