Fifty years ago today, the violent conflict that virtually defined Detroit finally began to wane, after five tension-filled days. Since that conflict Detroit has suffered immeasurably, far beyond what economic loss could do alone. Over the last decade or so, Detroit has finally become able to move on from the specter of the unrest. The city’s long era of ostracization is over, and it’s slowly reconnecting with the family of cities in America and around the world.
Some call what started in Detroit in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967 a riot; others call it a rebellion or uprising. People on either side of the terminology debate have reasons for their preferred terms. However, what’s far less in doubt, yet hardly even acknowledged, is the impact of those days of disturbance on the future of the city. Detroit acquired a stigma, and the rest of the nation would not let it relinquish it. Collapsing auto industry be damned; Detroit was damaged far more by the purgatory existence it held for nearly a half century, or until its current rebound began in earnest.
Detroit was not the only city to be shunned in this way. Starting with the Watts Riot in Los Angeles in 1965, a wave of civil disturbances took place during the mid-‘60s. Similar disturbances took place in Cleveland in 1966, and Newark in 1967, less than two weeks before the outbreak in Detroit. Events in Detroit led President Lyndon Johnson to establish the Kerner Commission to uncover the roots of the unrest and develop policy responses. That action, however, hardly put a halt to them. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, similar violent disturbances spread across the country, most notably in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and once again in Detroit.
The shunning suffered by Detroit and a handful of other cities that experienced similar unrest is often understood as “white flight”, but is indeed far deeper. White flight can describe many things. It can describe the aspirational lure of city residents seeking more space and comfort in greener suburban pastures. Yet it can also obscure more nefarious reasons for moving – motivated by fear of rising crime and falling property values. The former is a shining aspect of the American Dream; the latter can be viewed as an act of desperation and self-preservation.
What’s become clear in the disturbance aftermath, particularly for Detroit and other cities with per-Kerner Commission violence, is that white flight began to take on less aspirational characteristics, and more fear-driven ones. As fear motivates, new narratives emerge that serve as a rationale for moving, and fear accelerates. Movement accelerates. Cleveland, Newark and Baltimore suffered the same stigmatization; perhaps Los Angeles escaped it because it had a San Fernando Valley and West LA, within the city limits, for residents to escape to.
Detroit simply could not have reached its depths because of increased global competition in the auto industry and a corresponding loss of manufacturing jobs. It could not become America’s poorest large city because of automation. To believe so vastly underestimates what took place there. A collapse as complete as Detroit’s required a shunning. Detroit was shunned because the 1967 disturbance catalyzed a fight for the political control of the city that culminated in the election of Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor, in 1973. Detroit was shunned because it could not resolve conflicts related to police targeting and brutalizing African-American citizens. It was shunned because it could not address issues of inequality in public services, from trash pickup to parks. It was shunned because rising violent crime rates continued to stoke fears that eventually led the city to obtain the moniker of “Murder Capital USA”. It was shunned because many residents resented the housing battles designed to open new housing opportunities to more Detroit residents. It was shunned because of the controversy surrounding one if the most significant court cases related to school desegregation short of Brown v. Board of Education (Milliken v. Bradley).
It was shunned because people chose not to understand and repair the conditions that led to the events of 1967, and instead chose to run and forget.
Detroit’s ostracization actually began well before the disturbance, but the events of 1967 clearly solidified the shunning. Between 1940 and 1970, the three counties at the core of Metro Detroit, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb, grew by nearly 77%, from 2.4 million to 4.2 million. Detroit itself, however, declined slightly over that period, falling by seven percent. Suburban growth defined the region – suburban Wayne (excluding Detroit), Oakland and Macomb counties nearly quadrupled their population during that time. The pattern of suburban growth and city loss has only hardened.
This is what shunning looks like. Fearful city residents hear newly elected mayor Coleman Young issue a warning to criminals to “hit 8 Mile Road” (a euphemism for getting out of the city), and interpreting that either as an unleashing of criminals on suburbia, or a warning for whites themselves to leave the city. Unscrupulous real estate practices fanned the flames of fear, urging people to sell – now – to salvage whatever you can in property value. The city and suburbs can’t coexist on things such as regional transit policy, leading to a disjointed, dual regional transit system where city buses never cross the city limits and suburban buses head straight downtown without ever picking up potential riders in the city. Suburban leaders like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson get elected and define themselves as anti-Detroiters, in quotes like this, from an article entitled “Drop Dead, Detroit” in the New Yorker in 2014:
“I used to say to my kids, ‘First of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit. We’ve got restaurants out here.’ They don’t even have movie theatres in Detroit—not one.” He went on, “I can’t imagine finding something in Detroit that we don’t have in spades here. Except for live sports. We don’t have baseball, football. For that, fine—get in and get out. But park right next to the venue—spend the extra twenty or thirty bucks. And, before you go to Detroit, you get your gas out here. You do not, do not, __under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.”
