Detroit’s collapse reveals the awful dystopia the US is becoming
July 20, 2013
The big question is whether Detroit’s bankruptcy and likely further decline is a fluke or whether it tells us something about the dystopia that the United States is becoming. It seems to me that the city’s problems are the difficulties of the country as a whole, especially the issues of deindustrialization, robotification, structural unemployment, the rise of the 1% in gated communities, and the racial divide. The mayor has called on families living in the largely depopulated west of the city to come in toward the center, so that they can be taken care of. It struck me as post-apocalyptic. Sometimes the abandoned neighborhoods accidentally catch fire, and 30 buildings will abruptly go up in smoke.
Detroit had nearly 2 million inhabitants in its heyday, in the 1950s. When I moved to southeast Michigan in 1984, the city still had over a million. I remember that at the time of the 1990 census, its leaders were eager to keep the status of a million-person city, since there were extra Federal monies for an urban area of that size, and they counted absolutely everyone they could find. They just barely pulled it off. But in 2000 the city fell below a million. In 2010 it was 714,000 or so. Google thinks it is now 706,000. There is no reason to believe that it won’t shrink on down to almost nothing.
The foremost historian of modern Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue, has explained the city’s decline. First of all, Detroit grew from 400,000 to 1.84 million from 1910-1950 primarily because of the auto industry and the other industries that fed it (machine tools, spare parts, services, etc.) From 1950 until now, two big things happened to ruin the city with regard to industry. The first was robotification. The automation of many processes in the factories led to fewer workers being needed, and produced unemployment. (It was a trick industrial capitalism played on the African-Americans who flocked to Detroit in the 1940s to escape being sharecroppers in Georgia and elsewhere in the deep South, that by the time they got settled the jobs were beginning to disappear). Then, the auto industry began locating elsewhere, along with its support industries, to save money on labor or production costs or to escape regulation.
The refusal of the white population to allow African-American immigrants to integrate produced a strong racial divide and guaranteed inadequate housing and schools to the latter. Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, you had substantial white flight, of which the emigration from the city after the 1967 riots was a continuation. The white middle and business classes took their wealth with them to the suburbs, and so hurt the city’s tax base. That decrease in income came on top of the migration of factories. The fewer taxes the city brought in, the worse its services became, and the more people fled. The black middle class began departing in the 1980s and now is mostly gone.
Other observers have suggested other concomitants of the decline, like poor city planning or the inability to attract foreign immigrants in sufficient numbers. I suspect that the decline of Detroit as a port is important somehow to the story (only one of the four old locks at Sault St. Marie lets big ships come down to the lower Great Lakes and therefore to Detroit any more. A new, big [pdf] modern lock is being built to accommodate larger vessels, but it will be a decade before it opens. Some observers point out that Detroit would make sense as a Midwest hub port for international shipping containers if its harbor was expanded and linked by rail to the cities of the region, but I suspect the new lock at the Soo is a prerequisite.