Overall, our migration from apartment, to flat, to house, to upscale house is pretty average for the couples that formed when young men came home from Word War II.
As for myself, I spent some time out of Michigan as a young adult, then came home to settle in East Detroit (later renamed Eastpointe). Today, I'm a landlord who owns and manages five houses.
I live in the suburbs, but I'm a Detroiter.
I grew up making little distinction of the line between the city and suburbs -- Eight Mile Road. I went downtown regularly. One of my earliest memories was going downtown with my mother for a doctor's appointment. We road the bus and the street cars (long gone). I insisted in holding the little transfer slip for our change from bus to street car. Mom held my hand as we crossed to the middle of the street where the street cars ran.
When I was a bit older, I would go downtown to visit my Dad at work. I rode the bus. Dad would send me out to pick up carryout in Greektown, a few blocks from where he worked. That was the early 1960s, there was no particular worry about sending a 12-year-old out onto the streets with money to pick up lunch. His secretary once sent me to the bank to deposit her paycheck. My friends and I would ride the bus downtown to shop at the old Hudson's store on Woodward Avenue, and to see movies at the fancy theaters at Grand Circus Park. The United Artists had sculptures of Indians holding severed heads on platters in alcoves around the edge of the auditorium.
It was a different city than I live next to today. The year I was born, I joined 1.8 million people in Detroit. Today, there are barely 700,000. The city I was born to was prosperous and multicultural. Today, bankruptcy and racial division are the two most noticeable attributes.
What happened to the city of my birth?
I'm no sociologist, but I have been witness to a lot in the 62 (going on 63) years of my life. White flight. School desegregation. Corruption. The Detroit riots. History has not been kind to my city.
Maybe the most pivotal event in Detroit's history was the 1967 riots.
The 1967 Detroit riot, also known as the 12th Street riot, was a violent public disorder that turned into a civil disturbance in Detroit, Michigan. It began on a Saturday night in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967. The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the corner of 12th (today Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount streets on the city's Near West Side. Police confrontations with patrons and observers on the street evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit's 1943 race riot.White flight began before 1967, but the 12th Street Riot accelerated it. Detroit had a good-sized black community before the riot -- mostly people who moved north from the South to work in the auto industry -- afterward, they became the majority.
The auto industry is why Detroit became an industrial powerhouse with prosperity for nearly everyone. That tract neighborhood my family moved to in 1953 was mostly populated by autoworkers.
School desegregation in the 1960s was another factor in white flight. I'm not foolish enough to think that it wasn't about being told they had to send their children to school with black children. That was part of it. But the other part was children taking long bus rides every day when there were schools close by in their neighborhoods.
(Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on Detroit school desegregation. I remember news stories from my childhood, but I was a kid and memory cheats. My view on this is undoubtedly biased by the discussions I heard from my parents.)
By the time I graduated from Grosse Pointe High School in 1969, busing had pretty much stopped because the Detroit Public Schools were pretty evenly majority African American and there wasn't much point to busing children around.
In the later half of the 1960s, white flight reached its peak. I remember one of my teachers at school was living in Detroit and sold his house to get out of the city after the riot. We Grosse Pointe teenagers debated the "morality" of his move. Was he giving in to the "blockbusters," (real estate agents who went down streets in Detroit telling people that "black people are moving in" and offering to list their houses), or was he simply doing what any rational person would do if they could?
Sometimes efforts to make things better make things worse. The urban renewal efforts of the 1960s were an unmitigated disaster. Subsidized housing projects became havens for crime and poverty. The slums they built were worse than the slums they tore down.
The real estate crash hit Detroit long before it got to everybody else. When the bubble was still growing everywhere else, you could buy a house in Detroit for next to nothing. But you were buying property with little or no public services. Maybe the water was flowing, but if you called 911 who knows how long it would take for the police to show up, and the trash might or might not be picked up. Snow removal was next to non-existent, and most of the city had no street lights.
After white flight, the next blow to Detroit's gut was corruption. It was there before the city became majority African American. Like a lot of large American cities, there was a system of patronage, and organized crime had a good grip.
The difference between Detroit and, say, Cleveland, is that the corruption got out of control. Kwame Kilpatrick (mayor 2001-2008 now serving a federal sentence for corruption) didn't invent Detroit corruption, but he raised it to a new level.
During the seven years Kilpatrick was in office, the city drifted. I don't know whether bankruptcy could have been averted with a better leader at the helm. I don't think anyone could possibly answer that. But the city's financial situation had become untenable by the time he was shipped off to prison. The only practical alternative to bankruptcy would have been a state bailout. But with the GOP controlling the Legislature and Rick Snyder in the governor's office, there was no chance that was going to happen.
And that's where we are today: Snyder's emergency manager, Kevin Orr, is trying to sell off the city's assets to pay the bills. Fact: the bills must be paid. But Orr's strategy is tantamount to eating your seed corn. Orr brings us a new variety of corruption: Corporatism. The fault, my dear Brutus, is not in the stars, it's in the Republican Party.
I'm a Detroiter. I may live on the north side of Eight Mile, but Detroit is part of me and always will be. You may wonder where the people involved in white flight went. They're still here. They moved to the suburbs. But they are Detroiters, too. They remember visits to the Aquarium on Belle Isle and the Detroit Zoo. They used to Christmas shop at Hudson's on Woodward. They've watched the fireworks from the Detroit riverfront. They go to the Auto Show at Cobo Hall. Special occasions meant dinner at the London Chop House, or a blockbuster movie at the United Artists Theater. They go to shows at the Fisher Theater. They used to watch the big odometer over the I-94/I-75 interchange click over how many cars had been built.
Racism is a cancer. It has harmed the white suburbanites who fled almost as much as the people who stayed behind in the city. If the suburbs and city could put aside decades of animosity and unite for the common good, we would have nearly the strength of the Detroit of the 1950s. If we could throw off the yoke of the corporatist GOP, we could start finding real solutions to the region's problems.
We need those solutions NOW. Southeast Michigan, i.e., the Detroit metropolitan area, has a unique advantage for development in the coming years. We have a fresh water supply that is as near to unlimited as it gets on the planet. Control of that resource will determine whether the society we have 50 years from now is under the thumb of the wealthy few or working to give everyone a shot at prosperity.
If Michigan remains in the grip of the GOP, the future is very, very dim.
Detroiters, unite. It's time to stop thinking in terms of "us vs. them," and start thinking about the strength we have that we're not using.