This article originally appeared in issue #34 of Lookout magazine, published in the spring of 1989. I wrote it after my first visit in several years to my home town of Detroit. Since that time, things have changed somewhat, both for the better. Some new construction has taken place and crime is not quite as out of control as it was then, but the city has lost another 100,000 residents and is facing bankruptcy. Its biggest asset is the spirit of its people, to whom I dedicate this article with the most heartfelt best wishes and hopes for the future.
DETROIT — We can only imagine what it must have been like. We have stories and sketches, and in the far north, little enclaves of wilderness where we can still close our eyes and imagine the soft splash of paddle against water, the almost imperceptible sound of birch bark canoes gliding through one of the thousands of rivers and streams that crisscrossed this rich and fertile land called Michigan.
So thick were the forests that the native peoples often found it easier to journey by water. So numerous were the trees that it must have been unimaginable that the puny efforts of man could ever make a dent in them.
But the forests are gone, nearly all of them. Of the vast stands of hardwood that covered the south, almost nothing remains; in the north, the remaining softwoods are rapidly disappearing into the maw of industry. In their place we have farms, some prospering and others struggling, we have great cities and sprawling suburbs, we have acid rain, soot-colored air, rivers brown with sludge and laced with chemicals.
Much of that damage was done before our time, by men who, while they may have motivated by greed, were also motivated by a desire to secure a home and a future for their children. It is easy to condemn the consequences of their actions, but I would prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, to assume they did the best they could, that they could not have understood the full implications of the course they were setting for society.
When I was a child, Detroit did not seem like such a terrible place. It was a bit dirty, yes, and function had long taken precedence over form, leaving us with miles of box-like tract homes and hideous smoke-belching factories, smelters, and refineries that made some sections of the city resemble the fetid outback of one of Dante’s hells.
But the noise and pollution, the thick smell of sulphur and carbon that blanketed the city on humid summer nights, the rivers of molten slag that colored the eastern sky with a vivid orange light almost bright enough to read by, all this added up to prosperity, and Detroiters for the most part considered themselves a lucky people.
Except during periodic slowdowns in the auto industry, there was usually work for everyone, and at good wages. Poor southerners, both black and white, flocked there to man the assembly lines for Mr. Ford and Mr. Chrysler. A man who in the hills of West Virginia might have barely been able to feed his family could move to Detroit and soon be buying his own home and driving a brand new Chevrolet.
With prosperity came amenities that softened the impact industry was having on the land. Outstanding art and historical museums, excellent libraries and schools, beautiful parks, broad boulevards, a first class symphony orchestra, all contributed to the feeling that our city was as fine a place to live as any in America. And while a New Yorker or Chicagoan might sneer at my naiveté, to a young boy like myself, Detroit was an urban wonderland, filled with all the excitement and promise, and perhaps just a hint of danger, that one could expect from a mighty city.
When I was nine years old I took my first trip downtown on my own, to take advantage of free piano lessons offered by Grinnell’s music store. It seems almost unthinkable today for a child of that age to wander alone in the middle of a major city, but in 1957 my parents saw no reason to worry, and indeed, I never had the slightest bit of trouble.
I was no stranger to downtown anyway; my family had been going there as long as I could remember, to shop, to attend free concerts on Belle Isle, to go through the museums or simply watch the boats go by on the river. And of course at Christmas time, when the city truly came into its glory, we would make numerous trips to see the decorations and sample the Santa Clauses in the various department stores.
As I grew older I saw less of Detroit. I went to college in another city, and eventually moved to California. So did my brothers and sister, and though my parents stayed behind, they began spending their winters in San Francisco, so I had little reason to visit my former home town anymore. I knew from friends and the news media that the Motor City had fallen on hard times, but it didn’t begin to sink in until my mom told me about the day my dad drove down to the Eastern Market, parked practically in front of the place, and had the battery stolen out of his car while he was inside for no more than a few minutes. Yes, in broad daylight.
I know it’s too much to expect some junkie or thief to worry about my dad, a man in his 70s who’s worked hard all his life and probably never consciously done harm to anyone, and I realize that in the world of modern crime, the theft of a car battery is a relatively petty affair. But the image of a white-haired man left stranded on the streets he used to brag that he knew like the back of his hand haunted me, and it made me wonder what had become of the Detroit I had known as a boy. Now, in my first visit in almost ten years, I have found the unhappy answer.
