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Autos troubles, race at root of Detroit collapse

Posted: July 22, 2013 8:00 a.m.
Updated: July 22, 2013 8:00 a.m.
 

Blue-collar workers poured into the cavernous auto plants of Detroit for generations, confident that a sturdy back and strong work ethic would bring them a house, a car and economic security. It was a place where the American dream came true.

It came true in cities across the industrial heartland, from Chicago's meatpacking plants to the fire-belching steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It came true for decades, as manufacturing brought prosperity to big cities in states around the Great Lakes and those who called them home. Detroit was the affluent capital, a city with its own emblematic musical sound and a storied union movement that drew Democratic presidential candidates to Cadillac Square every four years to kick off campaigns at Labor Day rallies.

The good times would not last forever. As the nation's economy began to shift from the business of making things, that line of work met the force of foreign competition. Good-paying assembly line jobs dried up as factories that made the cars and supplied the steel closed their doors. The survivors of the decline, especially whites, fled the cities to pursue new dreams in the suburbs.

The "Arsenal of Democracy" that supplied the Allied victory of World War II and evolved into the "Motor City" fell into a six-decade downward spiral of job losses, shrinking population and a plummeting tax base. Detroit's singular reliance on an auto industry that stumbled badly and its long history of racial strife proved a disastrous combination, and ultimately too much to overcome.

"Detroit is an extreme case of problems that have afflicted every major old industrial city in the U.S.," said Thomas Sugrue, author of "The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit" and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's been 60-plus years of steady disinvestment, depopulation and an intensive hostility between the city, the suburbs and the rest of the state."

All of the nation's industrial cities fell, but only Detroit hit bottom. Staggering under as much as $20 billion in unpaid bills, Detroit surrendered Thursday, filing the single largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

"What happened in Detroit is not particularly distinct," said Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about his hometown. "Most Midwest cities had white flight and segregation. But Detroit had it more intensely. Most cities had deindustrialization. Detroit had it more intensely."

Detroit's first wave of prosperity came after World War I and lasted into the early 1920s, driven by the rise of the auto industry. "It was the Silicon Valley of America," Boyle said. "It was home to the most innovative, cutting-edge dominant industry in the world. The money there at that point was just staggering."

More affluence followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the auto industry was booming. Tens of thousands of blacks migrated from the South seeking jobs on the assembly line and a foothold in the middle class. In 1950, Detroit's population peaked as a metropolis of more than 1.8 million, making it the nation's fifth-largest city. The transformation was dramatic.

"You've got a vast city of working people who no longer have insecure lives, people with high school and less than high school degrees who can earn enough to buy a house, a car, a boat, and sent their kids to Wayne State University," Boyle said.

But by that time, Detroit's decline had already begun.

The auto industry had started to expand beyond the city and was building plants and putting offices in suburban and rural areas, and eventually sought refuge from the city's powerful unions in the nation's Sunbelt states and even overseas. Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs, said Sugrue, the Pennsylvania professor.

A decade later, as Japanese auto imports started gobbling more of the U.S. market, the hemorrhaging of jobs continued. Membership in the United Auto Workers topped out at 1.5 million in 1978 and stands today at about 400,000, said Mike Smith, the union's archivist at Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library.

"In a way, it's not unlike a small town that has a textile factory for 50 years, then all of a sudden it closes up and the whole town is decimated," Smith said.

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