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Detroit in 1965 and the divisive rhetoric that poisoned its economic future

Detroit in 1965 and the divisive rhetoric that poisoned its economic future

As an amateur historian, I often like watching old news and documentary clips; via LA Observed, I came across a fascinating one featuring another metropolitan area:

The background:

This public domain film narrated by then-mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh was made in 1965 to promote Detroit. The city faced many urban problems and its population was in decline. These difficulties were amplified by the 1967 riots, which are seen by many as one of the most significant events which led the city into a forty year decline. Since the mid 50s, the population has dropped by half and the infrastructure has been destroyed or has decayed due to abuse and neglect.

In fact, my parents moved the family to Detroit from upstate New York in 1962…when it was the fourth-largest city in the United States with the highest per-capita income in the nation.

However, by the time I graduated from Wayne State Univeristy in 1985, I left for better economic opportunities. And while Bryan Jacoutot noted that the unfunded liability problem was the core reason for the city’s need to declare bankruptcy, I was able to closely observe another: Toxic racialist rhetoric.

Hughey Newsome, a business consultant in the D.C. area and a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21, wrote an excellent analysis for The Daily Caller that describes its harm to Detroit:

For example, the Motor City almost lost the prized North American International Auto Show after the once-illustrious Cobo Center convention hall was allowed to deteriorate. When influential merchants sought to force the city to cede control of the building, former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers — who later went to prison for taking a bribe — shouted that suburbanites (understood to mean whites) could not come and take the “jewels” of the black city. Councilwoman Barbara Rose-Collins stated: “European rulers have traditionally taken what they wanted from other people, be they white, be they black or be they brown. No one is taking anything.”

Fortunately, the Cobo Center’s renovation was later managed by a Regional Authority and the auto show remained in Detroit.

There are many similar examples of corruption and divisiveness involving city leadership where race has often been used to rouse and incite but – most importantly – to distract from ineptness and unethical behavior.

Why is this dangerous?

Playing on peoples’ sensitivities and fears distracts attention from holding elected leaders accountable. Detroit’s political class understands this, and regularly delivers racial division rather than doing the hard work of attracting investment in the city.

As I pointed out in my most recent Canto Talk discussion, no matter how cheaply houses are sold in Detroit (i.e., $1), most Americans would not feel comfortable moving into any neighborhood in which racial tensions were the rule and not the exception.

Without people living in cities, businesses can’t thrive. No businesses or residents means no tax base. No city can live on government workers’ salaries alone….no matter the color of the population’s skin.


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Alex Bensky | July 28, 2013 at 9:38 am

This idea that suburbanites (yes, read “whites”) are just lurking, waiting to snap up Detroit’s jewels, is not confined to corrupt and stupid politicians like Conyers and Collins. There is a belief (I don’t know how widespread) that somewhere is The Plan to do just that.

So a few years ago our zoo nearly was closed because the city couldn’t afford to keep it going and the zoological society (disclosure: I’m a member) was mostly white. That was averted.

One of the city parks is Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River. Detroiters have the idea that everyone else in the country not only knows that we have a city park that is an island but is terribly jealous of it. Anyway, the park shows obvious signs of many years of deferred maintenance and lack of day to day care. There was a proposal for the metropolitan parks authority to take it over–this would not only save the money that the city does spend on the park but the authority said it would invest a substantial amount of money to restore the park.

And again, this was defeated because it was a “jewel” of Detroit…as if the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority was going to take the island and move it out of the river, somewhere to an affluent suburban county.

What has to be said is that the fact that the city’s government and political class are disfunctional and corrupt is hardly news, and the voters keep electing them.

    Aridog in reply to Alex Bensky. | July 28, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    …suburbanites (yes, read “whites”)…

    That myth is prevalent here and hysterically funny. These “suburbanites” today are black as well as white, brown and yellow. Where do the political race baiters think the Detroit population went, with blacks who could distinctly among the evacuees? They think everyone hoped a jet plane for Hong Kong, eh? The black friends and acquaintances I have now are mostly out in the suburbs and think I’m quaint for still being in or very near the city core. The million plus people who flew this coop weren’t all white.

    And the ones staying put and trying to rebuild aren’t all or black either, my daughter, a professional, among them living at Grand River & Woodward now, but they’re aren’t on the Common Council or in City Hall worrying about their “jewels.”

