The City as a Problem

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I blogged about this while I was reporting, but given that Detroit story is now up, I wanted to give another shout out to two books which really helped me find my way. The first is Thomas Sugrue's The Origins Of The Urban Crisis. If you have any interest in the history of cities, this book is required reading. Someone asked the other day why I consider the term "White Flight" erroneous. I noted that the phrasetends to conjure images of scared and bigoted whites fleeing the encroaching onyx horde.


The truth is both more elegant and more monstrous. Sugrue shows that "White Flight" began long before blacks  began moving in significant numbers into white neighborhoods. It's been some time, but I want to say the outmigration, in Detroit, began as early as the 1940s--a period that most people conveniently consider a golden age. Moreover, Origins (along with Kenneth Jackson's stellar Crabgrass Frontier) shows that the outmigration didn't simply result from rank and individual color prejudice, but from something more systemic--racist federal, state and local public policy. The FHA, conspiring to devalue property as soon as one black family moved in, block busting realtors, and urban renewal advocates effectively colluded to create white flight. My point here is that "White Flight" wasn't a product of pure capitalism, market forces and culture. It was the result of social engineering. The terms "White Flight" evinces an ignorance of the policies which shaped the future of Detroit and cities around the country. 

I'd also toss in Robert Conot's problematic American Odyssey. It's the best overall history of Detroit I've read. Regrettably,  it's plagued by an editorial decision to use fictional characters to illustrate the policy points. It's as though an editor told Conot that all of wonkery, history and policy wasn't compelling. Which is too bad because the book is laden with gems. Here's Conot discussing Detroit's Irish immigrants circa the mid-19th century:

Between genteel Jefferson Avenue and the riverfront, the railroad created a reeking slum the likes of which were plaguing every industrial city. Enwreathed in the smoke belching from steamships, locomotives and factories, it was a district of unpainted and blackened wooden buildings. Cheap lodging houses, whorehouses, and tenements proliferated. Since lack of public transportation inhibited the expansion of the city, warehouses, stables and churches were converted into tenements. As the district spread outward, the wealthy abandoned their mansions and placed them in the hands of managers. 

 Left to do with them as they pleased so long as they channeled a fixed income to the owners, the managers discovered they were in possession of property more valuable than the mines of Michigan. The more intensively they mined the property, the greater their personal profit. Windowless cubicles as small as fifty square feet were occupied by as many as two families each. Twenty persons sometimes slept in two beds. Thousands of others camped in cellars. Water dripped on them from the walls. 

Their dreams were swathed in the stench piles of stored manure. Pushcart peddlers sold vegetables, fish, needles, horse dung and opium. Itinerant artisans, purchasable females, cripples and blind men, children, chickens and pigs choked the narrow streets and alleys....The death rate rose more than 50 percent in a half century, and children died in fearful numbers. But, in a land with an abundant supply of food, men and women had the energy to breed two to replace each that was lost.

The overall point here is that Detroit was not invented in 1965. My sense, as a journalist, is that often, in our search for a news-hook, we forget that places have histories. Grappling with that history tends to make a mess of our easy narratives. But, and I've said this before, the lesson I received from my reporting is not simply that Detroit is a problem, but that cities--themselves--are problems, that they always have been problems. New York is booming right now. But much of Harlem wonders whether it will exist in ten years.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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