The Blame Game: Three Books That Support Orr And Snyder's View Of Detroit's Decline

July 23, 2013, 12:05 PM by  Bill McGraw

Detroit’s entry into Chapter 9 bankruptcy has ignited a lively and sometimes bitter debate about who – or what – is to blame for the city’s crisis.

The discussion is playing out on Facebook, in the comments that follow online articles, in letters to the editor, on radio shows and in casual conversations among metro Detroiters and people who live far beyond southeast Michigan.

How did the America’s storied Arsenal of Democracy wind up with a debt of $18 billion, 78,000 abandoned homes, an average police response time of more than 50 minutes, tens of thousands of broken streetlights and the Packard Plant?

In multiple appearances since Friday, Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, left, repeatedly insisted the current crisis is 60 years in the making, meaning it began in the early 1950s.

But if their view is correct, that means today’s problems were brewing at the precise moment Detroit was peaking in population and, in the popular mind, at a bucolic time of elm-shaded neighborhoods, crowded streets, successful schools, a robust police department, world-beating auto industry and Captain Boblo.

The idea that Detroit’s troubles began 60 years ago also throws into question the frequently heard complaints that the city’s woes can attributed to such villains as the 1967 riot, Mayor Coleman Young, Japanese automakers, greedy unions, Kwame Kilpatrick and other corrupt and/or clueless politicians.

Where does the truth lie? Are Snyder and Orr right, or do the observers who see more recent events as the causes for Detroit’s problems have a point? Are politicians mainly to blame, or are economic and social forces beyond the control of any one person at the base of Detroit’s problems?

Snyder and Orr rarely elaborate on their 60-year thesis, saying they prefer to focus on the present and future. But Orr often suggests people can consult books about Detroit that discuss its devolution.

And Orr seems to know a number of those books support the idea that the early signs of Detroit’s undoing were economic and systemic in nature, as the auto industry began to change and jobs rapidly went away in the 1950s.  

One book is “American Odyssey,” a sprawling history of Detroit by Robert Conot that was published in 1974.

Conot cites the decline of manufacturing, imports and automation in the 1950s as contributing to deep economic problems in Detroit by 1962, when Jerry Cavanagh became mayor and quickly instituted an income tax for residents and suburban commuters.

Between 1955 and 1960, Conot writes, the auto industry lost 50,000 jobs, a blow that multiplied as it spread over related industries. With the closures of Hudson Motors (1954), Packard (1956) and a variety of auto suppliers, the East Side of Detroit alone lost 71,000 jobs between 1955 and 1960.

“The effect on the independent auto manufacturers and on the city of Detroit were devastating,” Conot writes. “With the plants went the taxes and revenues they had produced."

Cavanagh, right, won praise for his sound business practices in managing the city, Conot notes, but adds: “Over Detroit’s most critical problem, its deteriorating economy, the mayor had little control.”

In 1987, four Michigan State University professors – Joe T. Darden, Richard Child Hill, June Thomas and Richard Thomas – published “Detroit: Race and Uneven Development,” which documented the effects of deindustrialization and commercial disinvestment, as well as Detroit’s faltering attempts at revitalization.

Their book provides a look into the complex dynamics that by the 1980s had created a region with a black and poor central city surrounded by overwhelmingly white and generally prosperous suburbs.

According to the book:

*Between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, Detroit’s share of the region’s manufacturing employment dropped from 60.3 percent to 25 percent.

*Its regional share of retail trade during the same period fell from 72.6 percent to 15.4 percent.

*In 1958, 10 of the region’s 20 major shopping areas were located in Detroit. By 1983, when the downtown J.L. Hudson’s closed, the city had no major shopping areas – even though 1.2 million residents still called Detroit home.

The state of metro Detroit by the late 1980s, they wrote, “is a logical result of trends that have gradually escalated throughout the post-World War II era.”

By 1994, Coleman Young had left office, and disparagement of his 20 years as mayor began to grow, mainly across the vast, white suburban landscape where critics saw Young as the single worst thing that had happened to Detroit, and one of the main reasons for its decline.

Then, in 1996, Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who had studied at Columbia, Harvard and Cambridge in England, wrote a book that more than any previous book delved deeply into the reasons for Detroit’s decline. (Sugrue's article concerning the bankruptcy from the New Yorker blog is featured elsewhere on Deadline Detroit today.)

“Origins of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” won a raft of important awards and has become a college text across the nation and a favorite reference of people who have studied the city.

Sugrue’s book is 375 pages long, but it mentions Young only three times. The third mention comes on the final page of the narrative, where he writes that what has become of Detroit “is not the result of post-riot panic or the alleged misrule of Coleman Young, left. By the time Young was inaugurated, the forces of economic decay were far too powerful for a single elected official to stem.”

Efforts to revitalize Detroit were inadequately financed, Sugrue says, and the federal government cut urban spending. Public-private partnerships, like the Renaissance Center and General Motors’ Poletown plant did little to enlarge the city’s employment base, and drained Detroit’s coffers of more money.

Sugrue, echoing the other authors and experts who have studied Detroit, concludes: 

“The bleak landscapes and unremitting poverty of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s are the legacies of the transformation of the city’s economy in the wake of World War II, and of the politics and culture of race that have their origins in the persistent housing and workplace discrimination of the postwar decades.”

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