Opinion » Gwynne Dyer

Motor City



As it happens, I was in Detroit this month. I went to see the art and the architecture, domains in which Detroit is still one of the richest cities in the United States. It's broken, and it's broke, and now it's officially bankrupt too. But bankruptcy is actually a device for escaping from unpayable debt.

All over the world, Detroit's bankruptcy is being used as an excuse to pore over what's sometimes called "ruin porn:" pictures of the rotting, empty houses that still stand and the proud skyscrapers that have already been torn down. There's even a self-guided tour of "the ruins of Detroit" available on the Internet: people take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the calamitous fall of a once-great city.

Two-thirds of Detroit's population have fled in the past fifty years, but there were specific reasons why Detroit fell into decline, and there are also reasons to believe that it could flourish again — not as a major manufacturing centre, perhaps, but "major manufacturing centres" probably don't have a bright long-term future anywhere. There are other ways to flourish, and Detroit has some valuable resources.

The events that triggered the city's decline are well known. Large numbers of African-Americans from the southern states migrated to Detroit to meet the demand for factory workers during and after the Second World War. Being mostly unskilled, they started in the worst jobs — and even after they had acquired the skills, they stayed in low-paying jobs because of racial prejudice.

Spurned by the unions and victimized by a racist police force, they eventually rioted in the summer of 1967. Brutal policing made matters worse and hundreds were killed, but the worst consequence was the fear that the violence engendered. The great majority of the whites just left town

I first went to Detroit a couple of months after the riots, and driving into the city the fear was actually visible. The traffic lights are spaced far apart on Woodward Avenue, and as each light turned green all the cars would accelerate away — and then, if the next light was still red, they would slow more and more until they were barely crawling, but they dared not stop for fear of being attacked.

Then, finally, the light would turn green, and they would race away through the intersection — only to go through the whole process again as they approached the next light. It was this unreasoning fear that caused the massive "white flight" to the suburbs and the hollowing out of Detroit.

The big automobile companies also took fright, and the new car plants were built elsewhere. As the jobs disappeared and the population dropped, the tax base fell even faster, for most of the people left behind in the city were poor or unemployed African-Americans. The city could no longer afford to provide good police or medical services, so even more people left.