The Real Story of Detroit, as of May 21, 2012

By Mullakamakalaka [sic?]

Detroit is the heart of major American metropolitan area. With an urban population of about 3.8 million people, it's on par with the urban population of the Athens metropolitan area, and is a top 15 urban region in the United States.

The bad news, regrettably, is Metro Detroit has heart disease. The region's core - Detroit - is dying. The good news, though, is that it's resilient, like a weed no one can get rid of, and some days it even flowers. That Detroit still has a pulse after all the shootings, all the stabbings, is a miracle. Put your ears up against the cement, against the brick walls, and you can hear its faint beat, like muffled sounds from an old Motown record. It's a sound you’ll only find here. It’s the roar of a Mustang’s mighty engine, and the child of Ford, General Motors, and Berry Gordy.

People in the suburbs are rooting for the City of Detroit again, not just for the baseball or football team. We're starting to realize we're all in this together. The suburbs need the city, and the city needs the suburbs. Some of the areas in and around Downtown have been reborn as the hip, young college crowd moves into proud, 82% black Detroit, in order to escape the endless monotony of the suburbs. These kids want something gritty, real, and rich with history, and if there was one thing modern Detroit doesn't lack, that’s character. So they fix up the old Tudor, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts homes, and ride around on bicycles under the long shadows of magnificent Art Deco skyscrapers. They want to be seen in the edgy new bars and restaurants like Cafe d'Mongo's Speakeasy, which is only open on Friday nights, and has a BYOBpolicy. They want culture.

The media, whether it's the New York Times or Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations, calls it a revival. It's cool, but little of it has really helped the average Detroiter that stuck it out all those decades.

Fixing Detroit could never be that easy. A quick drive out of the couple square miles of Downtown reveals that most of the rest of the 144 square miles of Detroit has never been worse. Streetlights don’t get turned on. Garbage doesn’t get collected on time. Citizens can get mugged or their houses get broken into - either by addicts or bored and jobless teenagers - and the outnumbered cops won't show up for hours, if at all.

Just the other day there was a story on the news about a pastor that got carjacked at a gas station on the corner of Linwood and Davison, a busy intersection many miles from the glittering lights of Downtown. The robbers attacked pastor Marvin Winans - a former Gospel singer - while he was pumping gas, and then rode off with his purple 2012 Nissan Infiniti and 18-karat gold watch, leaving the shocked pastor curled on the ground.

It might appear odd, that a pastor was wearing a $40,000 gold watch, but it's always been that way in Detroit. By Detroit's northern border of 8 Mile, for example, the Bishop Gallagher House lies as evidence of this, an opulent 62 room and 40,000-square-foot mansion built for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit in 1925. It's not uncommon for modern Detroit’s pastors to own yachts on the Detroit River, big homes in rich suburban neighborhoods, and - yes - 18-karat gold watches.

Detroiters have a strong sense of faith - one look at the lines of people buying lotto tickets every day while they joke about the vacations they'd take or the homes they'd buy, confirms it. And everywhere you look, there's another church.

That there's so much hope left in the city is a testament to the spirit of Detroiters. I know of one person that installed an iron security door in front of the stairs to his bedroom, and he could never imagine leaving Detroit. This is where he grew up and bought his first home. So many neighborhoods in Detroit just keep sputtering on like that, like an old Cadillac, running off the fumes of dreams. A few are still nice, like the ritzy neighborhood of Palmer Woods, but most are at least looking a bit worse for the wear, but that’s part of what makes Detroit unique.

Around 2008, the foreclosure crisis gave Detroit a Joe Louis-style punch to the face. A foreclosed home or two can drive out a whole block of good, decent people. The lawn stops getting cut, criminals strip whatever metal they can, squatters move in to sell drugs, and occasionally dead bodies are even thrown into the abandoned homes. It's not exactly something you want your children walking by on the way to school. The surrounding property values plummet overnight – trends like that have turned entire blocks in Detroit into urban prairies.

When the 2010 Census results came in, it revealed that Detroit had lost 238,000 people over the last decade, bringing the population down 700,000 – over a million less than the city had at its height. This latest exodus from Detroit is rapidly transforming older, all-white Detroit suburbs like Southfield, Eastpointe (formerly East Detroit), and Harper Woods into bastions for the black middle class. Northland Center Mall, in Southfield by 8 Mile, now has 100% black clientele, and is home to stores like Truth Bookstore, billed as "THE Afrocentric bookstore." In south Warren, where white residents once cried "hang them!" in the 1970s when politicians tried to ram through cross-district busing policies that would've sent some Warren kids to Detroit Public Schools, the neighborhoods are now just socioeconomic extensions of Detroit. The only difference is that south Warren thankfully has a lot more cops.

There's always that question: what went wrong in Detroit? You can throw out phrases and buzzwords like deindustrialization, riots, globalization, urban sprawl, the auto industry, and white flight, but that overgeneralizes the situation.

