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Autos troubles, race at root of Detroit collapse

July 22, 2013 • National News


In this Aug. 18, 2009, shown is downtown Pittsburgh, located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers on the north side of Pittsburgh. Like Detroit, Pittsburgh was a community defined by its dependence on a single industry. But as steelmaking crumbled under pressure from foreign imports and the decline of the U.S. auto industry, the city’s population dropped by more than 40 percent between 1970 and 2006, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. But during those years, Pittsburgh also forged a new identity around health care and technology. Detroit’s bankruptcy can’t be blamed solely on the city’s reliance on one industry that itself buckled. Some point to the city’s political leadership and its reluctance over the years to make tough decisions. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Blue-collar workers poured into the cavernous auto plants of Detroit for generations, confident that a sturdy back and strong work ethic would bring them a house, a car and economic security. It was a place where the American dream came true.

It came true in cities across the industrial heartland, from Chicago’s meatpacking plants to the fire-belching steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It came true for decades, as manufacturing brought prosperity to big cities in states around the Great Lakes and those who called them home. Detroit was the affluent capital, a city with its own emblematic musical sound and a storied union movement that drew Democratic presidential candidates to Cadillac Square every four years to kick off campaigns at Labor Day rallies.

The good times would not last forever. As the nation’s economy began to shift from the business of making things, that line of work met the force of foreign competition. Good-paying assembly line jobs dried up as factories that made the cars and supplied the steel closed their doors. The survivors of the decline, especially whites, fled the cities to pursue new dreams in the suburbs.

The “Arsenal of Democracy” that supplied the Allied victory of World War II and evolved into the “Motor City” fell into a six-decade downward spiral of job losses, shrinking population and a plummeting tax base. Detroit’s singular reliance on an auto industry that stumbled badly and its long history of racial strife proved a disastrous combination, and ultimately too much to overcome.

“Detroit is an extreme case of problems that have afflicted every major old industrial city in the U.S.,” said Thomas Sugrue, author of “The Origins of the Urban Login to read more

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