Even a Half-Century Ago, Journalists Were Predicting Detroit Would Go Bust

Longstanding flaws contributed significantly to this week's bankruptcy.
detroit full reuters.jpg
Reuters
News that Detroit has officially declared bankruptcy inspired me to dig into old newspaper and magazine stories to relive the city's glory years, and perhaps reread the stories of decline I remember from my childhood, when the nation was panicked about the Japanese taking over  industry. What I hadn't realized is how long there have been warning signs that all was not well in Motor City.

Three examples are sufficient for purposes of illustration.

The Outlook, June 15, 1921

Although this piece long predates the high point of Detroit's rise, the snapshot it provides of the city is a reminder that the automotive industry has always been prone to sudden booms and busts, and that busts have the capacity to affect Detroit like natural disasters affect other cities:

If there was ever a city that faced adversities gamely, it is Detroit. Rome and Chicago were burned, San Francisco was shaken to pieces by an earthquake; Rheims was shelled. But Detroit had to quit building motor cars, and that was a calamity that the most melancholy patron of the erstwhile Pontchartrain bar had never contemplated. Neither a flood nor a fire could have annoyed Detroit more. To stop building cars was unthinkable...

One unhappy day last fall when the lake fogs lay like a wet blanket over the city, Detroit discovered that her motor industry was gradually ebbing away. Production rapidly declined from bad to worse. Factories were shut down completely. Hamtramck found itself hamstrung. In the last week of December Detroit's so-called employment curve ceased curving altogether, unbent itself into a straight and sinister line, and took a high dive that carried it close to the bottom of the industrial stream. In her industrial prime Detroit had had fully 200,000 workers on her various payrolls. but she began the present year with jobs for only about one person out of every ten who had formerly been employed. And with 175,000 out of her 200,000 employees bewildered and out of work Detroit gamely started to dig herself out.
The Reporter, October 31, 1957

What struck me about this piece was the journalist's wonder at plant growth making incursions into urban life -- and the fact that most of what the city is suffering today was laid out more than 50 years ago, right down to a silver lining still being echoed today:

Upstairs, looking out from higher windows over the city's sprawl to the inland west, you see the blight and chaos with which Detroit still has to contend. Beyond the immediate forest of business towers lies a vast surrounding belt of one and two family house slums or near slums strewn across helter skelter with factories, breweries, and warehouses, through which traffic moves in thick ribbons to three counties overhung with smoke. One tract, almost the size of a small town, has already been hacked out of the hovels near the core, and lies under several years' growth of ragweed like some improbable meadow almost in the shadow of the skyscrapers.

Even latecoming San Francisco has had its picturesque slopes as civic anchors to expansion. But in Detroit little has been fixed except an industry whose very conditions of employment make Detroit a fluid, seasonal boom-and-bust town. The automotive industry created modern Detroit simply as its dormitory and workshop, attracted polyglot millions to it, used it, and now threatens to abandon it. Civic consciousness played little part in the lives of the masses of Irish, German, Poles and Italians who flocked to Detroit in search of a Ford or Dodge or Packard pay check, and who settled there in islands of their own -- any more than it played a part in the managements of Ford or Dodge or Packard themselves, or in the crowd of Negroes who also descended upon the city during the boom years of the Second World War... Indeed, it is remarkable that any sense of civic responsibility at all should have been generated in so rootless and transient a community.

What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes? Detroit is trying to do two things: Restore enough amenities of city life to recapture some of the middle class, and diversify its economic base so as to provide sustenance for every class. Both projects are difficult to accomplish once centrifugal motion has gathered force, and some of the realty interests are far from cooperative... But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit's, you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.
The Reporter, April 17, 1958

In "Detroit's Great Debate: Where Did We Go Wrong?" Eric Larrabee wrote:

There is a nightmare facing Detroit. Some in the industry acknowledge it; many will not; but it is there. Behind the surface symptoms -- unemployment double the national rate, inventories twice the normal size, the decline in sales of medium priced cars, and a sharp increase in the sales of foreign cars -- lies the possibility of some central flaw in Detroit's constitution that is not only permitting its present sickness but may keep the tried and tested remedies from effecting a cure.

Detroit is one of the few large cities of the U.S. that are provincial enough to speak with one voice. Like Hollywood, it has become a kind of secular shrine to twentieth century technology. Like Hollywood, it has built enormous enterprises on the whims of the American public. Like Hollywood, too, it is a one industry town -- a complex of companies scattered across wastes of an overgrown village in the advanced stages of urban sprawl. Like Hollywood, it may have passed its peak.
Perhaps in our lifetime, the sea will rise, America's great coastal cities will be beset by flooding and hurricanes, and the once great cities of the mid-West will rise again. Meanwhile, Detroit is going through a bust that, looking back at the factors cited in decades past, seems almost inevitable.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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