By now I'm reasonably sure everyone is aware of the horrific collapse Detroit has suffered. The city is turning back to nature in large swaths, the buildings are collapsing and rotting, the crime is so bad the police avoid entire sections of the city, the public works are so underfunded chunks of town aren't even getting service, feral gangs tear apart street lights and buildings for copper to sell, and there are even bears being spotted in the city.
Not that long ago, Detroit was one of the finest cities in the country. Once called the "Paris of the midwest" and the richest city in the nation in the1950s, now it is one of the poorest and most dangerous to live in. Recently the city filed bankruptcy and while a state judge briefly ruled the attempt illegal a federal court overruled the state one and the legal action has begun. Since its glory days in the 1950s, Detroit has dropped to half its population, despite the population of America doubling in the same time period.
Republicans like to yell about how this is what happens when you put Democrats in charge of a city for too long. Democrats yell back wondering why New York and other cities long held by Democrats haven't collapsed, too. Racists yell about how this is what happens when blacks take over. The truth is a bit more complex and subtle, as anyone thoughtful would expect.
Detroit was built around two things: being on the lake shore for shipping and being where the automobile was finally produced as a regular, reliable product. Cars had existed before Ford, Chrysler, and all the others started manufacturing their cars, but in Detroit all the pieces came together to make them cheaper and faster to supply an entire growing nation. The lakes gave ready access to all the raw materials and the drive of these men made the factories possible.
That made Detroit grow rapidly and become wealthy, and when prohibition hit, a third factor was introduced. Detroit was a major city just across a slim body of water from Canada (north of Canada, actually). Canada produced liquor as it was not illegal there, and it was brought across to Detroit, often driven over the frozen water in winter in cars. From Detroit, this cheap liquor was distributed all across America, making the city even richer.
So what happened, what turned this jewel of America into a slum with a slim line of nice-looking buildings downtown? What made Detroit into a place people fear to travel through, a city collapsing in debt and rot? And why hasn't it happened to other cities as well? I've written in the past about the problems in general and how they affect more than just Detroit, but I wanted to return to this theme once more with a bit more information and history to tell the tale of the city more carefully - and sound a note of warning.
BACK IN TIME
To really understand the fall, you have to turn back the clock. To gear up and produce enough war material for WW2, auto manufacturers and other major factories hired cheap labor, mostly black, from the south. These men were shipped to Detroit, given houses, jobs, and benefits they'd never even thought possible in the broke south, and put to work on the lines in factories. Detroit grew by over 300,000 due to this effort, with 50,000 being blacks.
The effect was amazing, boosting production massively and feeding the war machine with vehicles and weapons. It also changed a city largely made up of European immigrants to one with a very large black population as well. The blacks were mostly housed in new areas built for the express purpose of housing new workers, which meant they lived in one part of town while the whites lived in the other parts.
Racial tensions began to build, leading Life Magazine to declare in 1942 that "Detroit is dynamite . . . it can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S." White workers staged wildcat strikes in protest of having jobs given to black workers. Black workers clashed with southern whites brought north. According to some sources, behind the scenes, German Abwehr agents were trying to cripple and sabotage the US war machine through ethnic strife.
Finally, in 1943, the federal government finished the Sojourner Truth projects, with housing for workers in Detroit. Initially it was planned for white workers, but no suitable area was found for blacks, so it was announced that blacks would be living in the projects as well. A cross was burned outside the projects, and a rally began to form. 1200 whites gathered demanding that blacks be denied access to the living area, because they refused to live with any blacks. Blacks tried to move in and some violence resulted, but by April, families had moved into the projects. Guarding these families were over a thousand police and almost 2000 National Guard units.Yes, you read that right, whites living in the projects didn't want them to be "ruined" by blacks moving in, and blacks wanted to live in them. The concept of pre-built housing projects being hell on earth had not developed yet; people just wanted homes. They didn't know what those homes would one day become.
Then in June, Packard promoted three hard working and reliable black workers to positions by white foremen. A strike took place, with 25,000 whites walking off the job and crippling the production. It was in this strike that the quote at the top of this article was heard yelled out.
On June 20th, a riot broke out, supposedly started by a fist fight between a sailor and a black worker over the sailor's girlfriend. Confrontations and arguments broke out as word spread and a rumor somehow spread that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. Whites poured on to the streets beating blacks and burning buildings owned by blacks. Blacks fought back, attacking whites and destroying property, each believing their actions to be in response to outrages by the other.
