Article — From the July 2007 issue
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Article — From the July 2007 issue
Detroit is wildly outdated, but it is not very old. It was a medium-size city that boomed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the second, spent the third in increasingly less gentle decline, and by the last quarter was a byword for urban decay, having made a complete arc in a single century. In 1900, Detroit had a quarter of a million people. By midcentury the population had reached nearly 2 million. In recent years, though, it has fallen below 900,000. Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever.
Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, reigned from 1974 to 1993, the years that the change became irreversible and impossible to ignore, and in his autobiography he sounds like he is still in shock:
It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures—1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly eighty percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce—even in basketball, for God’s sake.
The Detroit Pistons are now based in Auburn Hills. According to the 2000 census, another 112,357 whites left the city in the 1990s, and 10,000 more people a year continue to leave. Even three hundred bodies a year are exhumed from the cemeteries and moved because some of the people who were once Detroiters or the children of Detroiters don’t think the city is good enough for their dead. Ford and General Motors, or what remains of them—most of the jobs were dispatched to other towns and nations long agoin trouble, too. Interestingly, in this city whose name is synonymous with the auto industry, more than a fifth of households have no cars.
“Detroit’s Future Is Looking Brighter,” said a headline in the Detroit Free Press, not long after another article outlined the catastrophes afflicting the whole state. In recent years, Michigan’s household income has dropped more than that of any other state, and more and more of its citizens are slipping below the poverty line. David Littmann, a senior economist for the Michigan think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the paper, “As the economy slows nationally, we’re going to sink much farther relative to the other states. We’ve only just begun. We’re going to see Michigan sink to levels that no one has ?ever seen.”
In another sense, the worst is over in Detroit. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was falling apart, spectacularly and violently. Back then the annual pre-Halloween arson festival known as Devil’s Night finished off a lot of the abandoned buildings; it peaked in 1984 with 810 fires in the last three days of October. Some of the arson, a daughter of Detroit’s black bourgeoisie told me, was ?constructive—crackhouses being burned down by the neighbors; her own respectable aunt had torched one. Between 1978 and 1998, the city issued 9,000 building permits for new homes and 108,000 demolition permits, and quite a lot of structures were annihilated without official sanction.
Even Ford’s old Highland Park headquarters, where the Model T was born, is now just a shuttered series of dusty warehouses with tape on the windows and cyclone fences around the cracked pavement. Once upon a time, the plant was one of the wonders of the world—on a single day in 1925 it cranked out 9,000 cars, according to a sign I saw under a tree next to the empty buildings. Detroit once made most of the cars on earth; now the entire United States makes not even one in ten. The new Model T Ford Plaza next door struck my traveling companion—who, like so many white people born in Detroit after the war, had mostly been raised elsewhere—as auspicious. But the mall was fronted by a mostly empty parking lot and anchored by a Payless ShoeSource, which to my mind did not portend an especially bright future.
Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco and is the author of several books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost and, most recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Uses of Disaster,” appeared in the October 2005 issue.
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