Instead whites in those neighborhoods simply started to move to the suburbs, back across the color line. As they ran, house values plummeted, driven down by their owner's panicked selling. But we didn't see it that way.  Whites weren't to blame for what was happening. Whites were never to blame.

Another moment

This time I know the date. Late autumn 1974: the grimmest of seasons in the grimmest of years. For the first time since the 1930s the American auto industry is under assault, its once unassailable position shattered by a spike in inflation, a disastrous oil embargo, and a sudden surge in Japanese imports. As the auto makers fall, Detroit is tumbling through recession into depression.

I'm in the kitchen of the Wilds' house, brilliantly yellow the way the kitchens are supposed to be. I'm waiting for one of the younger kids—Kevin or the twins, Danny and Terri. In walks Mike Wilds, the oldest boy. Sinewy, surly Mike, the one who could always throw the fear of God into you, made all the more intimidating by the fact that I'm a fragile fourteen year old and he's an imposing eighteen.

He was supposed to go to college that September: Michigan State, we all heard. But rumor has it that Mr. and Mrs. Wilds couldn't come up with the money. So Mike is joining the Army instead—in the autumn of 1974, when only the most desperate go into the Army.  And as he passes me by in that kitchen, I'm not intimidated at all.

There was another change that year, bigger, in the end, than all the others. The first black family moved onto our block. They were a young couple; school teachers, I think, though no one ever bothered to ask them. Instead our parents talked among themselves. There were a handful of neighborhood meetings, many more kitchen-table conferences.  There they made their calculations.

Most of the younger white families on Chatsworth had paid for their houses about what my parents had paid for our home in 1960: $13,000. With the city's economy spiraling downward, they wouldn't get much more than that, if they could sell at all. So they all agreed to stay put. No race to the realtors. No "for sale" signs sprouting up on our trim front lawns. No catastrophic competition to get our houses sold.  We'd work together to make sure that, in our little corner of Detroit, there'd be no white flight. It was the only smart thing to do.

A final memory

A summer evening in 1977, late enough for the sky to have darkened, the street lights to have flickered on. All day long the movers have been carrying the Wilds' belongings—boxes of clothes, the old iron bed frames that the kids used, the fancy stereo cabinet everyone envied—out to the massive moving van.

The Wilds are leaving, heading to their new home in a small town an hour north of Detroit.  We're gathered in their driveway to say goodbye.  I'm sure our parents are there. But all I can see are the kids I grew up with, the kids I've known forever—no longer children, not quite adults—drawn into a tight knot, the boys standing awkwardly on the edge, the girls in the center, hugging and crying. We'll still talk, we tell each other. We'll come to visit. Nothing will change. And we believe what we're saying. We really do.

The next day an African-American family moved into the Wilds' house. I never went there again.

By that summer the promises our parents had made to each other had completely unraveled. It's tempting to say that we just got swept up in the massive exodus of those years. In the course of the 1970s, 400,000 whites left Detroit. Who were we to resist?  But that isn't true. Our parents' promises collapsed under the crushing weight of a system that fused racism, self-interest, and the inexorable logic of the real estate marketplace.

So those who could afford it put their homes up for sale, their prices cut as close to the bone as straining budgets would allow.  One by one we found buyers, always African Americans, since whites were no longer interested in living on Chatsworth. My family moved to the suburbs in October 1977, a few days before my seventeenth birthday. We left behind a city of 1.2 million people, two thirds of them black.

I saw the Wilds just once, a year or so after they moved, when the neighborhood kids piled into somebody's car and made the long drive out to their new house. For a while after that I'd hear an occasional update. Then the news petered out. I don't think any of the kids went to college, at least not straight out of high school. If they tried to make their way in the blue-collar world, it must have been tough.

Industrial America never really recovered from the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Some industries—steel, for instance—essentially shut down. The domestic auto makers survived, of course, but they shrank their operations or moved them overseas, shedding jobs in the process.

The Reagan revolution made matters worse. During the 1980s it became more difficult to unionize as the government withdrew its support for workers' rights. The consolidation of corporate power made it harder for working people to get health care, harder to build a pension, harder to make ends meet. All the while, the federal safety net grew thinner and thinner, shredded by the government's promise that money would somehow trickle down to those in need.

The Wilds undoubtedly got by—many people did—but they would have struggled to match the world their parents had made for them on Chatsworth.

If life was difficult out in small-town Michigan, it turned brutal back in Detroit. The precipitous slide in the city's manufacturing base that began in the mid-1970s turned into a death spiral: between 1972 and 1982 Detroit lost a third of its factory jobs; almost two thirds between 1972 and 1992.

As industry disappeared, the city's tax base crumbled. Cuts in public housing, education, and welfare programs compounded the burden. Poverty intensified. The drug trade flourished. And the streets grew ever more dangerous:  in the course of the 1990s there were 5032 murders in Detroit. The worse circumstances became, the more people fled: first whites, then an increasing number of middle-class African Americans, who moved into suburbs that also quickly became all-black.

By 2000 Detroit's population had fallen below the million mark, half what it had been at its peak. Once-thriving neighborhoods were pockmarked by the charred remains of burned-out houses. The main streets were lined with boarded up store fronts. Factories stood empty, their rows of windows smashed, their buckling walls painted with riots of graffiti. The city was hollowing out.


Detroit's population has now tumbled to 860,000. A third of its people—half of its children—live below the poverty line. It has an infant mortality rate just slightly better than the Palestinian territories. Its educational system has essentially collapsed: only 21.7 percent of the students who start Detroit's high schools manage to graduate. Its political system is in disarray, its effectiveness destroyed by a scandal that sent its dynamic young mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, to prison.

White flight is almost complete. According to official measurements, the Detroit metropolitan area is now the most segregated in America, a necklace of overwhelmingly white suburbs surrounding an all but completely African-American city.

Detroit's misery is shared by much of urban America. Cleveland's poverty rate is almost as high. Memphis' infant mortality rate is worse. Milwaukee, Newark, Chicago and New York are almost as segregated. And four years after Hurricane Katrina, whole sections of New Orleans remain in ruins. The current national economic meltdown is making the situation even more desperate, as foreclosures and factory shutdowns devastate city after city.

Nowhere is the crisis more severe, though, than in Detroit.  Last month, the unemployment rate reached a catastrophic 22 percent—and is only likely to grow worse through the rest of the year. With joblessness at such a level, the city's already crumbling tax base threatens to collapse, hamstringing its ability to deal with the crippling array of problems it faces. Detroit is, quite simply, a devastated place; ignored and forgotten by a nation that, until these past few months, didn't give a damn for the dispossessed.

A dream

I'm sitting on the front porch that runs the length of the Wilds' house, where we used to sit when we had nothing better to do. It's spring, so the cement railing is cold to the touch. But the spindly trees that line the sidewalk have begun to bud, the forsythias have bloomed, and the tiny front lawns—the neighborhood's pride—are starting to green.

I look down the block, along the solid row of houses, I don't see a place sliding into desolation, a place so poor, so desperate you can buy a home for $18,000.

Instead I see that street the way it once was. Not the hatred, not the fear, not the narrowness of our vision, but the hope that used to thrive here. The boundless hope of childhood, given as a birthright to the kids who now call this neighborhood their home.

Special Thanks

Origins thanks the Kirwin Institute's Vacant Property Project in Detroit, Detroit Yes!, and Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther Library for the use of images.