Why Detroit?

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford

by Beth Tompkins Bates
University of North Carolina Press

Detroit: A Biography

by Scott Martelle
Chicago Review Press

When I told my aunt—a lifelong Detroiter—that my novel about her city had found a publisher, she said, “Just don’t use its name in the title. People don’t like to think about Detroit.”

It’s true that some don’t—in the same way some of us avoid thinking about the chronically ill. It’s painful to have no solutions, discomforting to realize that such afflictions could befall me as well, easier to look away and assume the sufferer feels shame about having a condition that never improves and never goes away.

However, rather than shame, many current and former Detroiters feel an intricate mix of machismo and heartbreak about Detroit—the kind in Eminem’s ad for Chrysler shown during the 2011 Super Bowl. “A town that’s been to hell and back,” the narrator says as Eminem tours the city in a slick black Chrysler 200, showing us its sights, from grittiest to most refined. “This isn’t New York City, or the Windy City, or Sin City,” the narrator says. “And we’re certainly not anyone’s Emerald City,” he continues as Eminem enters Detroit’s gloriously restored Fox Theatre to a rising chorus of gospel music. “This is the Motor City,” the rapper concludes, sounding positively pugilistic. “And this is what we do.”

Like the chronically ill, Detroiters don’t want to be forgotten or ignored. But they don’t want pity either, and they’ve grown weary of the world’s fascination with what they call “ruin porn.” They have been to hell and (maybe) back. After all, Detroit went from Arsenal of Democracy to Automotive Capital of the World to America’s First Third-World City in a handful of decades. New Orleans, post-Katrina, was also anointed a Third-World City, but it already seems to have shrugged that label off its funky shoulders via some gumbo of cultural vibe and strategic locale at the commercial mouth of the mighty Mississippi. And true, Katrina was a swift and brutal blow, more an acute illness than a long-term chronic one. But still, why Detroit? By which I mean, why has this sad fate visited Detroit of all great cities? Why does it seem so unable to recover?

For some time, I’d been thinking that the answer lay in a combination of unresolved racial issues and the curse of being a one-industry town, but I wondered what others thought. Now, two new books—both bold enough to put Detroit in their titles—offer answers to the “Why Detroit?” question, even though that is not the primary objective of either one. They are Detroit: A Biography, by Scott Martelle (Chicago Review Press, 2012) and The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, by Beth Tompkins Bates (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

As the titles reveal, Martelle’s book has the broader reach. His begins on a hot July day in 1701, when Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, beached his canoe on the bank of a narrow stretch of river between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, with the goal of establishing a settlement that would provide security for French fur traders in America. Here’s what he saw: “a meadow rimmed by fruit trees leading into a dense forest of walnut, white and red oak, ash, and cottonwoods, all entwined with thick vines that provided cover for turkey, pheasant, and quail. Deer grazed at the edges and nibbled on fallen apples, plums, and other fruits, the streams and the river itself teemed with fish, and the reeds along the bank hid flocks of swans, geese, and ducks.”

From those Eden-like images, it is a long, complex path to the place Martelle describes today:

Massive iconic factories stand silent and cold. Blocks of commercial districts are vacant and open to the elements, many burned by fires that seemed to spread like a virus. Housing prices have fallen so far that it is cheaper to buy a home in Detroit than a new car. Once-vital neighborhoods have been bulldozed and reverted to urban meadows; in places, wild pheasants [note these on Cadillac’s list as well] and the occasional fox roam freely. Even Detroit’s murder rate, which for years was the worst among the nation’s big cities, has dropped considerably, prompting 2009 mayoral candidate Stanley Christmas to say, “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.”

How Detroit got to this juncture is the subject of Martelle’s book. What’s key, he writes, “to finding any sort of plan for fixing Detroit, and, perhaps, to prevent what has happened here from afflicting other cities, is to fully understand what Detroit once was, and how it came to be what it is.”

The shared focus with Bates’s book comes early in Martelle’s: “one cannot write about Detroit without exploring the roots of its black population, which now accounts for more than four of every five Detroiters.” Many of those roots were set down in the early twentieth century, when “Detroit’s black population increased 611.3 percent—from 5,741 in 1910 to 40,838 in 1920—the most rapid growth for any large city and three times faster than the average for other metropolitan areas,” Bates writes. This was the period when the Ford Motor Company “dazzled the world with its innovative mass production system.” Mass production needed workers—hundreds of thousands of them—and Ford offered good wages, so Detroit made its way onto the short list of places to live for southerners who were part of the Great Migration.

Two words are especially important to Bates’s view of how Black Detroit was made: expectations and allegiance, and the tension between them. Let’s begin with the expectations. “Ford challenged the stereotype of the black man as servant when he put out the welcome mat for African Americans,” she writes. “By rejecting the notion that better jobs were for white men only, Ford raised expectations and hope about what was possible, suggesting a corner had been turned in the ongoing black struggle for inclusion as full-blooded Americans.”

Further, Bates argues, those raised expectations point us to the ripple effects of black labor activism and the larger civil rights movement. Black families felt an allegiance to Ford because of the opportunities he had offered, but in the period between the two world wars, the black workers’ allegiance—often portrayed as dependence by other historians—collided with their emerging pro-union position and accompanying sense of political empowerment. And, Bates says, although few have regarded Black Detroit as a leader in the freedom struggle of that era, the labor-oriented civil rights agenda challenged “racism within the union movement as well as in the larger community.”

