Tom Sugrue, Kevin Boyle, and Daniel Okrent on the Decline and Fall of Their Hometown, Detroit

Historians in the News
tags: AP, Detroit, Tom Sugrue, Kevin Boyle, Daniel Okrent

In 1945, Detroit was the American Dream.

During World War II, the Detroit region was the center of American wartime production. The Willow Run factory near Ypsilanti, a few miles outside of Detroit proper, produced nearly half of the some 18,500 B-24 Liberator bombers built during the war. Ninety-one percent of all G.I. helmets were produced in Detroit. The city was home to the nation's first tank plant; a quarter of the nearly 90,000 tanks produced by the United States during the war were built in Detroit.

That was the Detroit Tom Sugrue's parents and grandparents knew. But it was a city largely built on quicksand, reliant on the postwar auto industry for continued growth and which dealt with the large wartime influx of African American workers with discriminatory housing policies and at times brutal violence.

The good times wouldn't last.

Sugrue, now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, was born in Detroit in 1962, and traced the decline and fall of his hometown in the Bancroft Award-winning The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. With the nation's -- and indeed, the world's -- attention again fixated on city due to its recent filing for bankruptcy, Sugrue has found his expertise in demand. He was featured in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail on July 19, and was quoted extensively, along with fellow Detroit natives turned historians Kevin Boyle and Daniel Okrent, in a featured Associated Press story on Detroit's decline and fall.

Sugrue and Boyle point to a variety of factors for Detroit's woes. The postwar manufacturing boom was largely over by the mid-1950s, as big companies fled the city for cheaper, non-unionized labor in the Sunbelt. Union membership declined -- membership in the United Auto Workers today is a mere 26 percent of its peak size in 1978. And jobs fled the city -- between 1947 and 1963, Sugrue told the AP, Detroit lost 140,000 jobs.

Racial tensions also caused significant problems. In 1943, the city suffered its first modern race riot, as tensions boiled over on Belle Isle Park. Between June 20 and June 22, thirty-four people were killed, seventeen of whom were African Americans. Even worse was the riot of 1967, one of the most destructive in American history (only surpassed by the 1863 New York draft riots and the 1992 Los Angeles riot), which killed forty-three people.

Sugrue and Boyle noted, however, that between 1945 and 1965, over two hundred "violent racial incidents" took place in the city, typically when black families tried to cross neighborhood color lines.

In the aftermath of the 1967 riot, white flight reached epidemic levels; by 2010, the city had lost over half its population, a little over 700,000, from its 1950 peak of 1.8 million, and almost all of its white population (the city is now 83 percent black).

White disinvestment from the city proper sparked decades of urban-suburban tensions and gross disparities. Detroit's median household income is $26,000; the median income of nearby Farmington Hills is $73,000. Shortfalls in the city budget have caused massive gaps in municipal services. The average police response time to 911 calls is over sixty minutes. Entire neighborhoods have been essentially abandoned and are off municipal power and water grids.

With a massive pension load and an inability to provide basic government functions -- the city has been governed by an emergency manager since 2009, bankruptcy was the best of several bad options, and it's only the first step. Kevin Boyle, the Northwestern professor, told the AP that "[bankruptcy] will presumably clear the debt. Something will have to happen for it not to repeat this pattern five or ten years from now."

Boyle concluded, "I don't ever think it'll go back to the city it once was."

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