The riots lasted three days, until ended by the army taking the streets. A total of 34 people were killed, 25 black, and the police were responsible for 17 of those deaths. About 600 people were injured, 75% of them black. About 1800 people were arrested, 85% black. The Wayne County prosecutors blamed the NAACP for the riots.
German and Japanese propaganda efforts went wild with these events, calling for blacks to stop fighting for the allies. The riots ended but the racial animosities that spawned them remained, especially resentment among blacks for how clearly unjust and unfair their treatment was. Being arrested and killed by cops for fighting back struck them as unreasonable. The sense of outrage and oppression seethed among blacks in Detroit who after the war were found suddenly not as useful and often lost their jobs first when the factories scaled back.
UNEASE AND RACIAL TENSION
For over a decade this seethed, but once more the anger exploded. Its not that things weren't getting better for blacks in Detroit; they had members in the legislature, city council, owning businesses, and as judges. Two of the four black congressmen in Washington DC were from Detroit. Detroit's baseball team the Tigers had several black super stars, and the social conditions were getting better. Housing for blacks was better than most cities, and the inner city poor schools were of better quality than most. Mayor Cavanaugh was considered a friend to blacks and willing to listen and act on their concerns. Detroit's black population had the highest rate of home-ownership of any black urban population in the country, and their unemployment rate was just 3.4%.
Yet the memories of 1943 were very fresh (just 24 years earlier - consider a big event in your life taking place in 1989; not so long ago), and there still were real problems with law enforcement. Blacks were virtually nonexistent tokens without any power in the police department. The justice system was generally unsympathetic toward blacks, to put it mildly. The city was strictly divided racially, which woudl not have been particularly problematic were it not the hostility between whites and blacks.
Poles, Irish, Greeks, and so on had their particular segments of the city which were very racially homogenous, but they faced less animosity from fellow whites of different ethnic groups. And when new suburbs and areas were constructed, deeds in every subdivision developed between 1940 and 1947 specified the exclusion of blacks. This had changed by the 1960s, but the attitude was plain.
After the war, man smaller auto companies such as Packard went out of business and the big companies built factories in suburbs of Detroit. Workers who could do so moved, but they were mostly white. Poorer black workers were unable or unwilling to make the move, and lost jobs. Some businesses refused to hire blacks, relegating them to less lucrative and more dangerous jobs.
On July 23, 1967 the police raided a "Blind Pig" (local slang for an underground club or speakeasy, even after prohibition). Black patrons were celebrating the return of two local guys from Vietnam, and the cops raided the building for a lack of a liquor license. The police found 82 patrons inside and allegedly the doorman threw a bottle at a cop. Black patrons fought with the cops, it spilled into the streets and all hell broke lose. The police were part of a tough all-white anti-crime unit called STRESS which was primarily undercover plain clothes detectives, many of whom were old time cops who were virtually unrestrained by law, rules, or even decency.
Having been abused by the police, their concerns ignored by the government, and their lives treated unjustly by the law for too long, blacks went berserk. They pelted the cop cars with rocks and bricks until the police retreated, and then they took to the streets. Decades of fury erupted and for five whole days, the city boiled with riots. This time, the blacks were not the punching bag of the city any more.
State troopers and national guard tried to keep peace, but were so outnumbered, they had no chance. Making matters worse was the fact that Governor Romney (a Republican) requested federal assistance, but President Johnson (a Democrat) knew Romney was working up toward a run for president in 1968. He didn't want to help a Republican out, so troops were delayed.
Like most riots, the bulk of the damage done was to the neighborhoods of the rioters. They destroyed black businesses along with whites, and the city was demolished in large sections. By the time the riots were finally quelled by the army, more than 2000 buildings were destroyed. This time the death toll was 43 with a total of 1189 people were injured and 7200 arrested, often simply bystanders. Damages were in excess of $350,000,000 when adjusted for inflation. An estimated 10,000 people participated in the riots.
The 67 riots were one of the three big things that kicked the legs out from under Detroit. The city never really recovered, and what's worse, much of what was destroyed was never rebuilt. The riots seemed to deepen militancy among the city's blacks and deepen fears among the whites, rather than letting off steam and calming things down. Cynicism grew in the black community, so that when white businesses began donating money to black causes and efforts, it was viewed as "riot insurance" rather than genuine interest or concern.
