Posted on August 5, 2009

What Killed Detroit?

David Frum, National Post, August 4, 2009


What killed Detroit?

The collapse of the automobile industry seems the obvious answer. But is it a sufficient answer? The departure of meatpacking did not kill Chicago. Pittsburgh has staggered forward from the demise of steelmaking. New York has lost one industry after another: shipping, garment-manufacture, printing, and how many more?

Two other factors have to be considered.

The first is the especially and maybe uniquely poisonous quality of Detroit’s race relations. Like Chicago, Detroit attracted hundreds of thousands of black migrants between 1915 and 1960, mostly very unskilled, hoping to gain well-paying employment in factories and warehouses.

Their arrival jeopardized the ambitions of the white working class to raise its wages through unionization. Henry Ford eagerly hired black workers in order to defeat the unions, and in the violent labor clashes of the 1930s, whites and blacks often confronted each other as strikers and strikebreakers.

After the war, the United Autoworkers union tried to integrate blacks into the industrial workforce. But by then automation had begun, and industry’s demand for unskilled labor would first cease to grow, then diminish, then disappear. For many migrants, the promised land soon proved a mirage. Or maybe worse than a mirage. If the promised land did not yield the hoped-for industrial jobs, it offered something else: generous new welfare programs, the ashy false fruit of urban liberalism. The children of the parents who accepted the fruit grew into the criminals who drove first the middle class and then the working class out of the downtown and then altogether out of the city.

As the white working class departed, Detroit became a black-majority city, governed by a deeply aggrieved and flagrantly corrupt political class. Political dysfunction spiraled the city into another cycle of dissolution and abandonment–and the abandonment in turn provided the politicians with fresh grievances.

The second factor in Detroit’s decline is the city’s defiant rejection of education and the arts. Pittsburgh has Carnegie-Mellon. Cleveland has Case Western Reserve University. Chicago has the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and a campus of the University of Illinois. Detroit has . . . Wayne State.

A city that celebrated industrial culture spurned high culture. The Detroit Institute of Arts is very nice. But it does not begin to compare to Cleveland’s museum, let alone the Art Institute of Chicago. Detroit has a symphony orchestra, but its history has been troubled and unstoried in comparison to Philadelphia’s or Cleveland’s. On the plaza in front of the Detroit municipal building is a huge bronze replica of Joe Louis’ fist and arm, as if to say: “Here is a city ruled by brawn.” Brawn counts for very little in the modern world. The earnest redevelopers who hoped to renew Detroit by razing its history instead destroyed the raw materials out of which urban renaissance has come to so so many other American downtowns. {snip}

Detroit confirms the lessons taught by Jane Jacobs and Russell Kirk. Preservation is as vital to urban health as renovation. Indeed, they are inseparable. The preservation of the old incubates the new.