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Autos troubles, race at root of Detroit collapse

All of the nation's industrial cities eventually fell, but only Detroit hit bottom. Staggering under as much as $20 billion in unpaid bills, Detroit surrendered on Thursday, filing the single largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

world Updated: Jul 22, 2013 17:17 IST

Blue-collar workers poured into the cavernous auto plants of Detroit for generations, confident that a sturdy back and strong work ethic would bring them a house, a car and economic security. It was a place where the American dream came true.

It came true in cities across the industrial heartland, from Chicago's meatpacking plants to the fire-belching steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Detroit was the affluent capital.

The good times would not last. All of the nation's industrial cities eventually fell, but only Detroit hit bottom. Staggering under as much as $20 billion in unpaid bills, Detroit surrendered on Thursday, filing the single largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

As the nation's economy began to shift from the business of making things, that work met the force of foreign competition. Good-paying assembly line jobs dried up as factories that made the cars and supplied the steel closed their doors. The survivors of the decline, especially whites, fled the cities to pursue new dreams in the suburbs.

Downtown Detroit

The "Arsenal of Democracy" that supplied the Allied victory of World War II and evolved into the "Motor City" fell into a six-decade downward spiral of job losses, shrinking population and a plummeting tax base. Detroit's singular reliance on an auto industry that stumbled badly and its long history of racial strife proved a disastrous combination.

"Most Midwest cities had white flight and segregation. But Detroit had it more intensely. Most cities had deindustrialisation. Detroit had it more intensely," said Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about his hometown.


Detroit's first wave of prosperity came after World War I and lasted into the early 1920s, driven by the rise of the auto industry. "It was the Silicon Valley of America," Boyle said. "It was home to the most innovative, cutting-edge dominant industry in the world. The money there at that point was just staggering."

More affluence followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the auto industry was booming. Tens of thousands of blacks migrated from the South seeking jobs on the assembly line and a foothold in the middle class. In 1950, Detroit's population peaked as a metropolis of more than 1.8 million, making it the nation's fifth-largest city. The transformation was dramatic.

But by that time, Detroit's decline had already begun.


The auto industry had started to expand beyond the city and was building plants and putting offices in suburban and rural areas, and eventually sought refuge from the city's powerful unions in other states and even overseas.

A decade later, as Japanese auto imports started taking more of the US market, the hemorrhaging of jobs continued. Membership in the United Auto Workers topped out at 1.5 million in 1978 and stands today at about 400,000, said Mike Smith, the union's archivist at Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library.

As decay set in, the cities that rose alongside Detroit came to be known as the Rust Belt.

Racial strife also infected the city. The migration of blacks into Detroit, which helped power its economic rise, was followed by an exodus of white residents for the suburbs. In the last decade alone - from 2000 to 2010 - Detroit lost about a quarter-million residents. The city's current population of roughly 700,000 is about 83% black.
Read: Barack Obama to talk jobs in struggling Illinois town


What's left is a Detroit defined by a barren landscape of deserted neighborhoods and abandoned buildings. The result is an isolated city.

For those directly impacted by the collapse, watching the deterioration of Detroit in recent years has been agonising.

"The neighborhood is so different - the street lights go off, there's more violence and gunfire, the elementary school I went to is closed and boarded up," said Sareta Cheathem, who has lived in Detroit all her 42 years. "Just to see the decay is something that bothers me."

Cheathem called the bankruptcy filing "gutwrenching" and left her wondering "Is it going to get worse? Can it get any worse?"

Boyle, the history professor, has reservations about what is possible in a place that's fallen so far.

"I don't think it'll ever come back to the city it once was," he said. "The bankruptcy is not in itself a solution. It will presumably clear the debt. Something will have to happen for it not to repeat this pattern five or 10 years from now. Hopefully this will make life livable in this city. I think it's doable. But I'm not sure there's the will to do it."

First Published: Jul 22, 2013 17:05 IST