Where Does Detroit Go From Here? A (2021) Review of The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996)

Midwestern Rust Belt cities, once flourishing with people and jobs, continue on with a decades-long struggle to regain the impressive economic and social success they once had. In his 1996 book “The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” Thomas J. Sugrue analyzes why Detroit has become inflicted with persistent poverty and inequality. He finds the answer in the city’s history of racial tension, discrimination and decentralization — factors that, 25 years later, remain without much improvement. Cover graphic by Maya Shimizu Harris for Midstory.

Type “Detroit” into Google, and prepare yourself for an extensive and thorough narrative of negativity before you even click “search”: “Is Detroit bad?”, “Why is Detroit abandoned?” and “Why does Detroit have a bad reputation?” are just a few of the resulting suggested search terms. 

And while the narrative painted by these questions is largely coherent with our understanding of the Motor City, it’s been less than a century since Detroit was one of the nation’s fastest growing towns. But this period of growth did not last long, largely due to systemic issues and industry failure, according to Thomas J. Sugrue’s 1996 book “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.” While a quarter of a century old, Sugrue’s analysis remains insightful today, especially how the racial and economic factors of postwar Detroit contributed to its chronic issues with inequality. If today the city is still struggling with the same key problems (and, according to a 2021 report, it is), we are left with the question of how much progress has Detroit really made since 1996, as well as a duty to examine, once again, how we got here.

“The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” by Thomas J. Sugrue. Image courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Rise and Fall

In the 1940s, Detroit was a booming industrial city, home to the highest paid blue collar workers in the United States. Between 1940 and 1943, the number of unemployed workers in Detroit fell from 135,000 to just 4,000, and manufacturing employment increased by 40 percent between 1940 and 1947. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors — the top automotive companies in the country — were all headquartered in Detroit. Ford was the leader in hiring Black employees; by 1940, 12 percent of Ford workers were African American, and half of all Black workers in the automotive industry across the nation were Ford employees. 1940s Detroit was gritty, hardworking and determined, earning itself the moniker of the “Motor City” through its leadership in industry and innovation.

“The [auto plant] was a drama of might and violence,” Sugrue writes. “Of human ingenuity and sheer physical labor, punctuated by the noise of pounding machinery, the sight of hundreds of workers moving rhythmically to the pulse of the line, the interplay of mechanical power, the seemingly endless rush of workers through the gates at shift time. Detroit’s brooding horizon of factories and its masses of industrial laborers became icons of modernity.”

Blue-collar workers leaving their plants during a shift change in Detroit. Image courtesy of “The Origins of Urban Crisis” by Thomas J. Sugrue. 

But the most valuable insight Sugrue gives us is a warning not to oversimplify the narrative of the post-industrial fall. The “rusting of the Rust Belt,” as Sugrue calls it, did not begin with economic stagflation, nor with the rise of steel imports from other countries, nor with the Detroit riots of 1967. According to Sugrue, “no one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no simple explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor.” Instead, he attributes Detroit’s economic decline to simultaneous issues in employment discrimination, housing segregation and decentralization, which worked together to cause disruption and conflict.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of Sugrue’s key analyses for why Detroit fell, but also provided a 25-year update. Unfortunately, little has seemed to really change, especially for the often underserved and impoverished Black communities dwelling in the city’s center. 

Employment

Then

In the mid-twentieth century, Black Detroiters faced sky-high barriers in the labor market. Despite the influx of jobs during the 1940s through 1970s, Black workers were often denied entry to these new opportunities. If they were hired, Sugrue says, “[Black Detroiters] found themselves placed in the least desirable jobs, disproportionately in unskilled and semiskilled sectors, usually in the dirtiest and most dangerous parts of the plant.” He dedicates an entire section of his book to evaluating inequality and discrimination in the workforce, namely in the steel and automotive industries. 

“Viewed either from the perspective of an individual worker, or from city-wide labor statistics, racial discrimination in employment was an undeniable outcome of hiring processes in postwar Detroit,” Sugrue writes. “Racism and discrimination alone are not satisfactory explanations for the myriad individual decisions that determined the makeup of the labor force. Racial practices in the workplace took shape in the changing ideological and political context of the mid-[20th] century.” 

Now

Today, Black Detroiters continue to hold a disproportionate share of lower-income jobs. And while incomes overall in Detroit have been increasing, they are not doing so equally; according to a 2021 report done by Detroit Future City, “the median income for white Detroiters is over $16,000 more than that of African-American Detroiters.” 

