The Washington Post

Detroit’s demise was decades in the making

My heart aches today knowing that my beloved home town of Detroit now has the notoriety of being the largest American city to officially file for bankruptcy. But the filing was really just a formality. Detroit has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades — a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots.

The Detroit I remember ceased to exist a long time ago. But it was kept alive by a pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the next corner. We who love Detroit — even people like me who abandoned it long ago — were all complicit. I could visit for a week or a weekend, set the rental car stereo to the Motown oldies or classic Detroit rock songs from a bygone era, take in a Tigers game, have a hot dog and a Vernors ginger ale at Lafayette Coney Island downtown, and comfort myself with the fiction that this was still the same city I knew growing up as a kid.

Of course, the old neighborhoods are nothing like they were. My older cousins and aunties in their 70s, 80s and 90s are still in the same houses as before. But theirs are some of the few houses still standing on streets that are now mostly abandoned; they live behind metal burglar bars on their windows and the curtains and shades pulled tight. If I go in the winter, I know their streets will never be cleared of snow and ice, so the driving is treacherous. And I never go out at night. My old house on McGraw Street burned down and was reduced to rubble years ago.

Most of the old-time residents say they never plan to move, even though city services are virtually nonexistent in the old neighborhoods and most of the neighbors are gone. It’s a pride, a stubbornness and an attitude of “I bought this home 40 years ago, and no crack addicts or gangbangers are going to drive me out of it!”

It’s that attitude that led many Detroiters to instantly reject Mayor Dave Bing’s plan to shrink the size of the sprawling city to geographically consolidate the people, and the services. It’s an admirable obstinacy Detroiters have. It’s also why the city was destined to go bust.

Bing aside, much of the political class is also bankrupt. Detroit politics has been wracked by a series of corruption scandals, going back to the Coleman Young years. The last elected mayor before Bing, Kwame Kilpatrick — better known as the “Player Mayor” for his extravagant lifestyle of bling and parties — sits in prison for felony corruption. But Detroiters are prideful and protective of their own; even when Kilpatrick and his associates were shown to be corrupt, many Detroiters came out to support him, blaming the prosecutors for unfairly targeting a black elected official.

In fact, therein lies the real truth about Detroit, one that I’m loath to admit. For all my fond memories of Detroit from the 1960s and ’70s, it was always one of America’s most racially polarized cities. Older Detroiters are correct that the city was surrounded by a ring of often-hostile white suburbs, in a largely conservative state that had little time for a poor, destitute, Democratic and black city.

Peak period

Writers often speak of Detroit’s “glory days” as the 1940s and ’50s, when the city came to symbolize America’s manufacturing prowess and Detroit’s population peaked at nearly 2 million people, making it the fourth-largest city in the United States behind New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But it was also a deeply divided city, with Southern white and Southern black transplants in an uneasy, combustible mix.

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.

Racial politics

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.

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