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Detroit's Decline Did Not Begin with the '67 Riots

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 Many publications have taken a look at Detroit’s decline recently. They make important points. The 1967 riots caused “white flight” from the city. The unions and Big Three entered into contracts with expensive legacy costs. America shed its industrial base. Mayor Coleman Young left a Chicago-style legacy of corruption. Over a decade after Young’s departure corruption, incompetence, and unemployment have continued to blight Detroit. The ‘67 riots provide researchers with a convenient starting point for this decline. However, the population decline began a decade earlier. In the fifties, the government created the interstate highway system. Highways made America mobile and people left the cities for the suburbs. People left Detroit for greener pastures and took their money with them.
 The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 created modern America and provided the hole in the dyke that led to Detroit‘s depopulation and decline. Detroit lobbied hard for a highway system to promote car ownership. Americans could only go so far without roads. The new system would open up the country. Americans could travel everywhere in their automobiles. This new freedom would mean more profits for the auto industry. Consumers would feel the need to purchase vehicles as status symbols and for the freedom of mobility the highways created.
 Opening the nation to car travel also opened areas outside the major cities for settlement. People could go to work in the city and live in the suburbs or country. Americans did not have to live in apartments in crowded, dirty cities. Instead, they could live in homes they themselves owned in clean surroundings. There would be elbow room,  privacy, and backyard barbeques. This especially appealed to those parents responsible for the baby boom. Many Detroiters and began moving to cleaner suburban pastures.
 In 1950, Detroit’s population stood at 1.8 million. Over the course of the decade, it dropped 10%.  On the other hand, the Metro Detroit Region which includes the suburbs surrounding the city grew by 25%. The middle class was abandoning the city a decade or so before the riots. These were auto workers benefiting from the Big Three’s halcyon days. High wages, good benefits, and a strong union made the Detroit area a great place to live. Workers took their wages to the suburbs and purchased homes. People could commute between homes in the suburbs and jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the tax base began to decline.
 The 1967 riots accelerated the exodus. The riots pitted whites against blacks. African-Americans felt besieged by white racism and rebelled. In the aftermath, whites felt besieged by black racism. With highways available to evacuate the populace, whites began to flee the city. African Americans with the resources to move were barred from moving to the suburbs by de facto segregation. During the seventies, Detroit’s population declined by over 20%. By 1980, the destruction of Detroit was complete. Despite efforts at revitalization in the nineties, the process has accelerated in recent years.
 Detroit’s demise did not begin with racial issues in the aftermath of the riots. It did not begin with economic stagnation or the shipping of jobs overseas. It did not begin because of bad deals cut between the UAW and G. M., Ford, and Chrysler. Instead, it began because people wanted their own homes on their own plots of land. The Interstate Highway System gave us Modern America. It created soccer moms, minivans, and the world of Leave it to Beaver.  However, it also opened a Pandora’s Box which began the decline of America’s fourth largest city. 


  • Me 4 years ago

    There are lots of interstate highways around Manhattan and people still want to live there.

  • CGB 4 years ago

    My father was born and raised in the city. He left in the late 1940s after returning from WWII. It had more to do with no housing available for the returning GIs and their families. I have seen a lot over the years. I work downtown and want to cry when I walk down Woodward Ave. towards Comerica Park and see all the vacant stores. I remember the sidewalks being so crowded, you could barely move. Will it ever come back? Not like it was, but if young folks get jobs with Compuware and Quicken Loans and want to live where they work, it would be a start. There are tons of beautiful lofts down here. Too many poeple don't want to even come down. They miss the beatiful River Walk.

  • CBG 4 years ago

    The claim that people wanted a suburban lifestyle, and that this desire brought Detroit to ruin is simply nonsensical.

    Many other American cities made the transition to suburban life with nowhere near the upheaval.

  • Matt Picio 4 years ago

    The roots of the decline began with the start of the automotive industry. Henry Ford started it by insisting that his workers be paid enough to afford his product. A novel concept at the time, and a brilliant advertising strategy. By the 1940s, when the first highways were being built, there was no more room in the city for new houses, but plenty of cheap land in the suburbs - look at Redford, Madison Heights, Warren and their 1940s homes. The freeways in the 1950s and 1960s provided easy access between work at the plants and offices and the cheap housing of the suburbs. Detroit had a strong union, employee discounts, cheap parking, easy access to roads, and were encouraged at every level to buy the product they helped build, or that their parents built, or their brother. This was a level of adoption, of sprawl that didn't happen in cities like New York. There are other factors, but those are perhaps the most proximate.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    As a kid in the 60s downtown Detroit was a destination, someplace special especially going to J.L. Hudsons and Crowleys. Waling into hudsons was like walking into a wonderland there were just so many things to see and OMG at Christmas time the basement always had my mouth open in awe. Walking up and down Woodward, going to the Fox or the other theaters. Man! I moved away in the late 80s and still find myself thinking how it was such a shame that Detroit just fell apart like that. I hope someday we can find away to bring her back to her once proud glory. All the important architectural pieces that we lost we can never get back, just sad.

  • RK 3 years ago

    Don Keko, you hit the nail right on the head. I was born in the City, my Dad moved us out of the city,Family's wanted their own house and lawn to keep up, and he worked at Hudson's.I later worked at the medical plaza on woodward during the riots. I then worked for GM in Ypsilanti, then most people wanted bigger homes and car's and moved even father from Detroit. Because it was easy to do and we made very good money people wanted more property and even larger homes. That was the American way. You wanted to show what hard work could get you and the result was the MIDDLE class GREW. What was left in Detroit, and I love it to this day, was corrupt polatitions , and most of them where Black and they ripped off their own people. There is hope I beleive Dave Bing will turn it around , at last!!

