Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 2012: The City of Detroit

The 1958 Statue known as the Spirit of Detroit

      I am in Detroit… well not actually in Detroit.  I am in Livonia, suburb of Detroit, which is the town my parents moved us to from Detroit in the height of what was then called White Flight.  Back then the City of Detroit was in the top ten largest cities in the United States.  At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States between 1920 and the mid 1950s.  Detroit's population peaked at about 2 million people.  
The current population, as reported in 2011, of the city is 706,585.  Detroit is now ranked as the 18th largest city in the United States.  In the last census, it was reported that the city lost a whopping 25% of its population.  It is simply incredible.  As a metropolitan area, Detroit is ranked 13th but even this population has dropped 24% meaning people have simply left the region. 
It breaks my heart.  Almost anything I read about Detroit is depressing. The number of abandoned and empty homes is negatively impressive.  The number of homes that have been razed is equally depressing.  There is something like forty square miles of the city that is vacant.  That is an astronomical number.  There are stories of packs of feral dogs roaming some areas and people raising chickens and farming in some parts of the city.  There is a March 20, 2012 Rolling Stone article about an estimated 50,000 stray dogs in the city. 
A few years ago, I was a Wayne State University Alumni event in Skokie, IL.  I won one of the many door prizes.  My prize was a book about the architecture of Detroit.  It is a gem of a book and I am happy to have it.  In reading it, there was a very depressing aspect to it.  Many of the buildings featured and photographed in the book were noted to be either torn down or abandoned.  The entire urban renewal movement seems to have bypassed Detroit.
The only time I am ever in the city these days is when I drive from my parents’ home in Livonia to either of the two Armenian churches in Metro Detroit.  St. Sarkis church is in Dearborn.  I drive through Detroit to get there albeit all on expressways or major streets.  When I go down the Southfield Expressway, see burned out apartment buildings and closed business.  When I go to St. John’s, I go east on 8 Mile Rd. which is the northern border of Detroit.  That stretch of 8 Mile doesn’t look so bad by comparison.
I have not really explored the city since I moved away in 1990.  I have not been to the neighborhoods were I grew up.  The most I have looked at one of my childhood homes on Google Maps. 
I should probably make a tour of the city.  I should probably go and see for myself what is happening there.  I have had this notion for several years and have not done it for two reasons.  First, my trips to Detroit are usually weekend trips and often overnighters.  I go to visit family and as often or not for a specific purpose.  Thus my schedule is pretty busy and there is not a lot of free time to do something like this.  Secondly, I am a bit tentative about doing it.  Yes, that means a little afraid.  I am a victim of the negative things I have read about the city.  Is it safe to visit my old neighborhood and see what kind of shape my old schools and other haunts look like?  One solution I have come up with is to make such a tour at dawn on some summer day.  That is the hour when I have no obligations and when a majority of people are sleeping.  It should be safe then and it would not interfere with my other obligations.  It is probably safe at other times and I am just showing my age and demographic. 
My sister Nancy does go into the city regularly.  She enjoys the Techno Music scene which our late sister Laura helped pioneer.  She is downtown often and is encouraged by what she sees people trying to do.  She would probably volunteer to go with me on this tour. 
Not everything I read is negative.  There are a cadre of folks who are trying to make a go of things.  You read and hear about them in the media.  My sister Nancy speaks of some of the positive things.  Mayor Dave Bing seems to be trying very hard to move the city in the right direction but the challenges are incredible.  There has to be a revolution and renaissance of homesteaders and entrepreneurs willing to start up in what are incredibly low real estate costs in the city.  I look to the generation of young people I teach, those that have just graduated and are underemployed. They are the ones that can take a risk and move into the city and renew the abandoned shells of buildings, warehouses, factories and even homes.  The new businesses we read about in Detroit are bars, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, coffee houses, and bakeries are fine and very visible.  I am not sure of the numbers.  Detroit needs more than this.  Detroit needs businesses that create a new industry and a wave of jobs. 
I am a product of the Detroit Public Schools... at least through tenth grade.  I went to Robert Burns Elementary, Cadillac Junior High School, and then Cass Technical High School for half a year.  I finished up my last two and a half years in Livonia.  I would have like to have graduated from Cass Tech which was a renowned magnet school in the City of Detroit for many years.  I was proud to have gotten admitted.  I used to take the bus down to Cass.  I was excited to do so.  I was getting into the city on a different level.   Sadly, it was only for a semester. 
The last time I spent any real time in Detroit was when I was a graduate student at Wayne State University in the 1980s.   I enjoyed being downtown part of that great urban university.  Universities are insular and I really did not get a great feel for the city.
I believe there is a defining point that began the long downward spiral of the city.  It was the 1967 riots.  Many cities experienced riots in the second half of the 1960s.  The riots were in poor black neighborhoods.  The riots usually involved the destruction of property and the looting of stores.  I suppose the stores, in those days, were owned by white folk who no longer lived in the neighborhood.  The riots in Detroit were particularly brutal.  They were perhaps the worst of the hundreds of riots that tore through America's urban landscapes in those tumultuous years. There was, from my perspective, a feeling of uneasiness that hung over the city from that point on.  If the riots did not trigger the white flight from Detroit, it certainly escalated it.  That much cannot be denied.
Jerome Cavanaugh was the mayor of the city during the riots. He was elected as a young John Kennedy kind of leader in 1962.  The riots, however, were his undoing.  He was criticized as being slow to react and things got out of hand.  43 people were killed.  5,000 or so became homeless.  The riots were only quelled when a large number of federal troops were called in.  It was ugly and had a lasting impact on the city.
