One of the biggest urban tragedies in the recent history of the United States, Detroit was at one point the fastest-growing city in the country. The industrial and economic boom that came with the rise of Detroit was as legendary and abrupt as its decay and regression into dirt and mold. All that’s left of this great city is a blight on the land and a question often posed by generations too young to remember all that’s transpired: Why is Detroit abandoned?
The answer to this question is so deeply rooted in history and so multifaceted, that anyone claiming a specific issue was the cause of all troubles for the city of Detroit is not being very honest. Not only is an entire array of issues responsible for the downfall of the place that went into history as the Motor City, but also the main cause for its current unyieldly state of affairs. To truly grasp the magnitude of the events that took place in Detroit before, during and after its heyday, a comprehensive analysis of all factors involved is due.
What Happened to Detroit?
The sequence of events preceding the contemporary postapocalyptic state of Detroit are all equally important in determining how it got to where it is today.
Before we discuss the underlying instabilities that led to such horrible death throes of this once prominent city, it’s important to understand and unravel the onset of its hypergrowth. Because to fully understand all the symptoms of illness that took Detroit down, we need to be aware of all the things it was exposed to.
The Rise of Detroit
Up to the very beginning of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was your run-of-the-mill industrial town, manufacturing goods for a range of other industries, forming a strong, local supply chain that made the businesses in the area highly self-reliant.
The abundance of coal, iron, and copper had spawned numerous workers well-versed in metallurgy, creating a strong foundation for the automobile industry that was to come soon after. In 1903, Henry Ford established his Ford Motor Company in a suburb of Detroit called Dearborn and the Packard plant also went into business. Following in their footsteps were other automobile giants such as General Motors, Chrysler, Dodge, and others. Whether they all settled in Detroit due to the availability of competent workforce, and bountiful resources, the importance of Detroit’s position as a gateway to Canada or simply out of chance is a matter of some debate to this day.
Soon after, the Highland Park Ford Plant was opened in 1910, introducing the first moving assembly line. Jobs here didn’t require much education or experience, enabling people who didn’t even speak the language properly to come from places as far as Poland and Hungary to work at the assembly line. This practice came to an abrupt end following the perils of World War I and the subsequent Immigration Act of 1924 that introduced annual quotas on how many people are allowed in the US.
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However, these quotas did not apply to immigrants in the western hemisphere, attracting Canadians and Mexicans to the ever-increasing number of automobile plants. Moreover, these jobs attracted the African-Americans fleeing the racial discrimination of Jim Crow laws in the south, but also the white people from the very same regions. In 1920, Detroit was already the 4th-largest city in the entire US, fuelled by all the workers eager to get in on the thriving automobile industry which was so successful that it had already created a rich, managerial layer of employees. Unlike the workers who’ve built their own homes close to the production plants, managers started moving away from the plants and the workers, settling the soon-to-be upper-class neighborhoods such as Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, and Oakland County. The 1920s seemed promising for the African-American community as they enjoyed in the prosperity as well, but they have soon realized that the prosecution and segregation are to be continued, as they were to be prohibited from getting loans to purchase houses in Detroit in white neighborhoods.
In 1927, Ford opened its Rouge Plant, a fully self-sustaining entity that employed 90,000 workers. Three years later, Detroit’s population reached 1.6 million people, the number that culminated in 1950 when it reached its peak of 2 million citizens. World War II changed the main focus of all these automobile plants, requiring them to manufacture war machines instead. While this was a common practice all over the US, Detroit had some troubles adjusting to the newly established situation due to a lack of a real industrial zone – auto factories were all over the place without any order.
For a long time, everything looked exceedingly well for Detroit and its people, discounting for blatant racism that was still very much alive. No one expected what was about to come.
The Descent into Chaos
After all the years of prospering and growing, no one was ready for the wake-up call that was about to happen. Lulled into a false sense of security and enjoying their high wages, workers were not prepared for events that were to unfold after World War II.
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Following the war, most smaller car companies got forced out of the business by giants in the field, namely Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. This unruly group became known as the ‘Big Three’ and all of the workers of Detroit were in their hands. Many unions didn’t fail to realize what kind of threat this posed for the average worker. Of all the factories, workers at the Rouge Plant were best organized and least obsessed with racial segregation, fighting together for better working conditions for all. Regardless of how noble their intentions were, they were unwillingly adding fuel to the fire that was about to break out.
The fire in question was the displacement of manufacturing plants from the city to the suburban areas. The companies cited many reasons for this relocation, most often complaining about the high taxes in the city and the need for more manufacturing space that could also be automated more easily. Ford has seen this as an excellent excuse to take control back from the unions. Having one mega-facility that the Rouge Plant truly was could have been extremely dangerous for the business in case of a worker strike. Instead, they spread all the work among a large number of much smaller, more specialized facilities so that they can keep on producing parts even if workers at one of the other facilities go on a strike.
