Why We Need to Pay Attention to Detroit

The cost-cutting measures under discussion may have ramifications for blacks around the country.

Detroit (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Detroit (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It’s easy to get lost in the sea of staggeringly disturbing numbers coming out of Detroit.

The best estimates put Detroit’s debt around $18 billion. There isn’t enough money in city coffers to run buses in many neighborhoods after 8 p.m., according to city financial reports. A full 40 percent of the city’s streetlights don’t work. And if that combination is not scary enough, the average emergency-response time for police sits at a stunning 58 minutes.

But beyond the big debt and municipal dysfunction, the story of Detroit is one to which a growing group of historians, municipal financial analysts, economists and urban-management experts argue that America, particularly black America, ought to pay close attention.

Detroit’s downfall is not just the story of a once-great American city brought to its knees by global economic forces, mismanagement, corruption and unsustainable levels of debt. Nor is the Motor City’s financial mess unique. Cities around the nation are struggling with their own crises of debt, vacancy and physical decline that will make it hard to sustain workforces, pay retirees and foster the kinds of schools, businesses and institutions that once made Detroit a center of economic, political and artistic opportunity for black and white working-class Americans.

What happens in the effort to save or at least salvage Detroit could eventually shape the lives of people living in major cities across the country, economists and historians say.

To understand the depths of Detroit’s decline, you first have to look at the Motor City’s past, said Kevin K. Gaines, a historian at the University of Michigan.

“Detroit was once the greatest of American cities,” Gaines said. “It was a place where working people, ordinary people, could achieve the good life.”

Long Industrial History

For Detroit, a community founded 313 years ago, industry has long been its lifeblood, Gaines said. First auto manufacturing and later, during World War II, the work of creating war equipment and munitions created so many jobs that successive waves of people streamed into Detroit.

The city quickly became a leading front on the battle to organize labor and make the promise of universal civil rights real, Gaines said. But African Americans who arrived seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunities not available in the Jim Crow South faced so many struggles with housing, political representation and access to public resources in Detroit that the city erupted in riots in the 1940s and 1960s.

Detroit did manage to build once-legendary public schools and to attract the talent and resources that created not just iconic American cars but also distinctive African-American music and companies such as Motown Records.