Detroit's distress: A Q + A with Thomas J. Sugrue

Detroit’s fortunes have been in decline for years, but the latest Census data have made everyone sit up and take notice: The city lost 25 percent of its population over the past decade. Middle-class blacks are the latest to flee the Motor City in droves, fed up with crime, poor services and low-performing schools. In the 1950s, the population was 1.8 million. Now, it’s only 713,777, heading toward the 1910 figure of 400,000, when the auto industry that made Detroit was in its infancy.
Thomas J. Sugrue, the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about Detroit’s decline in “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” (1996, Princeton University Press). He spoke with Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio.

Q. What were the seeds of Detroit’s decline?
A. It was a combination of three forces at work at the same time. First, the flight of industry, capital and commerce to suburban and rural parts of the country. Second, the persistence of housing discrimination and segregation; the city was bitterly divided along lines of race. That was the crucial factor. And third, rapid suburbanization as working- and middle-class whites moved to the suburbs and outlying places.

Q. Like Newark, Detroit experienced riots in 1967. In the popular imagination, these uprisings are the source of all woes. Is that correct?
A. The process of white flight from Newark and Detroit began well before the 1967 riots. Older industrial cities began losing population in the 1950s, not just Newark and Detroit, but Pittsburgh, Gary, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, even New York City. White families were moving to the suburbs.

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