The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, an Epilogue


Origin Post

Happy New Year to everyone.  I intended to publish this prior to the New Year, but the holidays intervened.  
Putting together this series has been an enlightening experience for me.  The nine ideas that make up the series came to me nearly three years ago, got published on Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile website, and kicked off this very blog.  (Side note: I am greatly indebted to Aaron for publishing my initial piece and spurring me to start my own blog.  Thanks to him, my thoughts have found an outlet and I hope people have found them as useful and enlightening as producing them has been to me.)  This undertaking challenged me to dig deeper into the reasons that a major American city, once the nation’s fifth largest, could undergo such a profound collapse.
For those looking for the Reader’s Digest version of what I identify as the primary causes behind the Detroit collapse, here it is:
  1. Poor neighborhood identification.
  2. Poor housing stock.
  3. Neglectful inattention to the city’s commercial streetscape.
  4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
  5. Freeway expansion.
  6. Loss of/lack of a public transit network.
  7. Local government organization.
  8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core.
  9. Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy.
What has always perplexed me was that while the depth of Detroit’s collapse is unique among American cities, most of the ways that it happened certainly are not.  Nearly every large American city has experienced almost all of the reasons listed here.  In fact, there is a “Detroit” within every major city in this country.  Notice that I don’t specifically indict the auto industry, or a poorer-than-normal local economy.  There are cities not known for having a strong neighborhood structure or quality housing; many Sun Belt cities have never had especially strong downtowns and have only recently begun to change that.  Particularly among Rust Belt cities, Detroit underwent the same challenges that Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and others underwent, with devastating but less apocalyptic results.

That’s why I put greater weight on the last three reasons cited above — local government organization, a constraining industrial landscape, and unfulfilled annexation policy.  Here, Detroit’s uniqueness stands out.  

Detroit’s nearly 100-year run as the nation’s largest city to elect its City Council at-large as opposed to districts or wards came to an end two years ago.  I believe that post-WWII Detroit residents felt they had a diminished voice in local government because of the at-large system, and that in part fueled their decision to disembark for the suburbs and beyond.  Perhaps local elected officials representing specific geographies could’ve helped slow the exodus.

That exodus was catalyzed in part by a unique industrial landscape in the city.  The Detroit Terminal Railroad (DTR), constructed in 1911, put an unbroken industrial necklace around the inner half of the city.  The DTR linked not only the major automakers, but all the suppliers that served them.  This is key: Chicago, for example, had industrial freight lines that entered and exited the city from the west and south sides, leaving much of the north side unburdened by similar development.  It is no coincidence that Chicago’s revitalization has its beginnings there, and that large parts of the west and south sides still languish.

It appears that 1920’s-era Detroit had a ready response to the two points above — the city will annex land and build new communities beyond the DTR.  Between 1915 and 1926, Detroit annexed 92 of its 139 square miles, with half of that coming in 1925 and 1926 alone.  It was reasonable to assume that Detroit would be able to build its way out of the explosive growth it was experiencing at the time — until the stock market crash of 1929 kicked off the Great Depression.  Much of the annexed land did not see one iota of development for the next 25 years, when the city needed it most.  When it finally happened, it was too late.
That being said, I’ve always believed Detroit’s collapse was a result of social factors rather than the economic ones that people like to believe.  The three structural or institutional factors I list above fed directly into the unspoken tenth reason.  No one wants to live next to black people.  
That fact alone has shaped the development of the city and its suburbs.  Tensions rose in Detroit’s inner areas in the 20’s as African-Americans moved up from the South.  An industrially encircled inner city had no release valve for those tensions.  Detroit had no ward aldermen or councilmen who could take up the charge of “preserving” the neighborhood.  There was no new development taking place when the city needed it most.  The push among African-Americans in the 50’s and 60’s to get political representation that looked like them turned into a high-stakes, zero-sum game.  When it appeared blacks would make gains, many made the decision to pick up stakes — creating an economic vacuum that the relatively new black community was unable to fill on their own.
I posted a piece last August that noted the various generations of black political leadership.  In it, I did an interesting comparison of Detroit and Philadelphia:

“Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  

Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.”

Detroit has an interesting city motto, uttered by Fr. Gabriel Richard in 1805 after a devastating fire destroyed the fur trading post that would become the Motor City: ” We hope for better things.  It shall rise from the ashes.”  I believe that the comeback Detroit is experiencing now is real.  But it’s especially important for us to understand, accurately, the things that made its collapse unique and catastrophic.

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