Nathaniel Popkin is the author of Song of the City: An Intimate History of the American Urban Landscape.
Perhaps no book has better clarified the story of 20th century urban decline than the 1996 Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton Press) by Penn historian Tom Sugrue. That book, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998 and cemented Sugrue’s place among the top urban historians, illuminated the ways in which racism, federal policy, and corporate disinvestment combined to send Detroit—and dozens of other industrial cities—into freefall. Sugrue, who grew up in Detroit and lives in Mount Airy, is a careful observer of both his cities.
In recent weeks, as politicians and news media responded to Detroit’s bankruptcy, Sugrue has been called on to comment. Often, he’s found that he’s had to counter the same myths and often ideologically-charged misinformation about the causes of decline his seminal book dispelled 17 years ago. “When I wrote Origins, Sugrue told me in an interview, “I discovered a forgotten history that essentially ran counter to the myth of Detroit: namely that it was a thriving bastion of prosperity and racial harmony until the 1967 riot and the rise of black political power. Detroit's problems were much deeper—a long roiling history of white on black conflict and steady corporate disinvestment beginning in the 1950s. Today's conventional wisdom on Detroit is similar—black misrule, corruption, self-serving public workers all responsible for fiscal collapse.”
So who killed Detroit? “Decades of disinvestment. Deep rooted city-suburban conflict. Pervasive housing and school segregation by race. Hostility toward the city in the state capitol. Steady federal withdrawal from urban spending. A tax base inadequate to pay for even basic city services. And some incompetence in city management. Blaming Democrats, public workers, and mayors might be politically expedient, but it overlooks the real causes of Detroit’s troubles.”...