Images by: Dave Jordano
Written By: Ryan Nemeth
Urban decay, also known as urban rot and urban blight is the process whereby a previously functioning city, or part of a city, falls into disrepair and decrepitude. Unfortunately, this definition of blight satisfactorily defines the current condition of many properties found throughout the city of Detroit. In fact, a recent urban blight task force in Detroit concluded that the city should spend $850 million dollars to tear down 40,000 dilapidated buildings and to clean up tens of thousands more. Furthermore, the study also noted that approximately 78,506 buildings, representing 30 percent of the buildings in the city across 139 square miles, are currently dilapidated or headed in that direction. The task force also found that 30 percent of the zoned lots in the city, 114,000 parcels, are vacant and that 90 percent of the city’s publicly held land is blighted. At its height, Detroit was a once booming town that housed more than 1.8 million residents, the 2010 census recorded that a mere 713,777 residents remain. This data also showed that Detroit’s population had decreased by 25 percent relative to the prior decade. To be more exact, the city lost approximately 237,500 residents. If you are wondering how a huge city like Detroit could go bankrupt and end up looking the way it does, the truth is in these numbers. So what the hell transpired in our beloved motor city anyways?
Let’s start with a confession. I have to admit that I was pretty much clueless to the state of Detroit’s economic and physical condition prior to 2008. In my ignorance, I just assumed that Detroit’s blight issue was similar to other iconic American industrial towns like Baltimore, or Pittsburgh. Thus, I pegged Detroit as being yet another American post-industrial town transitioning to a service economy and dealing with relevant growing pains. Enter the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and a much more complex story revealed itself. By now, we all know that the sub-prime mortgage crisis crippled our economy. Furthermore, we know that the looming failure of the auto industry threatened our economy with a TKO punch. In response, the U.S. Federal government intervened by lending the U.S. auto industry approximately $49.5 billion dollars in funds. This bailout was important not only because it was the largest in U.S. history, but also because is was a signifier of Detroit’s condition and it gave the American public a vested interest in the city’s future. Simply, for many of us, this event opened our eyes to a complex and somewhat traumatic picture of Detroit. It also provided an opportunity to clear up a lot of confusion about the city’s decline. The fact is that the Detroit economy has been in free fall since the decentralization of the auto industry in late 1950s.
Many smart people attribute Detroit’s demise to suburban sprawl. Thus, they cite racial divide, poor planning and politics as the reason for the city’s sprawl and its ensuing decline and insolvency. I say all components were and still are relevant factors, however, they are mere symptoms of a lagging economic engine. Thus, the current issue of suburban sprawl and its various facets are corollary problems and not causal. If you track economic decline and business changes in the auto industry you will find that the city suffered from a series of large economic blows over a along period of time. Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs, however, statistics reveal that there was a lot more hemorrhaging along the way. Fast forward 50 years and the 2010 Census data reports that Michigan lost 48% of all its manufacturing jobs from 2000-2010, much of this was in the Detroit metro alone, Yikes!
Depending on your viewpoint, either the city did not respond appropriately or their situation was unavoidable. Maybe the city’s decline is more complex and simply relates to a deep cultural identity? Could it be that taking on the title of automotive capital of the world has been a serious trapping for Detroit? Hell bent on making it work, the city seems to have remained loyal to an industry that has long since departed. Irrelevant, my point is that the city you see today did not become this way overnight! Eighty thousand buildings do not simply become blighted and ruined in a mere decade. Thus, the collapse and decay that you see has largely transpired over the better part of a half-century. The story of Detroit is the proverbial story of the leaky bucket. I say that the events of the Great Recession spurred Americans to peer into the bucket. For most of us, it was the first time we noticed that Detroit’s bucket was empty. One question remains, how did it get that way?
Many versions of the Detroit story would sound something like this. The auto industry takes off in the early part of the 20th century and chooses Detroit as its home because of its proximity to raw materials. Furthermore, Detroit is accessible by rail, highway, and via the Erie canal. Thus, Detroit automakers can ship their cars both domestically and abroad. Between 1910 and the late 1950s, Detroit grows from a city of 400,000 to a peak population of 1.86 million people. As you might have guessed, increased vehicle demands related to the war, as well as the postwar boom, spurred a tremendous amount of economic growth in city. Coincidentally, workers flocked to auto factories to join unions as they were assured solid wages and steady hours. Good factory jobs meant rising incomes and increased wages translated into new wealth and spending.
However, wages and privileges were not equal during this growth phase in the city. Efforts to produce products for the war attracted nearly 400,000 migrants to the city, both Black and White. Many came from the South and they were competing for jobs and housing in an already crowded city. Tension boiled over for the first time in June of 1943 and led to a devastating riot and ensuing racial divide; this has remained a wound since. This is mentioned for the fact that the fallout yielded persistent and palpable racial tension that is often cited as rationale for leaving the city. In fact, many would argue this factor alone led to an exodus of people from the city to the suburbs. The problem; race, economics and education became impenetrable assimilation barriers to blacks seeking to follow opportunities in the burbs. The city of Detroit once boasted the largest Black middle class in America. However, after the riots in 1943 and 1967 and school desegregation, the White population left in such large numbers that today the city of Detroit has the largest urban Black population (84%) in the nation. Not surprisingly, Detroit is also one of the most segregated of all large cities in the country. Over 80 percent of the population of Detroit is black, while 90 percent of the suburban metro population is White. It should be evident that this lack of diversity in the city proper has since created a tremendous amount of social, political, and economic problems for the municipality.
