Another Dispatch From Detroit, ‘Merka’s First Throwaway City

Once upon a time Detroit was called “The Arsenal of Democracy.” However, the consequences of 60 years of White Flight — systemic racism, to be blunt — finally came home to roost in Detroit, my hometown. On July 18, 2013, at approximately 4:06 PM EDT, Detroit’s unelected, possibly illegal, Emergency Manager Kevin Orr filed for bankruptcy. 

It’s conventional wisdom — conventional, but completely wrong — that Detroit’s White Flight began after the 1967 riot. White Flight had already been going on for almost 20 years at that point. The ’67 riot only accelerated the exodus.

Detroit: The Arsenal of Democracy

Detroit’s race problems go right back to the earliest days of the city. In my earlier [very long] essay The Detroit Riots I report on the little known 1943 riot and the far lesser known 1863 riot. Understanding these earlier riots is the key to understanding Detroit’s current demographics. Both of these earlier riots not only set the table for the 1967 riot, but also set the table for the Detroit’s systemic racism, which manifested itself in the White Flight that eventually killed the Motor City.

The 1863 Detroit riot exploded in the wake of Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration. There had already been tensions between Blacks and Whites, and the openly racist Detroit Free Press was happy to fan the flames for months on end. When a rumour swept through the neighbourhoods that a Black man did something, something, something to a White person, White folks went crazy. [Isn’t that always the way? See: May 31, 1921 ► When Whites Went Crazy In Tulsa] They roamed the streets screaming, “Kill all the niggers,” beating people on sight. At the time it became known as “the bloodiest day that ever dawned on Detroit.”

Prior to that day Detroit did not have a police force. However, one was quickly formed and in the original incorporating documents the city fathers of Detroit made it clear that one of its primary jobs would be to keep the Blacks folk in line.

A sign in Detroit during the war, when the Feds proposed
to build Black housing to relieve overcrowding

The 1943 Detroit riot came during war time, but it also came in the midst of what has been called The Great Migration, when rural and southern Blacks made their way to cities in the north. Detroit was clamoring for unskilled workers and Black folk came by the tens of thousands. However, that didn’t mean anyone wanted to share their neighbourhoods with Black folk, nor work side-by-side with them. The 1943 riot was a result of these tensions and more.

[This is the simplified version. The conditions that led to these 3 riots are explained in much greater detail in The Detroit Riots, my earlier article on these topics.]

As soon as World War Two was over, prosperity reigned, in Detroit and across the nation. Part of that prosperity was due to the fact that all across the country houses had to be built for all the returning soldiers. ‘Merka saw a housing boom like no other. This was great for the economy and for the growing White Middle Class. However, it didn’t trickle down to Black folk.

In the Detroit area, developers started building north of 8 Mile, the city limits made famous by Eminem’s 2002 movie. These suburbs grew exponentially during the ’50s and ’60s and were attractive to the people with the same mindset as those who refused to share their neighbourhoods and work places with Blacks during the 40s.

The last remnant of a vibrant Black
neighbourhood and business district

Black families were redlined out of the suburbs, just as they were from most of the neighbourhoods in north Detroit. During the ’40s and ’50s Blacks were unable to expand much beyond Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the neighbourhoods they already occupied. During the early ’50s a few Middle Class Blacks moved to the 12th Street area, which had been predominantly White. That’s when the first Whites started leaving because — you guessed it — they didn’t want to live in the same neighbourhood as Blacks. By the time Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were razed for I-75, the die was cast. The only area accepting Black folk was surrounding 12th Street, because the first Blacks had already “busted the blocks,” in the parlance of the day. White folk fucked off in droves. The entire demographics of the neighbourhood reversed itself in a single decade. [This is also told in greater detail in The Detroit Riots.]

Then came several decades of terrible local government, which just made
everything in Detroit a whole lot worse. But, let’s be clear. What these
politicians made worse was already there: an absolute division of Black
and White and the continued blighting of a once great city. Systemic
racism is the foundation on which it was built. The White folk of Wayne
County moved across 8 Mile and, quite literally, turned their back on

That, dear reader, has been the story of Detroit from the very beginning. As soon as Black folk gained a small toehold in a neighbourhood, that neighbourhood eventually turned all Black. Block by block. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Until the entire city was virtually Black, while the suburbs became predominantly White. Eventually integration came to the suburbs, but it never had a chance in the City of Detroit.

Detroit’s seal, which represents the fire of 1803
Speramus Meliora = We hope for better things
Resurcet Cineribus = It will rise from the ashes

This White Flight to the suburbs reduced Detroit’s population and ‘Merka’s systemic racism kept it low. At one
time there were almost 2 million people in Detroit proper. When I was
growing up in Detroit, we were proud to call Detroit the 5th largest
city in the country. Now it’s the 18th, sandwiched between Charlotte,
North Carolina, and El Paso, Texas. Its population of just over 700,000
is about a 3rd of what it was during the go go ’50s. As the city’s
population shrank, so did it’s tax base. These are the conditions that led to Detroit’s bankruptcy.

This would be as good a time to remind people that Detroit is responsible for two things that not only made ‘Merka better, but made ‘Merka great: Cars and Motown. These products of Detroit have been bought and sold all around the country during the same 6 decades that Detroit has slid into decline. Detroit cars and Motown — and it almost seems like they were made for each other — were bought and sold all around the world over the last 6 decades.

The people north of 8 Mile, the greater country at large, and the rest of the world took ittle notice of the problems facing Detroit until recently. During the last 6 decades they couldn’t have cared less what was happening to the city. That’s why I call Detroit ‘Merka’s first throwaway city.

Take it away, MC5:


Further Reading on Not Now Silly:
Unpacking My Detroit

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.