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Published: Friday, 5/16/2014

COMMENTARY

Ex-Detroiter’s 1996 book about city’s decline still a good read

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
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DETROIT — Everyone knows that Detroit is bankrupt, and that it has an incredible crime rate, horrible schools, and tens of thousands of abandoned and derelict buildings.

Everyone knows the city has horrendous unemployment and poverty rates and high illiteracy levels.

But why? How did things come to this in what was once an immensely rich city, the place that put America on wheels?

That’s a question people have been asking for years. There are many answers, none of them complete.

But if you want the best possible explanation of why Detroit is what it is, you can find it in a paperback book just reissued with a new introduction by Princeton University Press.

Eighteen years ago, Detroit native Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, published The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

The title is academic, but the book is a gripping exploration of what happened to Detroit.

The reality is different from what you may have believed. Locally, there are two popular theories of how the Motor City became America’s ultimate urban mess.

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Theory A, which many white former Detroiters more or less believe, goes something like this: Blacks began moving to the city in large numbers. Many of them did not work hard, take care of their property, or prove to be good neighbors.

Then there was the horrendous urban riot of 1967. Feeling unsafe, many whites and businesses left. Things went steadily downhill until corruption and incompetence drove Detroit into bankruptcy.

Black Detroiters tend to believe more in Theory B: Whites dominated and oppressed blacks for years. Eventually, having used up the city’s resources, they fled to the suburbs, taking jobs with them.

After the state systematically denied the city revenue-sharing payments it was promised, the crisis came.

Today, almost no one believes totally in either myth. Whites grudgingly acknowledge that the decline of auto-industry jobs was inevitable. Few African-Americans today defend Detroit’s charismatic but thoroughly corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

However, the readable Mr. Sugrue shows that the real truth was as much economic as racial. Immediately after, and even during World War II, other cities took steps to diversify their economies. Not Detroit.

Perhaps the most gripping part of this book is what Mr. Sugrue has uncovered about systematic institutional, social, and official racism. White-elected politicians systematically determined to oppress black citizens. Residents physically attacked African-Americans who tried to move into better neighborhoods, trashing their property.

“Detroit’s bankruptcy and its current crisis are the result of decades of racial conflict, demographic change, and especially economic collapse,” the 52-year-old scholar concludes.

“So long as Detroit ranks among the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country … so long as austerity politics worsen the everyday quality of life in the city, so long as capital and people continue to flow away, and so long as the city and its people lack political influence in the state and national capitals, Detroit will have a nearly impossible climb out of its slump,” he says today.

● Michigan losing clout in Congress. Whatever happens in this year’s elections, one thing is already clear: Michigan is certain to lose more seniority and power in Congress than ever before.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Detroit), who has served half a century in the House, last week was knocked off the Democratic primary ballot after most of the petition signatures he submitted were ruled ineligible.

Unless he can win a write-in effort, he will join these colleagues who aren’t coming back: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (36 years of service), U.S. Rep. John Dingell (59 years), U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (24 years), and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (14 years).

Additionally, Democrat Gary Peters (six years) is leaving the House to attempt to win election to the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, Republican House members Justin Amash (four years), Dan Benishek (four years), Kerry Bentivolio (two years), and Tim Walberg (six years) face stiff challenges in the primary, general election, or both. Michigan could easily wind up losing half its current delegation, and more than 200 years of collective seniority.

Detroit, which needs friends in Washington more than most other cities, will be represented next year by two congressmen, both of whom will be freshmen.

Half of Detroit is likely to be represented by one of two politicians, Rudy Hobbs or Brenda Lawrence, who live not in the city but in leafy Oakland County suburbs.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. 

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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