Whites began leaving Detroit, with 67,000 people moving out of Detroit to the suburbs in just the second half of 1967. This "white flight" continued for years, increasing the black population in the city to a majority by 1973.
THE YOUNG ERA
Blacks began turning to more radical leadership and more militant leaders. Mayor Coleman Young was elected in 1973 running on a platform of racial tension and blaming all the city's problems on whites. He claimed whites leaving the city was gutting the city's tax base making it impossible for the government to fix anything. He blamed whites in the suburbs as being "occupiers" who tried to run the city from the outside. He did take this policy to good places, with full integration of the police department, for example, but overall it was just racial animosity from blacks in power instead of whites.
When in office, Mayor Young then set about looting the city in every conceivable way. Even the most sympathetic portrayals of Young's administration admit deep, consistent corruption. All new investment or construction had to go through his office, where he got a cut. He showed hostility toward white investors, and they tended to stay away. Young took tax money and spent it on himself and his friends. In doing so, he didn't just take money away from whites but everyone, resulting in a general collapse of the city's poorest areas.
Schools, services, streets, everything suffered as Young systematically looted the city for his benefit and got reelected again and again for 20 years by stoking fears and hatred of whites.
Coleman Young believed that role models such as Mayor Daley of Chicago had looted their cities on behalf of themselves and their political base, so he was just getting his. And in the process he and his successors have destroyed the city's tax base and chance of returning to power.
DRIVING INTO DISASTER
Yet it wasn't just Coleman Young. The second major cause of Detroit's collapse was the automotive industry. For decades, America put out the finest quality, most inexpensive cars on the planet. There were cheaper cars but they weren't nearly as good. There were even some finer cars, but they cost a fortune. America's automotive industry was the envy and amazement of the world. A Cadillac was considered the finest possible car to own up into the 70s.
Unfortunately, the industry became more interested in profit and ease than quality, innovation, and service. Cars became ugly, big, poor quality, and lost the interest of customers. Buyers began picking up cheaper Japanese cars which were of finer quality, and yet Detroit still didn't listen.
Making matters worse was the UAW. One of the richest and most powerful unions in the world, the UAW started making more and more extreme demands of the auto companies, and the auto companies were so rich they gave in and provided these benefits and pay. By the new millenium, GM was unable to actually fire anyone; they could lay someone off, but they still got paid and came into work they just didn't do anything. They had a room to sit in and read or do what they wanted then they'd go back home.
Pay was exorbitant and benefits amazing. Pensions were based not on what the worker was paid on the job, but what people were paid after he retired.
As a result, these companies began to fall apart, unable to survive the excessive costs the UAW placed on them. Over and over they had to be bailed out by the federal government, such as Chrysler in 1980. Yet the bailouts were to avoid bankruptcy; they didn't change any union contracts, management, policies, or anything about the companies. Chrysler managed to pull its self out of billion dollar losses, but fell back into trouble again because nothing had really changed.
For Detroit, there really wasn't anything but the automotive industry to keep a city that size going. And when the auto makers suffered as they have, the city did too. Unwilling to keep up quality and service and crippled by greedy unions, they have needed bailing out over and over because they are "too big to fail" or be allowed to go bankrupt.
Why not go bankrupt? Well it would hurt the industry in the short term by damaging their financial standing, and it would seriously hurt the unions. Union contracts would be up for restructuring not by negotiation teams and management but by judges who could rewrite the entire thing on their own and nobody could say different. As a powerful Democratic Party ally (without unions, the Democrats would collapse as a power in America), that simply could not be allowed.
YES, ITS TRUE
And finally there's the leadership. Even when run by Republicans, Detroit was essentially left leaning as a city government. Now its been under Democrat power since 1962, and every one of those guys had a left-leaning city council working with him. By left leaning I mean their view of how to fix things was never for people to be allowed to make their own way or to let the market build its self up, but to have the government fix every problem through the application of money and legal interference.
Detroit has always tried to repair its self by spending more money, building new buildings, urban renewal, and more taxes, spending, and regulation. And it has never, ever worked. It has, without exception, ended up making the city worse and worse, compounding the problems and introducing new ones, to which the answer is always "more government."
