Everyday, when I drive through the graffiti-ridden, littered streets of Detroit, I’m overcome by nihilistic despair. With broken-down stores and homeless drug addicts scavenging for a single dime to sustain their intoxication, it’s impossible to believe that Detroit was once a
prosperous city with a affluent Black middle class and working men earning higher wages than their counterparts in New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia .
The Arsenal of Democracy. Detroit earned that prestigious title for being heavily instrumental during the Second World War. Factory workers labored exhaustively to build military jeeps, tanks and bombers. Can you imagine how different our world would look if the
Allies didn’t defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?
Detroit was the pride of America. Now it is the cesspool of hopelessness.
What happened to you, Detroit? You were the epitome of innovation and progress.
You were home to the revolutionary Automobile industry, attracting thousands of migrants from all over the country.
You gave us Motown music, which united Blacks and Whites during a very tumultuous period in race relations.
Unknown to most, Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech in your vicinity six months before he delivered that same speech in front of millions in Washington!
It would be difficult to pinpoint the genesis of Detroit’s decline. Most historians would blame the race riots of 1967. While placing the blame on that particular event is an oversimplification, let’s began our story on July 23rd 1967.
On my way home, I always drive through the intersection of W Grand Boulavard and 12th street (renamed Rosa Parks street). It’s eerie and bewildering to know that this intersection was the nucleus of Detroit’s most infamous riots.
The time was 3:00am. A Saturday evening party overflowed into the first few hours of Sunday morning. As most of the city slept, anticipating church service followed by a Tigers match, over eighty men celebrated the return of two soldiers from Vietnam at an unlicensed drinking club, taking place at the office of the United Community League for Civil Action on 12th Street.
It wouldn’t be long before the revelry was raided by Detroit’s predominantly White police force (boy, how times have changed!). While attempting to arrest all the men involved, someone, allegedly the son of the organizer, threw a bottle at the police force, inciting hostile reactions by both the police and the revelers.
Suddenly the drunken revelers threw stones and bricks at the police cars and due to policemen’s inability to quench the violent backlash, the group of revelers turned into a bloodthirsty mob and mob violence evolved into a full-out war in the city.
No one was spared. Blacks and Whites stood horrified as they saw their businesses burned
to the ground, their houses set on fire, and their loved ones being indiscriminately shot for the sole crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For a couple of days, politicians were hesitant to intervene, at least through effective means. The self-destructive results of partisan politics were on full display. Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a Democratic politician who cultivated a rapport with the Black community in exchange for their votes, was reluctant to request assistance from Governor George Romney (you know him as Mitt Romney’s pops!) in subverting the predominantly Black mob. In addition, Republican Governor Romney, anticipating a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, was equally reluctant to ask Democratic president Lyndon Johnson for deployment of federal troops to contain the violence.
Thank God that hyperpolarized partisanship is no longer a common feature in American politics! Yayyyy!!!
After five days, forty-three people had been killed, over a thousand sustained injuries, over two thousand businesses were destroyed effectively destroying the American dream for the significant number of Detroit residents. The damages resulted in a loss of $80 million.
The riots triggered the so-called White flight where numerous White residents and affluent Black business owners fled to the nearby suburbs (like my hometown). The city had lost a substantial portion of its tax base, launching the fast track into the deep hole of widespread poverty.
There is a Wayne State Law professor named John Mogk who blames the Millikin V Bradley Supreme Court decision of 1971. The NAACP filed a civil suit against Govenor William Millikin in protest over de facto segregation. The schools in the inner city were predominantly Black while schools in the suburbs were predominantly White. Redlining over property ownership was seen as the primary cause. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled in favor of the NAACP only to have their decision overruled by the Supreme Court. If Segregation was addressed properly and integration was encouraged, it can be argued that there would be more White (and affluent Black) residents in Detroit, leading to a more prominent tax base benefiting the city’s revenue.
Detroit witnessed a historical moment in 1974 when the first Black mayor was elected. Coleman Young would hold the mayoral office for the next twenty years. Young was a very dynamic and charming. He was also very eccentric and had a
penchant for profanity. He referred to himself as HNIC (Head Nigger In Charge). He often made remarks like “Aloha, Motherfuckers!” and “I don’t have time to talk to a house nigger” with such casual ease.
And you thought Donald Trump was bad!
Coleman Young was a trade unionist and a far left activist. He grew up victimized by systemic White supremacy and as soon as he became mayor, he sought revenge.
In collaboration with GM, he targeted an district of Polish immigrants and forcibly had them evacuated in order for GM’s power plant to be established. He divided the police force across racial lines and weakened their ability in maintaining safety and security in the city.
Crime rates soared under the Coleman Young administration. The drug trade reigned supreme in Detroit. In the 1970s, gangs including the Errol Flynns and the Black Killers distributed heroin to the city’s youth. A decade later, the heroin market was replaced by crack cocaine, perhaps influenced by the dark alliance between the CIA and the Contras. The Black Mafia Family and Young Drugs Inc. established their turf. The Arsenal of Democracy became the Arsenal of dope.
Years have passed and Detroit has reached its nadir as it filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013.
More despair. More hopelessness.
Although he originally planned to relocate his company to Cleveland, Dan Gilbert, real estate giant and founder of Quicken Loans parent of companies, was encouraged, through tax reduction incentives, by the Michigan state government to relocate his company to downtown Detroit. Five years have passed and the face of downtown Detroit’s has completely changed as Gilbert continues to spearhead renovation projects, investing in Detroit by increasing its aesthetic and commercial value.
Of course, one must not forget the dark side of gentrification, as small business in the area have been forced to close and low-income residents forced to relocate.
Quicken Loans’ business practices are also being questioned by the US dept of Justice. But that’s a blog post for a different time.
The future of Detroit is uncertain. Will our city emerge from the ashes as it did after the Great Fire of 1805? Or will it continue to cripple and become nothing more than a tearful memory.
Only time will tell