“When I asked him how Detroit might fix its financial problems, he said, “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’ ”
Patterson has made a career making such comments about Detroit, and remains the leader of metro Detroit’s wealthiest county. He makes it seem as if Detroit’s shunning was public policy.
Shunning had a tangible impact. Property values in the city, in 2013 dollars, dropped by 67% between 1960 and 1980, due to the exodus of city residents and businesses and ensuing abandonment and compromising the city’s ability to provide services for remaining residents. Narratives center on Detroit’s population loss over time, from 1.8 million in 1950 to about 670,000 today. People talk of what to do with Detroit’s vast acres of abandonment, while neglecting the fact that in 2010 Detroit still had a higher overall population density (5,144 people per square mile) than Houston (3,501), Dallas (3,518), San Diego (4,020), Denver (3,923), Portland (4,375), or Atlanta (3,154).
Detroit’s number of white residents dropped 93 percent between 1970 and 2010, from 839,000 to 56,000. Ninety-three percent.
There are those who will say that I’m putting too much on the backs of Detroit’s past and current white residents. That I’m singularly implicating whites in Detroit’s fall from grace, absolving Detroit’s black majority of any failure to revitalize the city, and being overly celebratory as Detroit’s rebound occurs at precisely the time whites return in growing numbers. But can anyone describe how a city is supposed to rise from the ashes when so many people say, “good riddance”? In the latter half of the 20th century, blacks were newcomers to Detroit and disconnected from the economic and social networks that made the city work. How were blacks supposed to restore the city when those networks fractured, before they were even able to understand and utilize them?
The shunning ultimately led to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection that year with an estimated $18.5 billion in debt, making it the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Even given the events of 1967, bankruptcy may have been the city’s nadir.
Detroit exited bankruptcy in November 2014, but the rebound spreading throughout the city now started well before. Billionaire and Detroit native Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, has been spearheading an aggressive campaign since 2010 to revitalize Detroit’s downtown. He moved his own corporate headquarters downtown and singlehandedly purchased as many as 100 buildings in the formerly empty downtown, twisting arms and making deals to bring others along. It’s working. He’s been joined by a group of other actors and institutions, including Detroit’s Ilitch family (owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza and the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings, who actually preceded Gilbert’s campaign), auto racing team owner and Penske Corporation founder Roger Penske, Wayne State University and the Henry Ford Health System. All have contributed to a remarkable transformation of Detroit’s downtown and adjacent inner neighborhoods.
Detroit’s rebound thus far has been successful, because the shunning has ended and the city has begun to repair its soul. And repairing the city’s soul was – and is – a necessary first step in the city’s recovery. People had to believe that the city was worth saving – worth investing in, worth working in, worth living in. Of course, Detroit’s African-American majority, the recipient of decades of shunning, never lost their love for the city or desire to work toward its improvement. They simply lacked the tools and resources to turn recovery into reality. Today, joined by newcomers from the suburbs or out-of-towners intrigued by Detroit’s history and legacy, Detroit’s seeing considerable activity once again. But there is still skepticism about the rebound. Will it last? Will it reach us? Will it include us?
Questions like these demonstrate how the specter of 1967 continues to haunt Detroit.
The fall of Detroit absolutely cannot be explained or understood purely in economic terms, nor can economics solely explain similar – but less extreme – collapses in other cities nationwide. Detroit collapsed because a traumatic event was immediately followed by an equally traumatic decade of tension and tumult, and then followed by a half century of ostracization, effectively severing it from much of American society. Auto industry collapse describes only a part of the fall.
Detroit has finally been able to reconnect with American society and economy. And I certainly wish it much success in moving forward. Its challenge in doing so is two-fold: ensuring that its revitalization reaches as many current residents as it can, and that shunning never happens again.