Detroit's billowing smokestacks and reinforced concrete factories were doomed long before globalization, for example, and today stand like crumbling old gravestones commemorating old forgotten names like Packard, a visual reminder of what Detroit has lost. As early as the 1930s, auto companies and other manufacturers were putting up factories in Detroit's suburbs, where land was cheap and taxes were low, instead of the city itself. While Detroit would be called the "arsenal of democracy” by some during World War II, the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant that President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured in the early 1940s was actually located in nearby Warren, just outside Detroit’s borders. The new, suburban factories were sprawling, single-story complexes, radically different from the multistory factories such as the Ford Piquette Plant that had built the first Model T in Detroit. Beginning anew was easier than renovating or demolishing existing factories. After all, it was Henry Ford that once said: “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition.”

Businesses squeezed whatever potential productivity remained to be exploited in Detroit’s factories over the next couple decades, and then left the buildings to rot one way or another – often the factories were sold off to smaller companies that quickly went bust. During the 1950s and 1960s, freeways such as the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway and the Edsel Ford Freeway sped up the industrialization of the suburbs, where many factories still operate as vital parts of the local suburban economy. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of blacks and poor white southerners were still moving into Detroit proper thanks to the nondiscriminatory hiring policies of the city’s auto factories. The city was turning into a racial powder keg. Each factory that moved out of town was like a match being struck against a matchbox, and you knew sooner or later the match would light.

While white unemployment in Detroit hovered around 6% during the 1950s, black unemployment was about 16% - trouble was brewing. This led to increases racial resentment and black crime, which the mainly white Detroit police reacted to by creating the heavy-handed special unit STRESS, or Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets. STRESS became notorious in the black community for its discrimination of blacks and black neighborhoods, and Detroit’s first black mayor Coleman Young later made disbanding STRESS one of his first priorities in 1974.

The tipping point in Detroit’s race relations was 1967’s 12th Street Riot. It began one warm summer night when police raided a black speakeasy where several black Vietnam veterans were celebrating their return home. Within a day there was rioting all over the city, and it took five days and the National Guard to end the riots. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of whites evacuated Detroit, taking the freeway to the suburbs and accelerating a trend that had already been playing out for decades. Some well-to-do blacks would join them, though most stayed behind.

Sadly for Detroit, the city’s fleeing whites took more than their persons with them – they took the city’s commercial sector, too. In the 1970s and 1980s, over 10 skyscrapers and major high rises would be erected in the suburbs of Southfield, Troy, and Dearborn, along with numerous megamalls throughout the region. Meanwhile, some of Detroit’s most iconic skyscrapers were abandoned, like the 38-story Italian Renaissance-style Book Tower that still sits completely empty, or the now demolished J.L Hudson Building that was once the tallest department store in the world.

Mayor Young would say that the city was “mugged” by the suburbs while he was in office during the 1970s and 1980s, making it impossible for Detroit to reinvent itself in a time when most major American cities were suffering, anyway, even without the metaphorical muggings. Of course, globalization didn’t help matters, either. And neither did crack cocaine, which made Detroit’s drug trade insanely lucrative and turned thousands of citizens into desperate, clawing addicts. And, oh yeah, we also can’t forget the rampant political corruption, culminating with US Attorney Barbara McQuade serving former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with a 38-count felony indictment on corruption charges in 2010. No wonder the city was screwed.

For most ex-Detroiters, moving to the suburbs was an obvious win-win proposition. Unlike Boston, San Francisco, or Manhattan, Detroit was a city of single-family homes, complete with front and backyards – The American Dream, as we call it. Legendary urban planner and Greenwich Village booster Jane Jacobs even wrote in 1961 that “Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure.

In the suburbs, the only difference between your new neighborhood and your old one in the city was that your lawn and driveway was that much bigger, and your taxes that much lower. The suburbs were Detroit – just a bit more spaced out, and completely middle and upper class. And to top it all off, Downtown Detroit was still only a short drive away on the freeway if you wanted that big city experience now and then. As a result, the overwhelmingly white suburbs boomed even as the region's population remained stagnant, with a handful of cities topping the 100,000 population mark.

That brings us back, finally, to the decades-long, inexorable decline of Detroit. By the 1980s and 1990s, the city had transitioned from the automotive capitol of the world to the homicide and arson capitol. With each passing decade, it’s become more disillusioned, empowered, hopeless, and revitalized, all at the same time. It’s a crazy, mad place. Detroit’s basically bankrupt and hurtling toward a population of only 500,000 people, and yet, Detroit’s boosters are as optimistic as ever, convinced that urban farms, hip breweries, light rail, tech jobs, and downsizing the city around Downtown and Midtown will turn Detroit into a utopia. Mayor Dave Bing is even on board, recently unveiling a plan to deny certain city services from “distressed” neighborhoods in an attempt persuade taxpaying homeowners living there to get the hell outta Dodge already.

I don’t know what Detroit’s future holds, but I will say this – there’s an old adage that goes something like “Detroit today is your city tomorrow.” Let’s hope not. And I also can’t help but think of the welcome sign one Detroiter put up next to a playground on 8 Mile that I occasionally ride my bike by. It reads:

“WARNING! This CITY is INfested by CRACKHEADS SECURE Your Belongings and PRAY for Your Life Your Legislators Won't Protect You!”