Saturday, April 28, 2012

Detroit: A Biography

Update: Pete Saunders, who offers insightful comments below, did his own review of "Detroit: A Biography". He blogs at The Corner Side Yard.

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.


Tom Mc said...

Jim -- I think about Pittsburgh's resilience is built on the industrialist that left legacies Libraries, Arts, Architecture, Universities, etc that are still kept up by the foundations plus tax dollars and the "Blue Collar' working class people. (Migrants) But what I think gets left out is the forced migration, based on the collapse of the Steel industry with out much Federal Government support. Blame Reagan.

I thought it would take Detroit at least 30-40 years to start growing again. One thing that I am not sure if it will take longer or shorter, based on the Auto Industry's forced, preplanned, federally supported bankruptcy. Will this keep people in Detroit and not force the out migration, workforce diversity then in migration? A refresh of the gene pool shall we say.

pete-rock said...


I also read Detroit: A Biography and did a review on my blog. I've also written quite a bit about Detroit's demise. I know Detroit much better than Pittsburgh, and I know Chicago very well also. Frankly I know very little about Pittsburgh, but I think the basics of Detroit's collapse are very similar to Pittsburgh's and Chicago's. However, I'd note three things are different: 1) the black migration to Detroit started earlier there, lasted longer, drew greater numbers and caused friction with white residents earlier; 2) Detroit is not a city of neighborhoods in the sense that either Chicago or Pittsburgh are, so it never developed local representation that could "defend" the interests of residents; 3) an industrial land use pattern that constrained the historic core of the city and created a housing crisis post-WWII that was one of the most extreme in the nation; and 4) the election of a black mayor in Coleman Young, who was perceived as seeking retribution on whites by whites.

So, economically different from the rest of the Rust Belt? Not at all. Politically, socially and physically different? Definitely. Had Detroit NOT elected a black mayor in 1973, the white outmigration wouldn't have been so severe and would've retained much more of a middle class. It would've been much more like present-day Philly. Conversely, had Chicago elected a black mayor in the early '70s, it would've likely had the same white flight and we'd be talking about it in Detroit-like terms.

Jim Russell said...

I thought it would take Detroit at least 30-40 years to start growing again. One thing that I am not sure if it will take longer or shorter, based on the Auto Industry's forced, preplanned, federally supported bankruptcy.

Lee Iacocca.