Image courtesy of “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit” (Detroit Future City, 2021).
Image courtesy of “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit” (Detroit Future City, 2021).
Image courtesy of “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit” (Detroit Future City, 2021).

Segregated housing and the urban-suburban divide

Then

Segregated housing, which historically limited economic mobility for many Black Detroiters, paints a bleak picture in the 20th and 21st centuries alike. Throughout the mid and late 1900s, housing segregation was enforced at a systematic level by discriminatory real estate sales and bank lending practices that were perpetuated by both the federal and state governments. Black people were denied federally-backed mortgages and were forced into separate neighborhoods because the Federal Housing Administration believed in homogenous areas categorized by race and social class. 

Sugrue writes that “Detroit’s Black population doubled between 1940 and 1950…accounting for more than two-thirds of the city’s population growth,” but that of the 545,000 housing units available in Detroit in 1947, only 47,000 were available to Black people.

“As late as 1951, only 1.5 percent of new developments in the metro Detroit area were available to Black citizens,” he writes. 

Because of housing segregation, Black Detroiters found themselves increasingly stuck in the city’s center, where opportunities for housing and jobs were less available than in the surrounding suburbs and rural areas. According to Sugrue, “Blacks were confined to the poorest-paying, most insecure jobs, they had less disposable income than their white counterparts, and could not afford the city’s better housing […] The result was that blacks were trapped in the city’s worst housing, in strictly segregated sections of the city.” In the 1960s, when factory plants moved out of the city center, Black Detroiters found themselves stuck in the city with even fewer economic opportunities than before. 

Now
Image courtesy of “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit” (Detroit Future City, 2021).

Fast forward half a century, and segregated housing remains an apparent and detrimental issue in Detroit. Twice the number of white Detroiters live in middle-class neighborhoods than Black Detroiters, and, in Metro Detroit, more than three times the number of white residents do than Black residents. According to the study, “Within the city, the average value of homes owned by white residents is $46,000 more than homes owned by African American residents and $39,000 higher than Hispanic residents. This is a reversal of trends in the previous decade, in which the value of African-American-owned homes exceeded that of those owned by white people.” 

Some Detroiters are fighting back. For example, three residents of Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood are in the process of suing their former landlord for discriminating against prospective Black tenants, claiming their landlord refused to rent homes to Black people and ignored requests for home repairs for current tenants.

Furthermore, the boundary of the city of Detroit and the metro Detroit area remains one of the most starkly segregated delineations in the nation; Detroit is 78% Black and 15% white while metro Detroit is 22% Black and 66% white. 

And that line not only continues to delineate geography, race and housing, but also poverty rates. In 2019, Detroit was the second most impoverished city in the nation, with nearly a third of its residents living below the poverty line, trailing just behind Cleveland. The median income in Detroit is 50% of that of the region as a whole, and a mere 5% of people living in Detroit live in a middle-class neighborhood while 59% do in the region as a whole. 

Image courtesy of “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit” (Detroit Future City, 2021).

Decentralization

Then

The real downturn in Detroit’s manufacturing and automotive industry came with the expansion of decentralization. Detroit suffered four major recessions from 1949 through 1960, which greatly affected the sensitive automotive industry; to put it simply, as the economy worsened, people were less likely to buy cars. According to Sugrue, “In the 1950s, auto manufacturers and suppliers permanently reduced their Detroit-area work forces, closed plants, and relocated to other parts of the country.” From there, employment opportunities steadily got worse for Detroit’s working class. Though the population was increasing, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963. 

“The process of deindustrialization—the closing, downsizing and relocation of plants and sometimes whole industries—accelerated throughout the twentieth century,” Sugrue writes. “Detroit, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Trenton, Boston, Buffalo, and St. Louis all lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs beginning in the 1950s, as firms reduced employment in center-city plants, replaced workers with new automated technology, and constructed new facilities in suburban and semi rural areas, in medium-sized cities, often in less industrialized states or regions, and even in other countries.”

Resulting unemployment hit the city center the hardest, and thus impacted already impoverished or underprivileged populations.

Unemployment in Detroit, 1960. Image courtesy of the Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute Field Notes I via DETROITography.

Unsurprisingly, the effects had a particularly disproportionate effect on the city’s Black residents, who saw higher rates of unemployment throughout the mid 1900s: “…plant relocations, especially to rural areas and the South, severely limited the economic opportunities of Detroit’s [Black population]. Detroit’s waning industrial economy had less and less to offer them,” Sugrue writes.

During the 1950s-1980s, Black workers in Detroit saw a high percentage of job loss and unemployment.