      Aridog in reply to Aridog. | July 28, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      Dang…this chile needs an edit feature:

      …aren’t all or black either… should be

      …aren’t all white or black either…

[…] Detroit in 1965 and the divisive rhetoric that poisoned its economic future | Legal Insurrection. I’m a son of MIchigan, the Detroit suburbs specifically. My ties to the area are mainly family as I have lived elsewhere for much of my life.  Aside from remaining a loyal Detroit Lions fan, I’ve been there enough to understand much of its history and urban failings to at least recognize the truth in the above link. It meshes will with another link therein to a recent Daily Caller column highlighting the purposeful stoking of racial tension as a cover for called out corruption and mismanagement. Both of the above links are definitely worth a read. […]

Is race the new religion?

Differences in religion have been notoriously abused as an excuse for confiscating other people’s property.

Emil de Blatz | July 28, 2013 at 11:19 am

See Atlanta and its ownership and control of Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, which is not even located within the City of Atlanta proper.

I have a friend who moved to the Great Northwest a decade ago, after having spent a long time in Atalanta. After he had some time to take it in, I asked him what he missed about Atlanta. The answer was “great barbeque”. I asked him what he didn’t miss, and that was “racial politics”.

If you’ve been around Atlanta long enough you learn about Mayor Maynard Jackson’s rescission of the contracts at Hartsfield during a major expansion in the 1970’s, in order to rebid and re-let the contracts so that minorities had a greater share. I always admired that as a way of articulating political power to allow minority contractors to get in the game. And clearly the upshot has been prosperity for blacks and black owned businesses.

But at some point you have to ask how should a facility like Hartsfield-Jackson be directed? And anywhere you look in the country where there is such infrastructure that affects a multi-state area, it has a regional ownership and control structure (NY Port Authority, etc.)

A few years back when Mayor Franklin was trying to scrape up the cash for a multi-billion dollar upgrade of the city’s nearly century old sewer system, Gov. Perdue floated, through back channels, the idea of the State of GA buying Hartsfiled from the city for $4B+. That went nowhere, and there was much of the same “white people trying to take the crown jewel of Atlanta from us” rhetoric.

The Detroit film was classic. Unless and until the folks who (now only nominally, after the Emergency Manager and a Bankruptcy Judge say what for) run the city are willing to accept help, talent and funds from the private sector outside the city, they can wallow in what they got.

    snopercod in reply to Emil de Blatz. | July 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I absolutely hate passing through ATL where 90%+ of the airport workers are black. Now don’t get me wrong here – I don’t really care much about the color of a person’s skin – but I can’t help but notice that many of the black workers there seem to have a chip on their shoulders towards white folks. Several times I’ve asked a black gate agent a simple question only to be rudely dismissed. So I’d go sit down and watch while that same agent cheerfully helped black passengers. Passing through Atlanta airport is like experiencing how a black person must have felt in a Mississippi diner in the fifties.

      Maybe they are picking up on your barely-veiled contempt for them, and so don’t feel moved to go out of their way to be pleasant towards you. Just a thought.

      GrumpyOne in reply to snopercod. | July 29, 2013 at 12:20 am

      I’ve passed through both, Atlanta and Detroit on numerous occasions and can tell you I hate both of them. The employees of both are surly, uninformed and sometimes unkempt.

      Even Newark is better…

Richard Aubrey | July 28, 2013 at 11:40 am

I suppose the question is whether the voters see the connection or not. And if they do, what’s going on? Satisfaction at sticking it to the Man, by sticking a stick in your own eye.
If they don’t see the connection, what’s it going to take?

Richard Aubrey | July 28, 2013 at 11:43 am

Oh, yeah. Grew up near Detroit. In college, I worked with a civil rights group on a project in MS. Got back in 67 to my parents’ home in Redford Twp, just outside Detroit, in time for the riots.
The group thought about switching efforts to Detroit but figured that returning to MS in 68 would be safer.

Project 21 is far more than a Black Leadership network even though its previous name was the Black Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative. Now its mission is to link Urban America to the planned Green Energy public/private partnership 21st century economy. It is a vital part of the Acceleration Agenda for 12 regional economies laid out at the First White House Tech Inclusion Summit held on January 31, 2013. Race plays a huge role in who is to get their share by government fiat in this new economy. Van Jones has said that is what attracted him to the Green push.

1965 was the year MLK aide Bayard Rustin wrote his vision for the march through American institutions to finally make equality for all, especially in economic relations, a fact. I explained it here recently after discovering that in January 2012 the White House Office of Public Engagement and the federal DOE began working with Harry Boyte to make realizing this cooperative commonwealth a reality.

We have so much going on to finally realize Uncle Karl’s long sought dream and its our children and our tax money or indebtedness being used to coerce compliance. And it is virtually off the radar.

Detroit, like Chicago, jumped the gun in trying to realize this vision. It’s one we all need to understand quickly.

