The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new Detroit’s fatal flaw

Fifty years ago, Detroit burned. The new Detroit is making the same mistakes.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Detroit Democrat, used a bullhorn as he tried to encourage African Americans in Detroit’s riot area to go home on July 23, 1967. He was met with shouts of “No, no.” (Associated Press)
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Fifty years ago today, on July 23, 1967, Detroit exploded. On that day, black city residents took to the streets — sick to the bone of the housing and job discrimination that contradicted promises of real reform, tired of the poverty that persisted despite overall prosperity in the city, angry that schools remained subpar for black children, and utterly done with the police brutality that seemed never to be censured or stopped.

Detroit changed a great deal after those fires of urban protest finally were extinguished.

After the uprising, disaffected Detroiters, black and white, mobilized to elect a new mayor, a black mayor, in the hope that he would address the city’s glaring injustices. But Coleman Young’s election spurred a major exodus of the city’s more racially conservative white residents and many of its businesses. As a result, Detroit’s tax base took a massive hit, and Young was left with few resources to deal with the city’s deepening challenges.

Indeed, by the early 1980s, Detroit could barely scrape together two nickels for job training or education. But like in every other city in America in this period, if one wanted to wage a more aggressive war on crime or drugs, there was always federal and state funding to be had.

And so Young took the money where he could get it.

As the drug war in Detroit escalated, the city became a wasteland. In time, even those who had committed themselves to staying in the city decided to leave for the suburbs. And a staggering number of Detroiters who couldn’t afford to flee ended up either dead or locked up. City officials chose to criminalize the drug economy and drug addiction rather than to address their root causes, and it cost the city dearly.

Now, however, it seems that the Motor City has shed its reputation as the poster child for America’s worst urban problems and become “America’s comeback city.” Infusions of private investment capital into the downtown area have spurred the growth of new restaurants, condominiums, stadiums and retail establishments. Not only has Detroit secured a $150 million commitment from JPMorgan Chase, but there has been a massive expenditure of development dollars from companies such as Quicken Loans and Ilitch Holdings.

Mass foreclosures, deepening blight, deteriorating buildings and declining schools have given way to a coffee bar/coin laundry complex, the bustling North Corktown and the newly opened El Moore — once a rotting and dilapidated old house that has been converted into a $300-a-night hotel with swanky residences described as “green,” “sustainable” and “eco-friendly.”

And these new apartments, business and coffee shops are filled with white people. Some live in the city, and others come via the newly built light rail — the so-called Q Line (christened such after Quicken Loan mogul Dan Gilbert paid $5 million for naming rights).

Detroit may bear all the right signs of becoming America’s “New Brooklyn.” But its long-term fate depends on whether those who are now trying to rebuild this city heed the lessons of history — namely, those embedded in the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 — or if they will they ignore them completely in favor of the immediate buck and some short-term dazzle and hype.


Way back in July of 1967, just before that infamous evening when Detroit went up in flames, city boosters had been feeling pretty optimistic about the Motor City’s future. Detroit, then the nation’s fifth-largest city, was a metropolis that epitomized all that postwar America had to offer. Home to the Big Three automakers, it boasted higher-paying jobs for working people than many other cities. The Federal Housing Administration helped its residents enjoy unusually high rates of homeownership. Charismatic leaders — from the forward-thinking liberal Mayor Jerome Cavanagh to the union icon Walter Reuther to ambitious entrepreneurs like the junior Henry Ford — all worked together to keep the wheels of the Motor City turning smoothly and unceasingly toward a more prosperous future.

Notably, Detroit was also the apple of Washington’s eye. As President Lyndon Johnson and officials in the federal Office of Economic Opportunity noted in 1965, Detroit was a shining example of their bold new Model Cities program.

And yet, this was not the city that many Detroiters actually experienced.

In fact, the last time the Motor City glistened, the realities of racial and class inequality contradicted the celebratory image its boosters were touting. High-paying union jobs at Ford, GM and Chrysler mostly benefited white workers — the median income of whites in the city was 66 percent higher than that of blacks.