It’s gone. What was once, as we proudly learned in elementary school, America’s fourth largest city, is hardly even there anymore. The great stores and office buildings, the bustling crowds and excitement of downtown, all gone. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that you could roll a bowling ball down Woodward Avenue at high noon. The businesses that remain are the sort you would expect to see on the back streets of a down-on-its-luck border town. Two or three blocks from the center of the city rats scamper through vacant lots covered with weeds and broken glass. By day the streets are nearly deserted; by night they are a wasteland.
Twenty miles to the north or west or east, beyond the city limits, you will find huge shopping malls, parking lots packed solid with cars, crowds of people with plenty of money to spend. New houses and businesses sprout overnight, just as they do on the outer fringes of Los Angeles or San Francisco. But in Detroit itself there is little hope.
The city has lost almost half its population in less than twenty years. There are over 15,000 vacant buildings, and though the city tears them down at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a year, the number continues to grow. In a country where homelesness is becoming endemic, Detroit has literally thousands of homes that can’t be given away. Magnificent structures that would be called mansions and sold for millions of dollars in San Francisco sit empty, their windows broken out and their interiors gutted by bored children or junkies playing with matches.
My dad took me on a sad and meandering tour of the back streets, pointing out the spots where he had once lived or worked or played. He’s a reserved man, not easily given to displays of emotion, but I could hear the hurt in his voice as he pointed out one ruin after another, describing in his dispassionate manner the Detroit he had once known. He showed me the corner where he used to wait for the streetcar that he rode to work — the streetcars are gone now, and what’s left of the bus system might as well be — before we turned down the quiet residential street where he and my mother and I had lived for the first two years of my life. Mercifully, our block had weathered the years fairly well; there were only two abandoned houses. Our building was gone, but in its place was an elementary school and a playground.
The surrounding neighborhood was not in such good shape. On some blocks less than half the houses were occupied; still more shocking were the vast stretches of open land, empty except for weeds and the occasional tree. A first time visitor would never realize that thousands of solid brick and frame homes once stood here.
Where have all the people gone? Those who could afford it have moved to the suburbs, or to other states where there is a better chance of finding work. The automobile industry has not recovered, and probably never will, from the energy crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent shift in consumer loyalty to more fuel-efficient Japanese cars.
But that alone would not explain why half a city’s population would flee; many other cities have weathered similar economic upheavals. New businesses could have been created; with a little belt tightening, Detroit should have been able to make the transition to a post-industrial economy.
Simply put, the city is unlivable. Unless you are wealthy enough to live in one of the few privileged enclaves, to surround yourself with alarm systems and private guards, the threat to your life and limb is probably equal to if not greater than that faced by the inhabitants of Beirut or San Salvador.
Detroiters swap amazing crime tales the way Californians talk about the latest real estate prices. There’s the woman who drove her father to the entrance of Henry Ford Hospital, went to fetch a wheelchair for him, and returned to find both car and old man stolen. A man called 911 to report that an armed gang was kicking in his front door, to be asked by a bored-sounding dispatcher, “Are you sure they’re not friends of yours?” By the time police arrived his wife had been raped and murdered and he had been left paralyzed. At least a couple girls are raped every week in or on their way to school. Drive-by shootings? They hardly merit a line or two in the daily murder recap; the latest thing here is the “pedal-by,” where young kids on bicycles gun down their rivals.
Well-fed suburban whites, some of them at least, point to the rising tide of chaos in the inner city as evidence of their racial or political theories. It’s the blacks, they say, ever since they took over the city’s been going downhill. They are right in at least one regard: crime in Detroit is largely committed by blacks. But it wouldn’t be fair to mention that without noting that almost everything that happens in Detroit is done by blacks. It is an overwhelmingly black city.
It is also a desperately poor city. How much that has to do with the crime rate is anybody’s guess. Rape, torture, random shootings: these can hardly be blamed directly on economic need. Clearly the social fabric in Detroit is dangerously close to unraveling completely. What if anything does this have to do with the race of the people who live there?
