Thursday, July 19, 2007

Panic in Detroit: The Urban Crisis After 40 Years

This week's U.S. News has a special report on the urban riots of 1967. Detroit and Newark erupted in flames amid economic dislocation and racial tensions in the inner-city. Detroit's infamous 12th Street Riot was the worst in American history, only surpassed in its destruction by the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

In the following years, Detroit has seen four decades of urban decay, with double-digit unemployment and the growing despair of many of the city's longtime black residents. The Detroit Riot was preceded by one week by deadly race-rioting in Newark, New Jersey. The U.S. News piece provides some analysis of the aftermath:

Views on the riots run the gamut: While some see the work of simple criminals, activists describe the disturbances as empowering, as a turning point for African-American clout. In 1970, Newark became the first major northeastern city to elect a black mayor; Detroit followed suit in 1974, and African-Americans have held City Hall in both cities ever since. In Detroit, leaders organized New Detroit Inc., an organization that still works with the business and black communities to soothe racial tensions in the city. In Newark, black leaders negotiated with the city to dramatically limit the size of a medical school that threatened to displace city residents. "When we sat down to negotiate, we had that nameless and faceless brother with the brick standing with us," recalls Junius Williams, then an organizer in the black community and now head of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark.

But many white residents took a different message from the "nameless brother"—get out. The year before the riots, 22,000 residents, predominantly whites, left Detroit. By 1968, it reached 80,000. Both majority white in 1960, Newark's white population now stands at 22 percent and Detroit's at 11 percent.

Ghetto palms. The riots also made suburbanites wary of traveling downtown, crippling businesses. In Newark, 13 percent of the stores in the riot area closed immediately, and an additional 19 percent within a year. Coupled with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the surge of gang violence in the following decades, both cities increasingly became synonymous with urban decay.
Read the whole thing. The orgins of the Detroit Riot had legitimate origins in racial discrimination. Yet, white flight from the urban areas preceded the long, hot summer of 1967. An anti-business municipal tax structure contributed to a decline in employment, and the Black Power Movement lifted the hopes of many urban blacks for fundamental change by any means necessary.

Today, Detroit's Mayor, Kwami Kilpatrick, notes that deindustrialization has hit Detroit's current black population hard, but he adds:

"I think that a lot of our problem is also spiritual," Kilpatrick says. "We've got to get off our asses and stop being so woe-is-me."
Detroit's 12th Street was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1976. With the street today showing nothing more than urban blight, I doubt that's the legacy Rosa Parks had hoped to inspire.

Update: Blazing Cat Fur has graciously forwarded this link to a fascinating photo gallery on the deindustrialization of Detroit (with many photos of Ford Motor Company's former industrial plant).

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