Detroit and the Origins of the Urban Crisis

by Dan Hopkins on July 22, 2013 · 5 comments

in Blogs

My examination of Detroit in the quarter-century after World War II suggests that the origins of the urban crisis are much earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper, more tangled, and perhaps more intractable.  No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no simple explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor. It is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today’s cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood and confronted.

That’s from the introduction of historian Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  It is one unparalleled starting place for anyone trying to understand the events of the last several days in Detroit.  Even in Detroit’s heyday just after World War II, when it was the fifth-largest city in the U.S., Professor Sugrue finds the seeds of its decline.  And the dynamics between the state government in Lansing and the City of Detroit are certainly one part of the story, as Professor Sugrue told The Globe and Mail recently:
The governor and state legislature have mostly been elected by voters who are profoundly suspicious of Detroit, who see it as a sinkhole, a corrupt Third-World country, emblem of urban misrule. They believe that if their tax dollars go to the city, the money is going to be wasted on more mismanagement.

For  the full post-bankruptcy interview with Professor Sugrue, see here.

{ 5 comments }

jonathan July 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm

My main belief ties to lack of density of various kinds. (BTW, I grew up there.)

1. Detroit is huge. As has been noted by many now, it is bigger than Boston, SF and Manhattan combined. It had the highest percentage of single family homes with few apartment buildings and lots of 4 flat buildings. Low density of housing. Huge factor but not as big as …

2. Detroit had 3 of the largest industrial corporations in the world plus supplier companies and not one of the Big 3 was located downtown: GM 3 miles away in the New Center, Ford in Dearborn and Chrysler in Highland Park, which is surrounded by Detroit but also not near downtown. Because the 3 didn’t locate downtown, the supplier companies similarly spread all over. Lack of density in office employment downtown.

3. Another big killer was these huge companies had their finance arms elsewhere, mostly in NYC. That limited Detroit’s role and growth as a financial center, which meant fewer investment dollars owned by stakeholders in the city.

4. The major institutions were spread all over too. The great art institute and library are at the New Center where GM was, along with Wayne State’s campus – which has some beautiful parts. You could drive into the city, get off at W. Grand and go to the art museum and not even see downtown.

5. Perhaps this isn’t odd, but the office downtown and the shopping downtown were largely separate. That meant decline in shopping affected an area that needed shoppers coming in with not nearly enough local shoppers from offices to keep much going. Density again. The distances are huge: you can fit all of downtown Boston in the largely empty spaces and not reach all the way across what used to be downtown Detroit.

6. In retrospect, some policy choices – notably tearing down individual houses to prevent blight – caused more blight because empty lots in low density neighborhoods functioned as tears in the fabric. The goal was the opposite, to preserve neighborhoods by getting rid of bad structures, but low density meant there wasn’t enough value in the lots for building new.

Barry July 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm

In terms of the effects of institutional racism, Ta-Nesi Coates at The Atlantic has had some very nice articles (along with impressive articles on the Civil War).

James July 22, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Sugrue’s book is one of the best things on American cities and politics generally.

Meir July 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Apparently Sugrue views Detroit as a largely innocent victim of discrimination by other Michigan voters… who maliciously withheld their tax dollars over unfounded fears of Detroit’s evolved character.

In fact, urban misrule by a wasteful and dysfunctional city government is precisely the reason for Detroit’s demise. The evidence of severe misgovernance in Detroit itself is overwhelming, but Professor Sugrue cannot see it.

Don July 24, 2013 at 10:17 am

“Even in Detroit’s heyday just after World War II, when it was the fifth-largest city in the U.S., Professor Sugrue finds the seeds of its decline.”

That’s the problem with this type of historical work isn’t it? If you look for evidence for some explanation, you will find it. Are there any comparative, perhaps even quantitative studies of urban decline?

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