Moving along with the Shrinking Cities readings, the first part of ‘Origins of the Urban Crisis’ by Segrue recounts the development of the City of Detroit around WWII as the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ which made it one of the highest paying blue-collar cities in the US. In the words of Segrue, “Mid-twentieth-century Detroit embodied the melding of human labor and technology that together had made the United States the apotheosis of world capitalism.” (p.19) This height of Fordist production makes the inevitable fall even more extreme.
:: ‘Criss Crossed Conveyors’ from the Ford River Rouge Plant – Charles Sheeler (1927) image via Art History Archive
As mentioned, the visitors of today’s Detroit marvel at the industrial ruins and disaster porn, but at the time, people flocked to the city to see the massive technologies and industrial might at work, and mostly “they stood rapt as the twentieth century’s premier consumer object, the automobile, rolled off the assembly lines by the dozens an hour.” (p.19) It is hard to think of the spectacular model of modernity that Detroit once embodied, one that reshaped the city with a new form of ‘industrial geography’ which tied factories to suppliers and workers to homes with unprecedented efficiency.
:: Ford Assembly Line – image via Wikipedia
:: image via wunderground
The traces of grand boulevards from Woodward’s L’Enfant-inspired plan of 1807 remained – fanning out in a radial pattern of wide avenues from the city center, which added to the idea of speed and efficiency that has characterized Detroit, and the automobile industry for decades. Much like Los Angeles being the embodiment of the auto-centric city, Detroit is the perfect model of Fordist urbanism at work – not just in the factories – driven by mass-production along with high union wages, and the accessibility of the blue-collar worker to live in a single-family house of their own – with a dearth of any sort of apartment of multi-family housing to accommodate lower-income or those not wealthy enough, or white enough, to buy houses.
:: image via urban places and spaces
The focus on single-family houses led to perpetual housing shortages – particularly when combined with a history of official and unofficial policies that prevented blacks from obtaining housing. Unlike many of the eastern cities where the geography was a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, Detroit was much more literally black and white, as Segrue mentions, “class and race became more important that ethnicity as a guide to the city’s residential geography.” (p.22) While it was understood as a “City of Homes” for most, the influx of black workers from the South, who came in the ‘Great Migration’, were met with a consistent range of discrimination and violence, as existing residents perceived in-migration as a threat to their community, starting in the 1920s and continuing all the way through the 1970s. As mentioned in Segrue:
“White neighborhoods, especially enclaves of working-class homeowners, interpreted the influx of blacks as a threat and began to defend themselves against the newcomers, first by refusing to see to blacks, then by using force and threats of violence, and finally establishing restrictive covenants to assure the homogeneity of neighborhoods.” (p.24)
There were some inroads to employment in good jobs around WWII, driven by a tightening labor market, the coalitions of unions and civil rights groups, and some federal policies, which made sure that “blacks made significant gains in Detroit’s industrial economy during the war.” (p.27) There was still an undercurrent of racial tension, which played out in housing and employment, a continual topic that Segrue alludes to being a ‘structural’ racism that played out in Detroit, and were displayed in significant riots and other violence throughout the years, but that this didn’t stop the influx of blacks coming into the city, leaving the Jim Crow south for something better. It’s debatable if Detroit was much better.
The Time Bomb
The availability and quality of housing was poor for blacks – driven by a number of social and policy factors. While the New Deal had instilled a new ideology of opportunity for blacks – it had also instilled an ideology for current residents that the government would protect their property and the status quo. Thus the competing ideals of opportunity and protection played out in Detroit, and although, as seen previously, some gains were made – the majority of the wins came in maintenance of the status quo and protection from the new waves of poor, black residents.
As seen in the map below, there were very specific segregated neighborhoods that were predominately populated by blacks – in particularly the original Paradise Valley and West Side Neighborhoods (which had been an areas for wealthy blacks that had deteriorated), along with the wealthier blacks in Conant Gardens and the more distant Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where they had land for gardens to grow food, which became for some pioneering blacks, “their one opportunity, as they saw it, to own their own homes and rear their families.” (p.39)
:: image via city-data
The geography of race was perpetuated by the real estate community as well, who were actively involved in the exclusion of blacks from housing. Another aspect was construction, with new houses rarely being built for blacks or in a price range that was suitable. As Segrue mentions, in “1951, on 1.15 percent of the new homes constructed in the metropolitan Detroit area were available to blacks.” (p.43). Another major issue that shaped this geography in Detroit, and many other cities around the United States, was the concept of redlining. Maps were produced by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, informed by local real estate brokers and lenders, to rate the neighborhoods in cities according to a scale from A (green) to D (red). While ostensibly a methodology for determining investment risk, the process became a de facto method for exclusion, disenfranchisement, and continued disinvestment in the minority areas.
