Monday, August 12, 2013

Detroit's destruction began in its heyday

Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1997) is a great book -- and in some ways a simple one.  It provides extensive, fine-grained documentation of two or three (depending on how you count) relentless forces that destroyed Detroit.

The first was the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs that was in full flow by the early fifties, and could only have been stemmed by national industrial policies unthinkable in the United States: a rollback of Taft-Hartley's enablement of state right-to-work laws; a German-style role for labor in corporate management; legal restrictions on companies' right to lay off workers or move manufacturing operations as they saw fit.

The second was the vicious, rooted, legally codified and government-sanctioned racism that kept African Americans at the bottom of the labor totem pole, consigning them to the hardiest, dirtiest, poorest-paying and least secure factory jobs and excluding them skilled crafts, retail service and a host of other occupations.


Third, or second-part-b, was the institutionalized racism that first kept African Americans penned in the inner city and then later constrained and poisoned their movement outward. Those unfamiliar with the details of this history (beyond some generalized knowledge of redlining, blockbusting and white flight,which is what I had) may be shocked by state and federal policies that kept blacks out of new public housing and denied them FHA loans in white neighborhoods.  But the book's most dramatic and fraught chapters detail the vicious, unified, orchestrated campaigns that working class white neighborhoods waged for decades to first freeze out, and then intimidate and drive out, African American home buyers.  Neighborhood associations planned demonstrations of hundreds outside black "pioneers" homes and planned and executed act of vandalism -- window-breaking, spray-painting, faucet-flooding, cross-burning, garbage-dumping; they incited their teen children to such acts and shielded them from consequences; they organized phone intimidation campaigns aimed at realtors and prospective sellers; they offered to buy out prospective black neighbors.

Sugrue induces a partial, conditional empathy for members of the tight-knit, stable communities of proud working class homeowners as they witnessed similar communities go from all-white to all-black within the space of a few years. Their worst fears became self-fulfilling prophecies:
By preoccupying blacks in block-by-block skirmishes, and hastily retreating when blacks finally "broke a block," residents of defended neighborhoods offered a small safety valve to residents of the overcrowded inner city. The rearguard actions of the defended neighborhoods essentially preserved-indeed strengthened-the principle of racial segregation in housing. They protected the homogeneity of all-white neighborhoods beyond the contested blocks. Over the long run, most of the defended neighborhoods became majority black communities. Whites, as one observer noted, "hold 'til the dam bursts, then run like hell." Those whites who remained were, with a few exceptions, older people who could not afford to move (Locations 2412-3416).
The deterioration of neighborhoods that "tipped" was accelerated by the equivalent of yesterday's subprime mortgages:
It was difficult enough for blacks to qualify for conventional mortgages because of redlining practices. But banks also seldom offered loans to blacks who were the first purchasers in a neighborhood, for fear of alienating their white clients and investors, and because they considered racially transitional neighborhoods to be risky investments.As an alternative to conventional financing, speculators offered land contracts to black home buyers who paid a premium through high down payments and often exorbitant interest rates. Land contracts were far less secure than mortgages. Speculators held onto the title of the property until the contract was fully paid off, thus preventing contract holders from building up equity. The combination of high housing prices and above-market interest rates meant that contract holders had to make large monthly payments to meet their debt obligations. If they defaulted, speculators simply evicted them and quickly offered the house to another desperate black buyer. The arrangement brought speculators a handsome profit with relatively little risk (Locations 2620-2626).
The instability was exacerbated by African Americans' precarious workplace status and by the steady evaporating of the manufacturing job supply (the city lost almost 130,000 manufacturing jobs from 1948 to 1967). Over decades, relatively prosperous African Americans as well as whites fled the inner city,  leaving poverty concentration more intense in the 1980s than it had been in the 1950s. Sugrue's core narrative ends with the 1967 riots.  But that focus serves his larger point: the forces that destroyed Detroit were set in motion before 1950 and accelerated through an era now remembered as a golden age.

As a personal footnote: I have lived in two communities that, before my time in either, arrested the process of white flight in mid-course. The first is the 19th ward in Rochester, New York, where I believe in the mid-sixties a strong neighborhood association defined its current mission: "to create, foster and maintain a "multi-racial community where individual and cultural differences are celebrated and where people maintain a shared sense of community."  The second is our current home, the combined South Orange-Maplewood school district in New Jersey, where the rather archaically named Coalition on Race maintains a similar if somewhat more grandiose "vision...to achieve and sustain the benefits of a thriving, racially integrated and truly inclusive community that serves as a model for the nation." Sugrue's book has for sure sharpened my respect for what the pioneers of these effective organizations accomplished back in the day.

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