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They even had workers at multiple facilities manufacturing the same items in order to avoid any potential losses. From 1945 to 1957, The Big Three constructed 25 auto factories all of which were in the surrounding areas and not in the city itself – all of the companies slowly drifted the production away from Detroit itself, trying to cut down on expenses (and risks) as much as possible. During the 1950s, more than 150,000 people have lost their jobs due to the relocation of factories to the suburbs. In 1958, the Packard factory was, like many others that didn’t belong to one of the companies from the Big Three, closed down and abandoned.
However, it did not end there. The problems kept cropping up, and companies would always try to solve them by cutting down on expenses, i.e. workforce. The best example of this practice is the aforementioned Rouge Plant in Detroit, which after having the record number of employees (90,000 in 1927) dropped down drastically to 30,000 by the 1960s. Unfortunately, the cuts didn’t stop there.
It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that the final nails were in the coffin. Gasoline prices went up spearheaded by organizations such as OPEC, while more and more competition kept emerging, especially from countries such as Germany, Japan, and Italy. The companies kept trying to get better and better deals while spending less, which eventually led to them abandoning their Detroit posts altogether and moving to the southern states at first and then ditching the US altogether for Canada, Mexico, and some other lower-income countries.
Having abandoned Detroit for some other, more profitable destinations, car companies revealed a glaring problem that had been swept under the rug for so many years before, never being addressed by anyone.
The city had abandoned all the other industries for the sake of the automobile industry. The once mighty shipbuilding business was all but a pipe dream, while timbering was denounced as ancient history. Detroit was revealed for what it was – a hollow shell with bad infrastructure and horrible segregation issues. As the companies keeping the city alive withdrew, they left a trail of disappointment and pollution. During these final years when good manufacturing plants were going extinct, the ugly face of overcrowdedness made its presence known. All roads were basically unsuitable for anything but automobiles, with the singular purpose of getting workers to downtown Detroit and their offices, all the while cutting right through the black neighborhoods.
The racist tactics such as redlining, which involved refusing loans to African-Americans, became more apparent than ever. Foreseeing the impending doom, real estate agents began to use underhanded tactics such as blockbusting, which involved manipulating white people into thinking that African-Americans are coming to take over their neighborhoods. Considering that their homes were the only things of value they’ve had after World War II, whites would sell their homes for lower prices, scared of their property losing all value in case it became a black neighborhood. The agents would then sell those homes for exorbitant prices to those African-Americans desperate enough to pay them just so they could escape the inner city. With white, middle-class people gone, taxes used for maintaining public services were gone as well, with what went into history as ‘white flight’.
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Racial tensions have escalated on several occasions, fuelled by poverty and disdain for each other that has accrued over the years. During the riots, people died on both sides and what little property was left in the city was now damaged or looted.
In 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. It was the single, biggest case of going bankrupt in the history of the US, with Detroit’s debt reaching 18 billion dollars.
Today, the situation is only marginally better for most middle-class families in Detroit. Household income has taken a turn for the better, but it’s nowhere near the level where it was a century ago. The city poses a unique problem for most urbanists: Why hasn’t the situation gotten better? Why is Detroit abandoned still?
There were other cities in a similar situation, places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. How come they’ve managed to recover? Something is very sinister about the lack of improvement in this city. Many different experts posed many different explanations for that. These mostly revolve around infrastructure and social issues. The former deals with all the abandoned buildings still littering what’s become known as the urban prairie. Blight on the land is still very much present with no one to take care of it considering how expensive it is. As for the social issues, they involve middle-class families refusing to move to black neighborhoods. They are still deemed unsafe and their value is in decline.
There’s also more than a small amount of corruption prohibiting capital from coming in, locking Detroit in a state of perpetual poverty. If this doesn’t improve, no amount of regentrifying the city will help.
One shining light in all the darkness of the postindustrial Detroit is the amount of attention it has been getting from people enjoying its postapocalyptic charm.
People actually come to visit all the decrepit, dilapidated buildings that once comprised the industrial core of the city. Graffiti art and rave parties are the main attractions here, with a decent number of people showing interest in these kinds of activities. Historic places like Belle Island and the Riverfront can be seen on the East Side of the city.
There are even groups such as Pure Detroit that give organized tours of the city’s deteriorating landmarks.
Detroit still looks abandoned, but there’s still hope while there are people willing to keep living there and fighting for a better future. Even though there’s only about 700,000 of them now, their spirits are strong and Detroit may yet recover.