Cavanaugh did not run for re-election in 1970.  Roman Gribbs became the next mayor.  Gribbs ran again Richard Austin a black man and won.  Gribbs was mayor for only one term and from what I can remember basically treaded water.  He declined to run for another term.  In 1974, Detroit elected their first black mayor, Coleman Young.  Coleman Young was truly polarizing.  Blacks loved him and most whites did not care for him at all.  He was mayor for five terms.  In that time, the city lost half of its population and had a soaring crime rate.  Was the decline of Detroit inevitable or was Coleman Young a catalyst of it.  Probably it was a fair measure of both.
During this same time, the auto industry went from its post war monopoly to having to compete with the Japanese imports on quality, price, and fuel economy.  The industry that was the lifeblood of the Motor City was losing market share and trying to redefine itself just when the city needed it most.  The solution in the auto industry was not favorable to Detroit or the state of Michigan.  The industry needed new plants and those plants were not built in Michigan but rather in other parts of the country and in Mexico.
As a result of the changes in the city and the auto industry, jobs and the tax base left the city in droves.  Coleman Young, to his credit, tried to re-vitalize downtown with building projects designed to bring business and consumers into the heart of the city.  Under his administration, the Renaissance Center, Joe Louis Arena, a People Mover, and the General Motors Poletown plant.  These were good ambitious projects that were just not enough to turn the tide.
I know I should not generalize, but I do not think I am making a wild conjecture when I say that black folk in large part supported Coleman Young and white folk in general did not.  Detroiter's support for Coleman Young was clear from the length of time he served as mayor:  1974-1993.  He was elected the same week that Maynard Jackson was elected mayor of Atlanta.  They were both the first black mayors of their cities.  The cities could not have taken more opposite paths.  This lead credence to the argument that it was more socio-economic trends than Young's regime that contributed to the decline of a great American city.
In the early, 1970s, I spent a summer or two working with my Uncle Ozzie.  He had left General Motors where he was a machine repair specialist to open his own home repair and modernization business.  This was around the time when people began to abandon their homes in the city in greater numbers.  Most of these homes had Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mortgages.  As these homes were abandoned, HUD took ownership of them.  The homes were being abandoned faster than they could be sold.  So, HUD had them boarded up.  My Uncle was lucky to get a contract boarding up these homes.  It was a pretty good business for him and grew to dominate his business. 
I helped him.  We cleaned out the houses of trash and whatever else was left behind.  Full refrigerators were the worst!  We winterized the plumbing by pouring anti-freeze in each drain.  Then we boarded up the windows and doors making the house an eyesore in the neighborhood.  We padlocked the front door.  My uncle got to where we could do one house in less than a day.  He used to cut the plywood on-site but later moved to taking measurements, cutting the boards in his shop, and thus minimizing the time on site.
The houses could be broken into but one would need more than a crow bar to do it.  The plywood on the outside was braced by 2x4s on the insides for the windows.  The houses we boarded were quite secure.  They would be relatively intact until HUD got around to cleaning them up and selling them.  
It was a great experience working with my Uncle.  I will never forget those times.  Back then, I thought we were doing a good thing.  It was bad that houses were being abandoned and that we had to board them up.  But, I really believed it was a temporary thing.  It was not.  The number of boarded up houses grew out of control.
These homes were eventually vandalized, some were burned down in the fires Detroit became infamous for, and the great majorities of them have been or are being bulldozed.  This accounts for the amount of open land in the city.  It is a sad bit of history that I had a small role in.
Detroit and Pittsburgh define the American cities that drove the industrial growth of the country.  Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the country.  Their football team is named the Steelers.  Their team logo is based on the Steelmark logo of the American Iron and Steel institute and was created by US Steel Corporation.  Detroit was the car capital of the US if not the world.  Detroit's basketball team is named the Pistons.  The hockey team is the Red Wings whose logo is spoke wheel with a wing.  Both were gritty and tough towns, a reflection of their primary industries. 
Both cities suffered in the 1970s and 80s.  Steel left Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.  I used to travel there in those days.  The company I worked for had a plant in Newcastle half way between Pittsburgh and Youngstown.  I witnessed old factory after old factory being shut down and left to decay.  To me, there is nothing uglier than a shut down factory. 
I used to believe that the decline was pretty fast for Pittsburgh and the decline in Detroit took longer.  I was right and wrong.  I just read that Pittsburgh lost 100,000 jobs from 1978 to 1982.  I witnessed the tail end of this era.  What I did not know was that the city had lost 100,000 jobs from 1945 to 1978.  It was more likely an exponential decay.  It started slow and then accelerated rapidly.  I would say the same kind of thing happened in Detroit. 
The jobs both cities lost were the high paying blue collar job that defined the status and strength the lower middle blue collar workers enjoyed from the end of World War II until 1980 or so.  These folk worked hard but were compensated well.  They owned houses.  It was not surprising to see people have boats and summer cottages "up north" in the working class neighborhood in Detroit where I grew up.  That is all gone:  the jobs and the lifestyle. 
I have an old friend that I know of who still lives in the City proper.  He is a reader of this letter.  His commitment is greater than that of anyone I know.  He will not move.  His political views have changed with time.  He was a liberal back in the day when we worked together and saw each other almost every day.  Over the years, he has become more conservative in direct proportion to the intensity of his Christian faith.  His love for the city and what it can be is unwavering.  Perhaps the first stop on the tour ought to be to visit him.  He would also be a great tour guide.


  1. Here is an interesting blog worth reading on Detroit.

  2. 'Enter Detroit at your own risk,' police tell Tigers fans | Fox News via @foxnews