Probably little or nothing. Detroit is an ugly window into a not-too-distant future. Its ruined buildings, its hopeless lives are the end product of the growth-at-any-price mentality that has driven the American economy for the past three centuries. Its shell-shocked inhabitants are the castoffs and leftovers of an industry that has extracted the wealth from the land and moved on to greener pastures. They are the human equivalent of the shattered remnants of strip-mined West Virginia mountains, of the vast piles of radioactive uranium tailings leaching death and deformity into New Mexico’s soil and water for the next 10,000 generations.
The color of their skin is relevant only insofar as it makes it even easier for prosperous whites to overlook the devastation that lies in the wake of their journey toward the American dream. Even many well-intentioned liberals fail to grasp that what is at work here in Detroit, and dozens of other American cities like it, is a system of apartheid in some ways more pernicious than that practiced in South Africa.
No laws prevent blacks from moving where they choose, and of course they have the right to choose their own government. But like the townships of South Africa, Detroit lacks the economic base to support itself. Nearly all the wealth is owned or controlled by whites from outside the city. The mayor and most of the city council are black, but they function almost entirely as employees of suburban industrialists.
Five-term mayor Coleman Young provides a vivid example. While his political appeal consists largely of his ability to communicate in the argot of the street and to tar anyone who opposes him with the brush of racism, Young has devoted most of his career to looting Detroit’s meager financial resources and delivering the lion’s share of them to a handful of white multimillionaires.
Much of the fraud is committed in the name of urban renewal or “redevelopment.” Vast chunks of federal tax dollars are kicked back to depressed cities like Detroit, where they are disposed of under the direction of politicians like Coleman Young.
With his flair for public relations, Young has managed to portray his white developer cronies as public-spirited benefactors, investing money and energy to restore Detroit to its former greatness. In reality they are milking the dying city like a cash cow, siphoning off millions of dollars that could be used to rehabilitate housing, streets, and schools.
Instead the money goes to things like the enormous trash incinerator whose construction decimated a neighborhood and which dumps tons of carcinogens and toxics into the already murky atmosphere. Half a billion dollars, enough for Detroit to purchase its own Stealth bomber, were consumed by this monstrosity which the state is already threatening to close down for environmental reasons. Undeterred, Mayor Young is pushing ahead with plans for a companion hazardous waste processing plant. Bear in mind that we are talking about an area no more than a couple miles from downtown; an equivalent bit of urban planning would locate the New York City Dump in Central Park.
Nearby one of the city’s last healthy working class neighborhoods was demolished to make room for a new Chrysler plant while thousands of acres of empty city-owned land sat nearby. Another auto plant built with $170 million of city funds ostensibly saved 3500 jobs (approximately $48,000 per job), but it’s worth remembering that auto workers are among the lucky ones who can afford to move to the suburbs, and most of them sooner or later will.
What we have here is thinly veiled Reaganomics; the wealth is funneled to corporations and investors with the idea that some of it will trickle down to the levels where it is so badly needed. It is of course wildly inefficient, but it also affords maximum opportunities for graft and corruption.
I wish that I could be more optimistic about Detroit’s future. I wish the people could see how they are being sold out by their elected representatives and how their mayor, himself a bagman for monied white interests, is using the bugaboo of racism to maintain his power.
But because racism is not merely a bugaboo, because it is so pervasive and entrenched on both sides of the color line, I do not see a great deal of hope. What is happening in Detroit is a regional problem, but as long as the poverty and crime can be walled off behind artificial city boundaries, suburban whites can blithely go about their business pretending that the cancer devouring the center of this once-great metropolis has nothing to do with them.
Sooner or later the rage and despair that envelops Detroit will no longer be containable. The spectre of all-out race war is no longer as far-fetched as it might have once seemed. And that is the real tragedy, because the true issue here is not racial at all, but economic. Race has become a useful device to divide the haves from the have-nots, and in the process it made it nearly impossible for people to find common ground, to stand together and ask, “What have they done to our land? What have they done to our humanity?”
It’s not unthinkable that Michigan could one day be restored to the magnificent and pristine state in which the white man found it. It is, however, wildly improbable, as long as huge segments of the population find it necessary to occupy themselves constantly with the bare essentials of survival. Detroit is a tragic monument to the failures of unbridled industrialism. It desperately needs leaders able to see that the way out of the wreckage does not lie in trying to reconstruct the immediate past. Instead it is cursed with a generation of vultures content to grow fat picking at its carcass.