How to explain Detroit? I had high hopes of answering that question upon receiving Scott Martelle's book, "Detroit: A Biography". I ended up disappointed, but not because Martelle fails to answer the question. Appropriately, past is prologue. We learn what went wrong. I remained unconvinced that Detroit was/is uniquely troubled. Towards the end, Martelle attempts to figure out Pittsburgh's riddle of success. I read that chapter first and almost didn't read the rest of the book. I know a lot more about Pittsburgh than I do Detroit. I don't buy the argument that Pittsburgh wasn't as burdened as Detroit, thus successfully navigating the economic transformation. I also doubt Detroit has painted itself into a corner.
I intended to take a shot at figuring out Detroit's malaise. While reading, I kept getting stuck on a missing migration story: Northward Hillbillies. How did the influx of poor Appalachian whites figure into the epic? And I don't mean the racial dynamic that has crippled Detroit. Martelle is up to that task. What about the "Hillbilly Problem" that plagued Chicago:
Arnold Hirsh and other writers attribute a great deal of the post-war racial violence to the Great Migration—a massive influx of Southern blacks in a short period of time. That the new Chicagoans were black is obviously significant, but not to be underestimated is the fact that they were Southern. And the white Southerners who arrived at the same time provide a useful contrast, not least because they came to Chicago and other Midwestern cities—like Akron, the "capital of West Virginia"—along the Hillbilly Highway for similar reasons: the economy of the already-poor central and southern Appalachians was exacerbated by the increasing automation of the coal industry, forcing migrants already uprooted by the war to seek blue-collar jobs in more thriving industrial areas.
I'm aware that Detroit has its own Appalachian ghettos. Doubtful that the unease was worse in Chicago than it was in Detroit. It's an untold tale, a gaping hole in the city's narrative. "Detroit: A Biography" is incomplete, a comparative case study begging to be done.