DETROIT – To me, Detroit has always seemed rich. My home town is a city that brims with history. It was the laboratory where Henry Ford would assemble his greatest creation, the automobile, and the city that would forever change how the world got around. We were the arsenal of democracy during the Second World War. Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa organized laborers here. The Nation of Islam was born here. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through our streets.
Detroit is robust with culture, diversity. We’ve given the world some of its greatest jazz artists, from Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan to Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd.
We’ve produced amazing rockers, such as Bob Seger, Jack White, Alice Cooper and crazy ass Ted Nugent. And pop music? Forget about it. One word: Motown. Actually, two more words: Aretha Franklin.
We also claim authors, such as Elmore Leonard, and poets such as Naomi Long Madgett and Haki Madhubuti. We were once a muse for artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
We’re home to one of the largest black populations in the country. The metropolitan Detroit area, meanwhile, has more Arab-Americans than almost any single Middle Eastern country.
We’ve always seemed rich to me in so many ways. And yet we’re broke.
On July 19, Detroit became the largest American city to claim municipal bankruptcy. The request for bankruptcy relief was filed by Kevyn Orr, an attorney appointed to turn around the city’s woeful finances. According to Orr, the city has about $18.5 billion in liabilities and no way to pay most of its obligations. His filing was 3,000 pages long and included the names of more than 100,000 creditors.
The filing capped a decades-long tumble for my city, which has seen its population plummet from nearly 2 million in the mid-1950s to under 800,000 today. Sadly, I’ve lived through far too much of that slide.
I was born in 1967, the year Detroit exploded in what was, at the time, regarded as the worst instance of social unrest the nation had ever seen. What some would call the 1967 Detroit riots — others here still refer to it as an “uprising” — resulted from a combination of racist police brutality, rampant discrimination in jobs and housing and growing disenchantment among the city’s growing black population.
My earliest memories are from the early 1970s, about the time my mother and I (my father, a frustrated doo-wop singer, had fled the city for the East Coast before I was born) moved into a small two-bedroom on the city’s far east side. Like most neighborhoods in Detroit at that time, ours was in transition. It had once been an all-white, working-class enclave. But even as we were settling in, white families were getting out as fast as they could.
The recently arrived black families mostly lived in harmony with our new neighbors, although tensions never seemed far from the surface. On occasion, they’d boil over, minor run-ins such as petty clashes among children stoking the larger resentments of the parents. We did the best we could to all get along. But the “For Sale” signs continued to sprout.
In 1974, about the time we moved into that house, the city saw its first African-American mayor, Coleman Alexander Young, take charge. Young was a former labor activist and state senator who’d won the mayoralty by campaigning largely against the still-rampant police brutality that had helped spark the riots.
Many, many whites took his election as an affront. Although Young was a master politician, who forged ties across the board, many white people cast him as some sort of militant. Fear and loathing turned the stream of whites who had been leaving the city, often as the result of government loans that weren’t available to blacks, into a cascade.
By the 1980s, Detroit had the highest concentration of African Americans of any major U.S. city. Not so coincidentally, around the same time, it became a target of many of the same destructive forces that would ultimately drive it to the brink of financial ruin.
Ronald Reagan had been elected president, ushering in a virulent new strain of hard rightwing ideology. Detroit, a black city, a union stronghold, a Democratic hotbed, was viewed as an enemy camp. The investments that had been made in Detroit in the 1970s began drying up as Reagan embarked on his policy of urban divestment and voodoo economics.
Meanwhile, the auto industry was losing huge chunks of ground to Japan. Jobs were shipped overseas or automated into oblivion. More families left town or fled to the ‘burbs. The small businesses that had sprouted to serve them began shuttering.
Young and his successors, Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick, tried to patch the holes by taking out more and more loans to keep the city afloat. But with businesses fleeing as fast as residents, Detroit couldn’t stay on top of its debt. The deficit continued to balloon.
Sadly, many Detroit leaders failed the city as much as the state leaders and national leaders above them. The city never formulated and held to a cohesive development plan for its downtown, its potentially grand riverfront or its neighborhoods. It never made the cuts to services and personnel necessary to suit its shrinking population.
The schools, which have been run by the state for much of the past 15 years, continue to fail students. And many of the neighborhoods that once marked Detroit as an ideal place to raise families are so abandoned that there are sometimes only one or two homes standing on entire blocks.
Crime, unemployment, illiteracy — all are at near Third World proportions. Detroit is an American tragedy. But Detroit is still rich. We still have a strong legacy, still have a passionate populace, still have the potential to become the Renaissance City we tried and failed to bill ourselves as in the 1980s.
The city may be down, but Detroiters refuse to stay prone. We can emerge from this historic “Chapter 9” filing stronger than we were before. We won’t ever be the same city. But we can be a better one. We may be bankrupt, but I believe Detroit can be rich again, same as it always was.
Darrell Dawsey is a columnist for Deadline Detroit.