Everyone’s joining the fun game of Autopsy: Detroit, but the coroners are doing a lousy job, in general, because they neglect the obvious task of isolating what was unique about Detroit that might have contributed to its unique condition, among American cities, of being dead. Lots of recent examples.
Former Detroit suburbanite Jonathan Chait says “Detroit’s crisis began as primarily a racial problem,” but this gets the timeline wrong and fails as comparative explanation. Virtually every major American city has been marked by grievous racial division. Why is Detroit alone dead? In Slate Matthew Yglesias wonders how much better-off Detroit would have been had a major private university – Ford University – been given a home there, or if the University of Michigan hadn’t relocated to Ann Arbor. Answer: we’d have had the equivalent of Hyde Park Chicago, a small island of stubborn tax- and tuition-supported affluence, except surrounded by the vast acidifying ocean of Detroit. And Andrew O’Hehir, Salon’s excellent film critic, dabbles in stupid para-conspiracy theories Detroit failed because of, or at least in a malevolent aura of, right wing hatred of this Chocolate City. As a theory of Detroit’s decline, O’Hehir’s comes closest to being both self-refuting and, actually, right.
What O’Hehir’s right about is the malevolence. Conservative gloating about Detroit’s failure is unseemly and self-congratulating and just wrong as analysis, though if you want a real glimpse of sickening white gloating read the comments section of any depressing news story from a Detroit TV station – white suburbanites watching Detroit’s decline with undisguised glee.
And so I suppose I should add these ungenerous race-tinged theories – corrupt black leadership and government largesse killed Detroit – which are obviously wrong in that Detroit became a Chocolate City as a result of its decline, not the other way around. Blacks didn’t seize power in Detroit. White people left. They began leaving the city when it was still affluent, and kept leaving and leaving until Detroit was a black majority city with a black mayor, by which time affluent black Detroiters were also leaving in large numbers. Detroit’s Black leaders, corrupt and inept as they’ve been in their disastrous mix of machine politics and identity politics, have merely been feasting on a dying corpse. The horrific Detroit riots were in 1967. Coleman Young became Mayor in 1973. Detroit’s population began its steady decline in 1950. And steady it was. The population graph of Detroit marks a relentless downward plummet that shows no special dips of acceleration for such cataclysms as the riots or the more recent disaster ’07-‘08. And, to repeat, every other big American city has had racial divisions, and yet these problems didn’t kill them.
So all the people who point to race and/or racism as Detroit’s defining problem, Chait, O’Hehir, Conservatives and Detroit’s gloating white suburbanites, are wrong. So are creators of the simplistic documentary Detropia, which lingers on recent troubles in the auto industry as its main explanation, even as it contains a scene in which someone raises a population graph, illustrating the sharp decline starting in 1950, that undermines this theory. The Big Three were in robust health in 1950, and had some hale decades ahead of them. Yet people started fleeing Detroit then, and kept leaving at a pace that stuns above all by its constancy. Why?
In a day or two I hope venture my own ideas about why Detroit died. And, just as a warning, and even though I was born downtown and lived some of my happiest years on the city’s west side, my general claim will be that Detroit failed as a city because, as a city, it kind of sucks.