After all those decades, the result has not been pretty. Detroit is a perfect example of how the concepts and answers of the left do not work. Attempts to fix neighborhoods has resulted in more crime and collapse. Attempts to fix schools has made them worse. Attempts to renovate the city cost billions and build pretty structures that are largely empty and falling apart. Attempts to build highways cost billions and have few cars on them.
In the end, the efforts have made unions wealthier, helped politicians get elected, and looked impressive, but didn't help at all. And yet, that's always the choice, next time. We didn't spend enough, we were blocked by Republicans, it was not our fault.
And this is where it gets especially ugly. Because what we see in Detroit is what we see in more than just that city. Detroit is the forerunner, not some outlier. Yes, leftists have been running Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and so on for decades as well and they aren't Detroit. But cities like LA, New Orleans, and Baltimore aren't far behind. What they look like now, Detroit did 20 years ago.
Coleman Young blamed "white flight" and evil white occupiers on Detroit's fall. Even assuming Mayor Young's analysis is accurate, that doesn't say anything positive about the blacks living in Detroit. If whites left and their productivity dragged the city down, why didn't blacks pick up the slack? Whites without education and specialization built Detroit, they invented cars, factories, and made the city what it was before the war. Blacks could have done the same thing, but did not. Why?
Mayor Young blamed whites for it all, and his constituency ate it up. Why did they eat it up? Because its easier to blame other people than get the job done yourself. Detroit's blacks had a lot of genuine reason for anger and frustration. Their bitterness at racism had real roots and was completely reasonable. But their response to it was not.
After decades and generations of growing up angry at others for your faults, being given cash to live and assistance by government to find houses, jobs, food, and so on, a pattern develops. All your problems are someone else's fault, while all the good comes from someone else as well. You aren't the ones who built your homes, you didn't earn your food and clothing, you had it given you by the government.
So you grow up presuming that government is the answer and everyone else is to blame for what you don't like. You don't take responsibility for anything, don't innovate, show ambition, build, and make anything of yourself like previous ethnic groups had to.
And stagnation builds up. Its the 1%, its bankers, its white people, its Republicans, its the Tea Party, its Muslims, its Communists, its Mexicans, what have you. Its always someone else. Its never your place to make things better, always people who pay taxes (never enough) and the government. When you can't pay your loans back, well that's just unfair anyone expects you to pay at all. When you can't find a job, well its the fault of the 1% hoarding money in big vaults they swim around in like Scrooge McDuck.
When the house you were given by the government falls apart, its the fault of other people. White people are the ones who put drugs in my community, you can't blame the junkie for robbing me and ripping copper out of my walls. We have no street lights or working sewers because of crime, but that's the fault of white people and the government not doing enough for me.
And an entire generation raises another generation presuming that the answer comes from handouts, that its reasonable and proper to live off the efforts of others, and all your difficulties are due to Racis' and a system that oppresses your people.
Think this is just a black thing? That its indicative of black people and their inability to make things work? Look around you, fool. White people are doing exactly the same thing; we call them white trash or rednecks or what have you, but they live off the state, blame others (often blacks or hispanics), and have exactly the same attitude. There are Mexicans living in the same attitude, groups of all color and ethnic background.
This has nothing to do with black, it has everything to do with a shifting understanding of responsibility and the place of government. And with a nation so heavily unemployed and so heavily dependent on unemployment insurance and food stamps, a nation whose attitude has shifted from viewing problems as opportunities to seeing problems as a reason for government to intervene means we're all headed down that path.
What we see in Detroit, in California as a state, is what America is facing in the future unless there's a fundamental shift in attitude and worldview. Racial hatreds are being inflamed, dependence on government is growing, and animosity toward people who earn, achieve, and create wealth is growing nationwide. The same cronyism and system of patronage and government dependency in Detroit is becoming established nationwide.
In the end, I don't pity Detroit, they did it to themselves, with their eyes open, deliberately. The city didn't have to end up this way, but they found the worst possible response to their problems and not only tried it out over and over, but spewed hatred and hostility toward people who suggested something different.
But what about America, which is headed down the same path? Can we pity ourselves as we keep electing politicians who give us the same answers, protect the same sources of problems, and stoke the fires of racial anger? Who will pity America if we all travel down that same road to the same inevitable conclusion?
Shorter version: ... ah, there is no shorter version. Sorry, this one kind of got away from me.