  • JDW 3 years ago

    Get a grip, Every city has suburbs. I live 20 miles from Boston, I don't chose to live there but I enjoy visiting. Have another donut you moron.

  • Profile picture of Don Keko
    Don Keko 3 years ago

    Boston is not Detroit.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    It doesn't matter Don, because a city is a city. People choosing to move to the suburbs of ANY other city that has followed in the foot steps of Flint and now Detroit did NOT start the decline of America, insane Republican propaganda and agendas did. Watch the documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" and Michael Moore will explain it all to you. He only grew up in Flint with a father who worked for a company there ya know. So you would be an idiot to deny he actually knows what he is talking about, because its just HIS personal experiences, with that and MORE.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    The previous Mayor described Detroit as a "world class city" - some mayor - some city !!

  • Princess Fury 3 years ago

    I was born and raised in Berkely, right outside of Detroit. We lived in a beautiful home on a large plot of land just off Coolidge. I remember the race riots of 67 and the flames lit up the sky as Detroit imploded. Detroit was a magical destination for kids and adults alike; a place where dreams were born. My mother was a model for Patricia Stevens in Detroit, got a screen test and moved to Hollywood! I remember shopping at J.L. Hudsons, eating at the Top of the Flame, seeing mobsters at Larcos (my grandfather was one of them), and fireworks over the Windsor Bridge. Did I mention drinking Vodka with my grandad in the bleachers of Tiger Stadium during a game? Priceless. The architecture of the city was awesome and Detroit was the best place in the world to grow up. It is very sad that the magic of living your life in Detroit has been replaced by the boring strip malls of the suburbs. I read about it's continual decline and I want to cry. The culture, architecture and the Detroit way of life will always be with me.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    you have many good points . however you failed to mention the practice of block busting and the panic it created. i 'm not sure i agree that white folks longed to live in cookie cutter homes in an environment stripped of all foliage . i for one didn't like it.

  • Smiling Reaper 3 years ago

    Detroit had the largest percentage of home ownership in the nation. The highest percentage of black home owners in the nation. Both these were facts in 1967. These both were the reason why the riots polarized an already unstable racial dynamic pushing everyone to extremes.
    Racial intolerance and fear fuel and real estate boom that would be the forerunner of what would occur across the country. While your points are well stated they ignore power the elements of racism and fear contributed to the whole dynamic. The careers of two politicians one white, one black [Brooks Patterson and Coleman Young] were made as a result of skillful manipulations in playing the race card to their respective constituents.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    You sound like a biased Republican, so why should I believe you?

  • Profile picture of Don Keko
    Don Keko 3 years ago

    This week, Tea Party and biased Republican, last week,

  • Anonymous 1 year ago

    I'm a life long Detroiter and I agree the freeway systems were the start of the demise of Detroit but I also think racism on both sides, unscrupulous greedy block buster real estate tactics, corrupt politicians and incompetent city services, the crack and crime epidemic and a devastated tax base played major parts. My point is the decline of Detroit is very, very complicated as will be its recovery.

  • John Q. Public 1 year ago

    Anyone who relies on Michael Moore for information should have their head examined. Most ignorant, brain-dead person to ever walk the earth. Just because he grew up in Flint doesn't mean he understands anything about the economic dynamics surrounding it. In fact, it's quite clear from his student film projects that he doesn't.

  • Anonymous 1 year ago

    This is asanine! Your telling me the detriot decline started because of highway systems? They are all ove rthe united states. it was the race riots and after that it was the demacratic party and their welfare system eatting away at the money.

  • NH 1 year ago

    LMAO! Michael Moore didn't grow up in Flint, he grew up in a pretty cushy suburb nearby. He had a rich, upper crust life, is now a multi-millionaire capitalist success story, has several homes including one multi million dollar mansion on torch lake. Moore is a lying pig who will say and do anything to promote his image and make a quick buck.

  • Anonymous 1 year ago

    Who let the dogs out?

  • discusted former resident 1 year ago

    LEADERSHIP LEADERSHIP LEADERSHIP is the key to Detroit's recovery. Detroiters have got to be more serious as to who they put into office.

  • Profile picture of Mad Hatter
    Mad Hatter 1 year ago

    OK, I'm a tad late in my reply, but, you are correct. The '67 riots and the Interstate highway system had little to do with the demise of Detroit. It wasn't even the unions, although the unions and the riots did add a nail or two. The Mayor from 1962-1970 was none other than Jerome Cavanagh, once a member of Johnson's "Great Society" program task force. The Mayor was all-aboard with the program and was not afraid to over-tax the working families to achieve affirmative action, by building low-rent projects. The tax base left in droves. The city's population went down around 10% while the suburbs also changed. The Model city program was a typical big government failure, causing the city to look the way it does today. Had it been left alone to solve the issues by themselves, the auto industry might have survived, alone with the jobs it created. Most major cities in this time frame that were run into the ground all had mayors from the Democrat party, whose tax and spend policies that did little to solve the cities problems and caused the decline of the tax base. Not much changed after he left office. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

  • doug 12 months ago

    Greatest social cause: breakdown of the traditional black family due to the unintended consequence of the Great Society- subsidized fatherlessness.

    Greatest economic cause: unsustainable union contracts.