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | July 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Go to Dan Gilbert’s Wikipedia page and read the section titled “Detroit Initiatives”. Over the past couple of years he’s been buying lots of commercial office space in Detroit. He appears to be making a big bet that after the bankruptcy a renaissance period of urban renewal will follow.

The old saw is that you buy when there’s “blood in the street” and sellers are practically giving assets away. My guess is that Dan Gilbert is buying these commercial properties at a tiny fraction of “replacement cost” (the cost to build from the ground up today). If the city bankruptcy really is the low point and they create policies like Jack Kemp’s empowerment zones to encourage entrepreneurial activity which stabilizes the migration out of the city, Gilbert has the potential to see a handsome return on his investment. But policy really does matter. Bad policy got Detroit in this mess and if they screw up the policy post-bankruptcy, he could lose a fortune. He surely understands that and likes his odds. I would not want to bet against him.

    iconotastic in reply to MaggotAtBroadAndWall. | July 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I wonder if his idea is to spin out new municipalities from the husk of Detroit. It would require high barriers to keep out the mutants and zombies though.

Maggot–perhaps Gilbert understands a federal policy of Regional Equity means just that and the prosperous areas in the sunbelt will ultimately be helping to heal the Chicagos, Clevelands, Detroits, and Twin Cities under this vision.

It’s actually not just a US vision and although it is in the 1992 Agenda 21 doc it actually goes back to the mid-60s as well. The Great Society set many unappreciated attempts at transformation in motion. In part because the West was the area with th wealth and technology to be redistributed. At least that’s what the university proponents of getting the small c version of Uncle Karl’s vision laid out.

Around 1962, a Princeton poli sci prof by the name of Robert Tucker. Amazing what was going on that was simply never covered by the mass media. I rely on tracking ideas via footnotes.

I grew up in Detroit and still live in the area. At the time of the riots, I was a frosh at Wayne State and working weekends as a mgr at a movie theater on NW side. On the Sunday when the “67 riot began, I remember two policemen coming in to inform us that we had to close the theater because of the “problem.” My neighborhood began to change shortly after and my parents finally sold their house in 1971, long after all the friends I had grown up with had already moved away.

But the one event that has stuck with me thru the years is when I was a sophomore in high school. It was the murder of two boys in 1965 on the night of July 3rd in a park on the NW side. They were shot to death after going to a Dairy Queen for ice cream. Their deaths was front page news for weeks but unfortunately it was never solved. Years later, I remember reading in one of the papers that a prime suspect was a biker who had died in prison somewhere out west.

For me, that has become the touchstone for the collapse of Detroit. The innocence of growing up in a great neighborhood, and in the city changed with one shocking, horrifying crime. Other suchlike murders have happened throughout the years, but they are no longer shocking. They have become another momentary ugly stat in Detroit’s deterioration. After the murder, my neighborhood did not change. It took another two years before neighbor’s begin to sell their homes and move away. However, the seed was planted and people were ready. They had already begun to change and with it so did the city. Home by home. Block by block.

NC Mountain Girl | July 28, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the aftermath of the riots in 1967 and 68 two major events took place in Detroit. One was the decision to construct a huge development project that cannibalized the existing commercial space in downtown in favor of a massive enclave only a Soviet commissar could love- the Renaissance Center. The other was the adoption of a new city charter in favor of a strong mayor city with a full time at-large city council of nine members. These council members were to staff the agencies that would provide guidance and oversight to the city departments controlled by the mayor.

At-large city councils began to fall out of favor at around the same time Detroit adopted its new charter. The DOJ began challenging them in the South as a method to deprive blacks and Hispanics of political representation. My own hometown went to a ward system not so much to enhance racial representation but because for several consecutive terms the majority of council members were from a single neighborhood and many had ties to real estate developers whose plans were at odds with residents’ wishes. Ward systems empower neighborhoods. At-large systems tend to empower those who favor centralized power -often labor unions and crony capitalists.

Freddie Sykes | July 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm

It’s is so ironic that the mayor deadpanned that he was proud to preside over Detroit’s finest hour. He served at its acme and the city went down hill, crashing and burning for the next 6 decades.

“A great city, if you can keep it.”

    GrumpyOne in reply to Freddie Sykes. | July 29, 2013 at 12:28 am

    The descent began in earnest in the mid 1960’s which was also, (coincidence?), the beginning of the War on Poverty and Great Society.

    Detroit was not alone and many northern cities fell into the same rut of decay…

Mayor Cavanaugh sounds like he’s drunk.

I was young kid during the 80’s and I remember a few things about Detroit growing up across the river in Windsor. The one that I’ll never forget is Devil’s Night. The sky would glow a deep firey red as hundreds of buildings were torched. Ahhh, fond memories thinking back 🙂