There were race riots in the ’40s, when whites didn’t want to work on assembly lines next to blacks. And new black residents were “redlined” into certain neighborhoods. The police force was all white and like an occupying army in black neighborhoods. My father would always point out to me the restaurants along Grand River Avenue or Woodward that would not serve blacks when he arrived in the city.
Of course the city did explode, in riots in 1967, and that was when Detroit’s downfall — its current path to insolvency — was set in agonizing slow motion. The white families in my neighborhood, my friends, all fled to the safety of the suburbs. My street, and my neighborhood, went from mixed to all black in an instant. Many of the black newcomers who came couldn’t get mortgages, so most ended up as renters, not homeowners.
Properties fell into disrepair. Drugs, prostitution and burglaries soared. My parents had burglar bars installed on all the downstairs windows; the thieves climbed a front-yard tree and came in the upstairs. They had upstairs bars installed. The burglars ripped those bars out and hit us again. And again. And again, until my parents finally moved far away, to the very edge of Detroit on the border of Dearborn.
I never wanted to say it aloud, but my old neighborhood had become the quintessential American ghetto. Like others, I wanted to cling to the illusion that this was just some passing phase, that my old neighborhood, the heart of the city, might someday be restored. Like everyone else, I whistled past the abandoned lots.
The white population’s abandonment of the city left Detroit with a shrinking tax base and deteriorating, segregated public schools — a system locked in place by a Supreme Court order that halted busing across school district lines. But blacks still in Detroit had one thing left — political power. And they would guard it jealously against any encroachment, real or imagined.
Thus, the city’s black political class sees conspiracy theories everywhere. The investigation of the last mayor by the Detroit Free Press, and his indictment by a prosecutor, are seen as a white conspiracy to undermine black “home rule” of Detroit. The governor’s appointment of an emergency financial manager, once it became clear that Detroit cannot manage its own fiscal affairs, is again seen as a hostile, racist takeover by the state over the city’s elected black leadership.
Racial politics, and that racial prism, long ago ruined Detroit, and now they hamper any chance the city has at a modest recovery. As a longtime friend, one who has stayed in Detroit and worked to help the city, once put it to me succinctly: “Some people would rather be the king of nothing than a part of something.”
So this bankruptcy is sad. But it was, in a sense, inevitable — the final chapter in Detroit’s long slide from glory. Maybe this will be the kind of shock therapy the city needs, the hammer blow that gets the remaining residents to stop living in the past, recognize that the old Detroit is never coming back, and start making the painful sacrifices necessary to build a new, smaller city with what’s left.
I hope so. But somehow I doubt it. If we Detroiters have one fault, it’s that we are addicted to nostalgia and living in our highly selective view of the past.