Whereas the New Deal had paved the way for homeownership for white Detroiters and its new immigrants, it imposed steep obstacles for black residents. Red lining and restrictive covenants limited potential homeowners to certain areas. Over 85 percent of black Detroiters had to pay exorbitant rents for housing stock that was considered substandard by all housing code standards. And by 1960, urban renewal efforts targeted these neighborhoods for gentrification with plans to clear slums and make shiny new freeways — all of which displaced and destroyed the formerly vibrant “Black Bottom” area of the city.

In addition to facing insufficient and dilapidated housing, black Detroiters were also relegated to the city’s worst schools.

Starkly racialized poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal educational opportunities certainly wore down the optimism of the city’s black citizens. But it was the over-criminalization and brutal policing of black Detroiters that finally brought the city to its knees.

Indeed, by 1967, as city boosters were touting Detroit’s modern new buildings, freeways and entertainment options, and while local financiers and developers felt the future was rosy beyond their expectations, black city residents felt under siege by the Detroit Police Department. Since the earliest days of black migration to Detroit, police had used arrests and intimidation to reinforce the city’s racial boundaries and hierarchies. For decades, black Detroiters challenged the overzealous and oftentimes brutal actions of the DPD, flooding the NAACP with complaints and insisting that various state and city policymakers take this problem seriously.

But nothing changed. Between May 1961 and February 1964 there were 1,507 altercations reported between the DPD and local Detroiters. Most notably, of the 1,041 citizen injuries, a full 690 were to the head. Of the 580 police injuries, 303 were to the hands, knuckles and fingers. By 1967, citizen complaints against the DPD had almost tripled.

And then one night the police conducted yet another raid on yet another black establishment in the city, and all hell broke loose. The issue? The fact that the Motor City was prosperous, affluent, exciting and a great place to live, but only for some of its residents — the white ones.


In 1967, Detroit erupted in rebellion because while the city appeared to prosper, too many of its residents lacked the bare essentials: housing, schools, jobs and equal justice under the law. Rather than remedy the roots of the uprising, those who once celebrated the city quickly chose to abandon it.

But 50 years later, they are coming back. They were cautious and tentative at first. Now they enthusiastically, even proudly, are saying “I live in Detroit.” Yes, “Detroit, Detroit.”

But what is actually happening, right now, in that “Detroit, Detroit”?

Black Detroiters are, once again, largely an afterthought in this new era of prosperity in the Motor City.

Just like 50 years ago, it is very difficult for black Detroiters to be homeowners as whites have been snapping up properties — first for a song, and now for upward of a half-a-million dollars — in neighborhoods like Palmer Woods, Indian Village, Boston Edison and on the Detroit River. Longtime black Detroiters are notably not enjoying the new housing construction boom that is sweeping the city. More significantly, an overwhelming number of them can’t even afford to keep the homes they live in or pay their water bills and heating bills. The resulting shut-offs have led to serious problems for children and the elderly alike.

It isn’t just that black Detroiters, once again, are not enjoying the benefits of gentrification equally. Much as in the Detroit of yesteryear, the new development in the city has come at their expense. Today black Detroiters aren’t becoming homeless because white Detroiters want to “clear the slums” to put in a new freeway or medical center. Today they are being made homeless because developers want them out of the buildings they just purchased for a pittance.

And then, of course, there are the schools, an issue that has been glaringly absent from all discussions of Detroit’s “comeback.” With a few exceptions, kids in Detroit today must attend classes in buildings that are infested with rats and mold, without enough textbooks and with no extracurricular activities or college counselors. The shocking state of poor city schools further highlights the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this city.

So, too, does the serious problem of policing. In 2000 the Detroit Police Department made headlines for being number one in the nation when it came to fatally shooting suspects — almost 2.5 times the rate of the New York Police Department and more than 1.5 times the rate of the Los Angeles Police Department. And they still over-criminalize black neighborhoods in Detroit and terrorize the black community. In fact, the newly gentrified areas of Detroit now have private police who’ve made the situation worse because these forces are ultimately accountable to their employer — not the city residents they monitor and potentially manhandle.

For Detroit to finally become the Model City that the liberal politicians of long ago hoped it would be, and that corporate investors profess it currently is, its boosters must finally confront its history and deal with the ugliness of poverty and discrimination in the city. Will they finally address the glaring lack of equal opportunity? Will they finally take seriously the principle of equal justice under the law and protect the citizenry from abuses of law enforcement?

They certainly can. The future of Detroit once again depends on it.