Decentralization also allowed companies to control labor costs and weaken trade unions. Sugrue says firms took advantage of the declining economy for their own benefit: “General Motors, the first firm to deconcentrate production on a wide scale, built new plants in the 1930s in rural parts of the country, as a means of reducing wages and inhibiting union militancy in manufacturing cities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint, where most of its facilities had been located.” Between 1950 and 1956, 55 of the 124 manufacturing firms located in Detroit had moved from the city’s suburbs to rural areas. 

Now

Today, unemployment remains higher among Detroit’s Black population and among those within the city limits. From 2000 to 2010, the number of employed residents of the Detroit metro area dropped by over 21%, but employment for central city dwellers dropped 39.2% (compared to a population loss of nearly 25%). While the unemployment rate overall has remained a relatively steady 25% in the last couple of years, one study found that Black and Latino Detroiters in the labor force are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts.

In addition, the manufacturing sector in Detroit continues to decline, especially within city limits; from 200 to 2010 alone, the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 52.5%, and the manufacturing jobs held by city residents fell from 65,000 to 20,000.

Automation

Then

Not only were manufacturing jobs lost, but new technology began replacing those that remained; automation, Sugrue writes, was another blow to Detroit’s declining economic and social development in the mid twentieth century. In the eyes of firm owners, automation was a benefit because it reduced labor costs and increased output.

“…before the introduction of automated engine production at Ford’s Cleveland plant, it took 117 workers to produce 154 engine blocks per hour; after automation, the same output required a mere 41 workers,” Sugrue writes.

If companies could find a way to save money and produce more, they did so—even if it was at the expense of the working class. Ford’s River Rouge plant, which was the largest employer of Black workers in the Detroit area from 1910 to the late 1950s, saw its workforce shrink from 85,000 employees in 1945 to 30,000 employees in 1960 as a result of automation. 

Between 1951-1953, Ford Plants in the Detroit area saw a loss of 4,185 jobs due to automation.

“Automation affected virtually every sector of the city’s economy,” Sugrue writes. “Reshaping Detroit’s industrial labor market, and unleashing forces whose destructive powers no one—industrialists and workers alike—could fully anticipate. A UAW-sponsored study of Ford from 1950 to 1953 indicated a net loss of 4,185 jobs in the first years of industrial restructuring.”

Now

Today, automation continues to threaten Detroit’s industrial and manufacturing labor force. According to a study done by McKinsey & Company, Black residents of Detroit, alongside those of Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are among those projected to see the biggest job losses due to automation.

Furthermore, according to the same study, Black workers are overrepresented in occupations most likely to be impacted by automation — like office support, food services and production work — but underrepresented in those that are least likely to be impacted — like education, health, business and legal professions.

What’s Next?

Sugrue ends his evaluation with a vague conclusion about how Rust Belt cities will need to adjust to industrial and economic decline. And 25 years later, in many of the problem areas he analyzed in the 20th century, it seems that any idea of “progress” made remains just as vague.

But that’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made at all. While Sugrue doesn’t offer any specific policy solutions to systemic inequality — and while that systemic inequality certainly still has a deep hold on the city — Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands and are continuing to demand systematic change in their city. Popular brand phrases “Detroit Never Left” and “Say Nice Things About Detroit” can be seen on t-shirts, hats and stickers all across the state of Michigan, intending to market Detroit in a brighter and more hopeful light. Small business owners are opening up in otherwise deserted or underserved neighborhoods, and organizations are helping to supplement transportation and city infrastructure. Nonprofits and individual residents are cultivating the next generation of artists and citywide food traditions are bringing attention to the Motor City. Today, Detroiters are still pushing for opportunities in economic mobility after centuries of discrimination, solidifying the relevance of Sugrue’s analysis and understanding of the city’s decline as a result of inequality at a fundamental level. 

“The Origins of the Urban Crisis” doesn’t give readers the most optimistic view. But it definitely gives them an in-depth and multi-faceted understanding of Detroit’s history, outlining concerns that largely remain unaddressed today. From it, the takeaway must be that Detroit needs to address its both history and its present with systemic inequality, and that progress cannot exist in a vague future tense; we applaud someone like Sugrue for pointing out the issues, but without action for systematic change, a quarter of a century can fly by while leaving its most vulnerable inhabitants behind. In other words, recognition of our past problems without a pathway forward often leaves us in stagnation under the guise of hope.

“To come to grips with the problems and promises of our cities,” Sugrue wrote, “We must grapple with the past as a means of engaging with the present.”

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