Offering a detailed and highly readable history of Ford’s industrial goals, his controlling social vision for his workers, and his brutal response to unionization, Bates ends her story in 1941, when the UAW-CIO’s organizing campaign culminated in a strike that shut down the Ford Rouge plant. In that strike, black workers threw in their lot with white Ford workers and the UAW, thus ending their allegiance to Henry Ford. Bates overturns a popular notion that blacks held only the most dangerous or menial positions. Instead, she writes, blacks at the Rouge plant were employed in all phases of manufacturing, including drafting and purchasing. Further, wages for blacks and whites were virtually identical during this period.

Still, racial relations in the plant and in the city were far from harmonious. In the early 1940s, writes Martelle, “City officials and visiting journalists had been talking about the growing tensions . . . , with overcrowding leading to racial frictions on the streets and in factories.” Bates points out that the “struggle for housing was front and center.” We know now that together, bankers, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, neighborhood associations, and Realtors helped set up and enforce racial covenants that kept blacks out of white neighborhoods. Black families faced threats and violence if they tried to “break a block,” and some school district officials attempted to change boundaries to keep black children out of white-majority schools.

But many (perhaps all) northern industrial cities had crises related to race and labor and housing. What made Detroit so vulnerable was its almost-total commitment to the auto industry—an industry that is particularly subject to fluctuations in the economy. As Martelle writes, “When things were going well, people tended to buy cars. When things were going poorly, they tended to milk another year or two out of the car they already had.”

For further insight into the “why Detroit?” question, Martelle contrasts it with Pittsburgh, noting that Pittsburgh’s leaders eventually gave up on the struggling industry that defined that city—steel—and looked to new industries, such as health care, finance, and higher education. Second, Martelle writes, Pittsburgh benefited from a host of sustaining institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, created partly by the fortune of Andrew Carnegie, while neither Ford nor his auto-making peers made contributions to such institutions of higher learning in Detroit. However, “the biggest differences . . . are history and demography. While Pittsburgh saw an influx of southern blacks during the Great Migration years, it was nothing like the scale that swept into Detroit. . . . Though there have been racial frictions, Pittsburgh has never suffered the kind of neighborhood-shifting violence that has marked Detroit’s racial history, or the mass white flight that drained Detroit beginning in the 1950s.”

Here, to make the case, Martelle compares 1960–2010 statistics for Detroit’s and Pittsburgh’s median household incomes, unemployment rates, and percentages of families living in poverty, with Detroit coming out worse in every case, all factors in the perfect storm of its unraveling. In the long hot summers of the 1960s, when so many American cities were in flames, Detroit came out not just worse but the worst. It was the city where the most lives were lost and the most square miles were destroyed. The city never fully recovered, and the ongoing white flight followed by black flight to northern suburbs has left Detroit “largely composed of fractured families led by young, uneducated single mothers lucky to find minimum-wage jobs in a political environment in which aid programs have been slashed. These are not the seeds of a stable community,” Martelle notes.

The most radical plan for stabilization, formulated by current mayor Dave Bing, is to concentrate the population so that the city can provide basic services more efficiently. This means closing off underpopulated areas and, in turn, forcing people to leave the homes and neighborhoods they have lived in for generations. This concept hardly comes without controversy, suspicion, and despair.

Still, like those who suffer from chronic disease but still occasionally find reasons for hope, Martelle enumerates several less radical “small counter tides”: General Motors and others announcing moves to downtown Detroit and bringing jobs with them; Quicken and Blue Cross offering incentives to employees to buy or rent downtown; plans for a light-rail system. And there are other hopeful signs: Large communal urban gardens in those many empty fields. Artists moving in. Three new documentaries—Searching for Sugar Man (nominated for an Oscar), Detropia, and Brothers on the Line—bringing attention and interest to the city. The people of Detroit and surrounding suburbs endorsing a tax initiative to fund their beloved Detroit Institute of Arts, which incidentally houses the magnificent Diego Rivera frescoes portraying the early days of the River Rouge plant.

So many things can be said about Detroit—how the threads of history and geography and human aspiration came together to dazzle the world; how racial and ethnic fear combined with lack of foresight and understanding to incite an extraordinary unraveling. As Martelle writes, “Powerful forces built Detroit into one of the nation’s, and the world’s, great industrial centers and cities. Similarly powerful forces have led to its collapse. The result is a national problem, not a local one, both from a moral and a financial standpoint.” But is it a national problem? And if so, what’s to be done?

A Detroit friend of mine told me that after the ’67 riot/rebellion, women, both black and white, in neighborhoods that had become somewhat integrated, began to meet in each other’s homes to discuss racial issues, with the hope that conversation might lead to understanding and healing. After a short while, the meetings became too difficult. People were too busy, or too afraid, and so they stopped. If it’s true that race played a particularly powerful role in the story of Detroit—and both Martell and Bates think it did—then here’s one dream for its chronic condition: perhaps it might become a laboratory, a model for the world, an industrial-strength Davos of the Midwest, for deep exploration of the chronic racial and ethnic disease that plagues our world. “This is Reconciliation City,” Eminem might declare one day, “and this is what we do.”