I saw the ad on a real estate web site a week ago. For sale: 3952 Chatsworth Street, Detroit, Michigan. A five bedroom, three bath brick home, built in 1926. Eighteen hundred square feet of living space. Now empty. Yours for $17,900.
$17,900. That house—that home—for the price of a cheap car.
Pick up a paper these days and you almost invariably see some mention of Detroit's great crisis. But the stories aren't about the city. They're about the auto industry: how General Motors and Chrysler and Ford are hemorrhaging money; how they're lurching toward catastrophe; how disaster must be averted.
The crisis in the streets of Detroit—the vortex of poverty that is consuming what once was the nation's fifth largest city—that's not news at all.
It's a summer day sometime in the late 1960s, though precisely when I couldn't say. I'm in the backyard of that house on Chatsworth Street, the Wilds' place, two doors down from my own.
The five Wilds' kids had some sort of fight, as they often did. In the heat of battle the two oldest boys, Mike and Pat, had decided to hog-tie their little brother Kevin, my age. There he is: seven, eight, maybe nine years old, writhing on the cement beneath the battered basketball hoop, his arms and legs bound behind him by a length of clothesline, his mouth gagged so couldn't scream for help, his eyes wide and brimming with tears.
It was cruel and frightening and more than a little exciting. That's why the neighborhood kids spent more time at the Wilds' house than just about anywhere else. Because our families were staid and proper, while the Wilds' kids were – well, wild. And we wanted to share in the freedom, the confidence, the limitlessness that coursed through that house. Truth be told, we envied the Wilds.
We were too young, too sheltered to understand the burdens our parents carried. All we knew was that we were safe. Like so many Detroiters, our families had wound their way to the city in circuitous, sometimes serendipitous ways. But in the end most of them had chosen Detroit for only one reason: work.
In the first half of the twentieth century the city was America's great boomtown, pulsing with the fearsome energy of the world's most innovative industry. Fordism [ see the 1994 Origins article on Henry Ford (pdf) ], the social critics called it: the perfection of mass production, carried out in the vast auto factories that sprawled across the landscape, from the legendary Ford Rouge on Detroit's western edge to the warren of grim-faced parts plants on the east side.
A machine of a city, oiled by an army of working people. In 1950 there were 330,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit, enough to sustain a population of 1.8 million people. Enough to sustain a neighborhood like ours.
By the late 1960s the machine was already slowing down, the jobs starting to slip away. Gradually the auto makers moved their factories to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, where there was plenty of land for sleek new facilities, plenty of workers who weren't steeped in the union tradition, and plenty of ways to improve profit margins.
But those problems didn't reach our slice of the city. Our fathers had seniority in the plant, security in the office; a good, stable paycheck handed over like clockwork each and every Friday. Most of our mothers stayed home, though a few worked as secretaries or bookkeepers.
And they gave us everything a kid could want. We had televisions sitting proudly in our living rooms, toys strewn across our basement floors, trikes and bikes and cars filling our garages, swing sets rusting in our narrow backyards.
No one ever mentioned the phalanx of government programs that made our world comfortable: the labor laws that gave our fathers the ability to earn union wages; the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) mortgages that our parents had used to buy our homes; the Social Security checks that paid our grandparents' bills; the college loans that made it possible for older brothers and sisters to get the educations our parents never had.
The Batts girls, from the far end of the block, headed off to Calvin College, met and married ministers, and settled into the suburbs to do God's will. The Luchtans' daughter went to the city school, Wayne State, fell in love with one of its many campus radicals, fled with him to Canada, and returned with a little blonde son named Ché.
Watching them, we knew that in time we'd have similar, agreeable choices to make; futures to shape however we saw fit. We were remarkably lucky. But we thought it our due.
We knew about race, of course. Though we lived in a completely white neighborhood, there was no way to avoid race. In the late 1960s it was a festering wound cutting across the city.
African Americans had come to Detroit in the first half of the century for the same reason our families had. But the factories didn't open to them, not the way they opened to white people, while most of the city's neighborhoods closed against them, the color line drawn by government fiat and physical force.
Realtors and developers set the standard, using their leverage over the housing market to shut blacks out of huge swaths of the city. New Dealers brought segregation into its housing policy: the FHA, the VA, even the projects embraced racial separation.
And if, by some chance, an African-American family slipped past all the discriminatory practices and provisions and moved into a white area, they faced the very real risk of violence from their new neighbors: a threatening note in the mailbox, a shattered window, a racist slur scrawled across a wall, a rabid mob out on the street—the terror replayed time and again, until Detroit had become one of the most segregated cities in America.
Once the ghetto was in place, City Hall starved it of public services: as late as 1950, a quarter of the homes in the sprawling east side slum didn't have running water; and garbage collection was so sporadic the neighborhood became overrun with rats. Its housing stock—already the worst in Detroit—inexorably decayed. Its schools struggled with systematic underfunding. The all-white police department patrolled its streets as if the cops were an occupying army. And for more than thirty years—from the 1920s through the 1950s—the black community seethed with the frustration, the injustice of it all.
Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the boundaries of the ghetto were broken; shattered by a surging civil rights movement and the power of demography. In 1960 there were half a million African Americans living in Detroit, 28 percent of the population. No matter how hard whites tried, they couldn't contain so many people in the ghetto's narrow band of streets. Bit by bit African-American families began buying homes in sections of the city that had long been reserved for whites.
There was trouble, of course. Threatening notes stuffed into mailboxes; racial slurs scrawled across walls and doors; mob attacks; schoolyard brawls; massive white flight. And even as the black population spread, the official oppression—the relentless oppression—never lifted. Then it triggered the worst urban disorder of the 1960s.
It began a hot summer night in July 1967. The cops raided an after-hours bar in an African-American neighborhood on the west side. A crowd gathered to watch. In the heat tempers flared. Someone threw a brick through a window of a police cruiser idling at the curb. And the conflagration began.
Six days of rioting. A rebellion, some said. Swaths of the city burned to the ground. Forty three people killed. The streets retaken by the 82nd Airborne. Peace at the barrel of a gun.
On Chatsworth, we never experienced the horrific events of that week. We were scared—all of Detroit was scared—but there was no violence. I swear we heard it off in the distance; sirens wailing over the sound of cicadas, the occasional gunshot in someone else's part of town.
When race filtered into our neighborhood, it came not in the fevered days of 1967 but in the years that followed. And we heard it in our parent's whispers, in the quiet counting of streets. A black couple had moved into a house a mile from us, half a mile, six blocks. No one assaulted the newcomers. No one even threatened them, as far as I know.