The bankruptcy of Detroit has served to bring a number of armchair philosophers, economists, and pundits out of the woodwork, all spouting their reasons for Detroit's decline and the future viability of the city. I freely admit to being one, but at the same time, unlike a lot of the more visible talking heads, I actually live nearby, in Ypsilanti - a city that suffers a lot of the same problems as Detroit does, just on a smaller scale.
Many believe that the 12th St Riot (otherwise known as the Detroit Race Riot of 1967) was the reason Detroit fell apart. The riot was not the reason, but it's easy to see how someone might get that impression. The riot was merely the flashpoint for a powderkeg that had been brewing since the 1930s. It threw fuel on the fire, but it was far from the spark that got the blaze roaring. To get a clearer picture of just what went into the fall of the city, you have to look back much, much further.
Back the clock up roughly thirty years. WWII is in full swing in Europe and President Roosevelt, along with Congress, have fully endorsed the "all aid short of war" standard that would be the norm prior to Pearl Harbor. American weapons, vehicles, and supplies are being sent to the Allies in massive numbers to support them, and American factories are struggling to keep up with the need.
More below the squiggle.
Executives at GM and Ford, realizing that the demand for their vehicles is beginning to outstrip their capacity to produce, decide to increase their production capability and to expand their facilities. In doing so, they add tens of thousands of jobs in the Detroit area, and make it known that they will pay good wages and provide proper training to anyone willing to come north to the city and work. What resulted is a mass migration of thousands of poor, uneducated blacks and whites from primarily southern states, all looking to carve out their portion of the American Dream.
Between 1940 and 1950, when Detroit earned its nickname as the Arsenal of Democracy, the city's black population nearly doubled (9.2% in 1940 to 16.2% in 1950).
Now, what do you think is going to happen when you bring poor southern whites and poor southern blacks together in close proximity, and give both groups enough money to become upwardly mobile? You have a perfect recipe for a lot of racial tension and stratification. White and black enclaves sprang up and isolated themselves like wildfire all over the city, and wherever the two intermixed, sparks flew. The Sojourner Truth housing projects at Nevada and Fenelon in Detroit were a perfect example of white intolerance to black Americans who attempted to integrate themselves.
Tensions became so bad, in fact, that Detroit suffered through a riot right in the middle of World War II: The Belle Isle Riot of 1943 was sparked when a white man's girlfriend was supposedly insulted by a black man. The riot lasted three days, killed 34 (25 of whom were black), and saw ~1800 arrested (roughly 1500 of which were black). Police response to the riots were notoriously one-sided, accounts of white rioters overturning cars in front of the old Roxy Theater on Woodward went largely ignored while police indiscriminately arrested and detained blacks. The Japanese, ironically, attempted to use the '43 riot as a wedge to agitate blacks currently serving in the U.S. Army by issuing a pamphlet called "Fight Between Two Races".
The 1943 riot was a disturbing omen, and the racial reality that it so violently uncovered would boil over again less than 25 years later. Further controversial practices, such as redlining, blockbusting, and even the building of physical walls further deepened the divide (the Birwood/8 Mile Wall on the north and the walls paralleling Alter Rd on the east side are still-standing examples).
The backwards direction race relations in Detroit have been going have only served to further the city's decline. Many white residents of the metro area still think like their xenophobic descendants, either subconsciously or otherwise, while the black residents of the city proper fear (and quite possibly rightly) that whites outside the city want to take away what little they have left and cast them to the curb. The metro area is home to five municipalities with per-capita incomes in the top 100 (#10 W. Bloomfield, #36 Farmington Hills, #43 Rochester Hills, #75 Royal Oak, and #88 Shelby Twp) but Detroit itself ranks 1st in large cities with high poverty; 36.2% of the city's residents live at or below the federal poverty line. This divide continues to worsen, making life for the residents even more difficult.
The bankruptcy has brought out numerous individuals looking to scavenge over the city, to try and steal away the jewels that Detroit kept hidden throughout its years of decline. Christie's Auction House even appeared at the DIA, unbidden, to assess the value of the historic museum's collection. There are too many who simply say, "Let Detroit go, let it collapse. It's too far gone."
I call shenanigans, and quite frankly, call bullshit on the claims that Detroit is a dead city. It's far from dead, and there are 701,745 residents in the city limits who will beg to differ.
But at the same time, I won't lie that Detroit has a very serious problem staring it in the face and the unwillingness of the city's long-time residents and those of the suburbs to come to terms with one another is going to continue to slow down any recovery the city might experience. As long as the whites outside 8 Mile continue to think that the city dwellers are all crackheads, welfare queens, and leeches; and as long as the blacks inside the city limits think that the suburbanites are inhuman thieves who are constantly trying to rob them blind, the city will never gain any serious traction in its recovery. There must be a dialog; a frank, mutual, and peaceable one, and it must be moderated by those with cooler heads and the uncommon ability to be objective and be willing to point out to both sides when they are in the wrong, and when they are in the right. It must force both sides to come to terms with the unreasonableness of both extremes and make them realize that the entire region is doomed to struggle until they find a way to work together and get past the incredibly stupid notion that just because you're black, you must be a lazy good-for-nothing; or the equally stupid notion that just because you're white, you're a greedy, conniving thief who would happily sell their own mother if it would result in a profit for them. Until that point, Detroit's recovery will remain sluggish -- but once the stereotypes come crashing down, Detroit will experience a rebirth embodied by its motto:
Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus.
My sources for information: