Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit: A Brief Photo History

Everyone is talking about Detroit's bankruptcy today. While some folks are quick to point to municipal pension obligations as the major culprit, the Detroit Free Press has a more detailed analysis that illustrates how pensions are only one part of a bigger financial problem, much of which stems from population decline and a smaller workforce.

I'll let the economic wonks get into to all that. I'd rather post about Detroit's industrial and de-industrial history. The elements that contributed to the city's vast promise always existed in tandem with the forces of disruption and injustice, a complex story explored in Thomas Sugrue's book The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Here, then, are some images of Detroit when it worked and how it worked.

Detroit Auto Workers:


The Chrysler auto plant and Detroit's low-rise urban sprawl around it. It was a city of homes.


Workers at the Ford River Rouge auto plant in 1944.


An NAACP march in 1963 for open housing. The March on Washington of the same year tends to pull people's attention off of the (often unsuccessful) fight for civil rights in the North, despite Martin Luther King's admonition not to in his "I Have a Dream" speech.


A city where workers organized...


And unions marched.


It was thought to be a golden city. One of my favorite facts about the city's history is that Detroit applied to be the host city for the Summer Olympics every four years between 1952 and 1972. It was not the Detroit we are reading about today. If Sugrue is right in his book—and I think he is—the reasons for Detroit's decline have much to do with race, de-industrialization, and income inequality. Sugrue wrote another piece in the New York Times last year about the weakening of its unions and the grim reality that "In Michigan, it's no longer a given that a blue-collar job is a ticket to the middle class."

On the upside, Jennifer Bradley at the Brookings Institute argues that Detroit still has many assets too. Perhaps the city can remake itself and this is a difficult initial step in that direction.

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