For union workers that left the city, atop the list of items to accrue were the family car and home. Thus, Detroit’s factory jobs began to support new home sales in suburbia outside of the city. Notably, increased ownership of automobiles suddenly made suburbia both easy and cheap to access. For both reasons, the newly mobile middle-class made their exodus. Thus, the burbs in Detroit were largely the byproduct of racial tension, substantial factory wages, and mobility created by the car. Meanwhile, there were less jobs to go around. However, for a short while, life in the burbs had all the makings of the American dream. But as automation and innovation replaced factory workers and carmakers moved closer to their customers and then finally abroad, things changed! Within a generation, suburban and urban families were slowly left without any substantial means for putting food on the table. Without the prospect of new jobs or increased wages, property values plummeted. Thus, many were left without the means to pay for their mortgage and their municipal taxes. The economic powerhouse that was once the American auto industry had simply changed and charted a new course and the small amount of city residents that were on union payrolls were left in an economic vacuum. Not so suddenly, the business model that once worked was broken and a vibrant and loyal community died a thousand deaths with it.
"Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope." - Epictetus
Let us not forget. Detroit is the home of the American Automobile; Motown Records, with 180 No. 1 hits and counting, the label’s influence is still felt today from pop to hip-hop and beyond; William Edward Boeing the founder of Boeing Aircraft was born in Detroit; the modern Assembly Line is a product of the Ford factory; The 5 Day Work Week is a product of the Labor Movement, which was birthed from Detroit’s auto workers; The first regularly broadcast Radio Show, 8MK of Detroit, claims to be the first station to play regularly scheduled news. The first mile of Highway in the country was paved in Detroit; the Bellveille Three are attributed with starting Techno Music in the Motor City, etc. Hopefully you are getting the point by now as the list goes on and on, so lets just cut to the chase!
What you should realize is that Detroit and its people have used a lot of ingenuity to birth a ton of inventions and accomplishments for our nation. In fact, many of these inventions and accomplishments have had a tremendous amount of global impact and reach. Let there be no doubt that Detroit will reinvent itself, there is just too much history and ingenuity bubbling in the city. What is also apparent in learning more about Detroit and its residents is that there is a lot more than meets they eye. In the case of the motor city, do not judge a book by its cover. When I think of Detroit and its people, I see a city filled with grit, determination, endurance, inspiration, intellect, and passion. I feel that residents of Detroit are motivated to do something about the current state of their city. Furthermore, residents are channeling these emotions into collective community environments and constructive dialogues for change. You find evidence of this on the Internet and beyond and these are key ingredients needed to induce lasting social and economic change in the municipality. Furthermore, positive actions are being taken by both the federal government and the city’s officials to address the many issues that are weighing the city down. Thus, there is evidence of action! When I look at pictures of a blighted and abandoned city, I see something that is not too far from a blank canvas. Not too many towns in America have the chance to deconstruct much of what did not work for the past half-century and to reinvent it, Detroit does!
- Cohen, S (2013). Detroit Decline Causes Include Auto Industry Collapse, Segregation And Politics. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/detroit-decline-cause-auto-industry-segregation-race_n_3635818.html
- Daniels. S. (2015). You Probably Didn’t Know These 12 Awesome Inventions Came From Michigan. Retrieved from: http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/michigan/inventions-mi/.
- Seelye, K. (2011). Detroit census confirms a desertion like none other. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23detroit.html?_r=0
- Davey, M. (2014). Detroit urged to tear down 40,000 buildings. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/28/us/detroit-task-force-says-blight-cleanup-will-cost-850-million.html
- Matthews, R. (2013). Detroit Bankrupt: To See Detroit's Decline, Look at 40 Years Of Federal Policy. Retrieved from: http://mic.com/articles/45563/detroit-bankrupt-to-see-detroit-s-decline-look-at-40-years-of-federal-policy
- Motown Museum (2015). Motown, the sound that changed America. Retrieved form: https://www.motownmuseum.org/story/motown
- U.S. Department of Treasury (2015). Auto Industry. Retrieved from: http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/financial-stability/TARP-Programs/automotive-programs/Pages/default.aspx
- Wikepedia (2015). Urban Decay. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_decay
- Woods, A., Zaslow, A. (2014). 11 Remarkable Ways Detroit Changed The World For The Better. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/07/best-detroit-events_n_4887889.html
- MDOT (2015). National firsts. Retrieved from: http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9620_11154-129682–,00.html