:: redlining Detroit – image via RG25
Black neighborhoods, even those with a small percentage of black residents, were given a rating of ‘D’, which was deemed hazardous and colored red (as seen in the unfortunately fuzzy map above, which shows significant portions of the downtown). I haven’t been able to track down maps from Detroit – although they do exist for a number of cities – and tell as pretty sad tale of federally aided racism. The ratings kept out new loans for new construction or home repairs, furthering a cycle of disinvestment, as outlined by Segrue:
“Residents in areas rate ‘C’ and ‘D’ were unlikely to qualify for mortgages and home loans. Builders and developers, likewise, could expect little or no financial backing if they chose to building in such risky neighborhoods.” (p.44)
When you factor in restrictive covenants (the actual and implied), and the work of redlining along with real-estate industry maintenance of status quo, it equated to an impossible position for the largest growing population of residents in Detroit to get adequate housing, which further fueled tensions. For a bit more context, here’s a video about the Race Riots from Detroit 2020 offers a concise history on the topic:
The final element of the oppression of poor minority residents in Detroit came, as it did in many areas, through the disguise of urban renewal, in particular the construction of highways through ‘slums’ that cleared out substandard housing without replacing it with enough to handle what was lost, much less house the large numbers of new residents. From Segrue: “The most obvious problem with slum clearance was that it forced the households with the least resources to move at a time when the city’s tight housing market could not accommodate them.” (p.50)
This was exacerbated with landlords charging more rent (up to 35% more) for blacks for less housing, which, coupled with the lower wages and job opportunities, forced many to live in great numbers, and not have anything left over for maintenance. This further degraded already deteriorating stock, which further declined, and continued the narrative that some whites believed – that blacks would destroy neighborhoods. The cycle continued. Unlike some areas that built robust (if often misguided) public housing, the next chapter showed that Detroit, city of ‘homes’ had some similar issues with density, and a new-found Nimbyism which led to a slow provision of subsidized housing, which may have aided in softening some of the myriad impacts of the 1950s and 1960s.
The promise of the New Deal, in post-WWII era, was predicated on government intervention to solve the problems of the city. One of those things was to provide adequate housing for the poor, whether this be true building of community and opportunity, or the more commonly wielded tool of ‘social engineering’ to make better citizens. Through a number of acts, the US developed policy and funding for many types of affordable housing, complementing the already robust subsidies of single family home construction and highway building.
The trend toward ‘modernist’ totalitarian schemes emerged from this process of social engineering, embodied by the work of a group of professionals called the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council (CPHC), which took a mission of “improvement of the environmental conditions of Detroit’s slums through the elimination of crowded, dirty, and substandard housing, and the construction of sanitary, well-lit, and well-ventilated public housing in its place.” (p.61) This type of rhetoric smacks of much of public housing projects of the era, which provides housing, as Segrue mentions, that has “ameliorative effects on living conditions and would modify the behavior and character of urban residents… Public housing would also uplift the ‘morale’ of urban dwellers,” which could happen through “social and individual improvement through orderly planning and urban redevelopment.” (p.62)
The problem in Detroit, was that nobody seemed to want public housing, as it was fought almost everywhere by both whites, unions, real estate agents, developers and even some established black residents. The adjacency of even some black areas was problematic, and developers had to make deals with the FHA, such as the 1 foot thick, 6 foot high wall that separated the new development from the old – remnants of which still exist. This sort of approach reinforced the FHA’s official policy, not of true equality, but as mentioned by Segrue, even with some of the more enlightened bureaucrats, “a separate but equal philosophy.” (p.67)
:: Wall Separating Black from White – remnant – image via Detroit Fly
The official ideology of racial segregation couched in urban renewal also bled into the policies of the City Plan Commission (CPC), which continued the rhetoric of “an emerging program to create a totally planned metropolis, combining public housing with strictly regulated private development…” and the group began using zoning to start “composing a master plan to guide city and regional growth… for the ‘reconstruction of Detroit’s ‘blighted’ neighborhoods’…” (p.68) The use of condemnation and slum removal, and strategic placement of black neighborhoods aimed to ‘clean up’ areas and protect others from deterioration, but more often than not led to housing shortages for those most in need.
The contention over public housing locations was intense, with everyone agreeing that there was a chronic shortage, but no area wanting to be the location for housing to be built. It is understandable, as the inclusion of black neighborhoods, even those Federally-funded, would place these areas in danger of redlining, meaning that value for those living nearby would degrade, and their access to money for improvements and new construction would be significantly decreased. Many planned projects, such as the Sojourner-Truth housing project in Northeast Detroit, which was a planned 200 unit development opposed by whites as well as existing, establish blacks. The overt racism was sometimes couched in a patriotic fervor, “couched in the language of Americanism,” as seen in the flags atop the blatant message below but also came with a hint of threatened violence, all with an aim, in the words of existing homeowners, to “preserve the racial and architectural homogeneity of their neighborhood.” (p.78)
:: We Want Whites – image via Detroit 20/20
:: Sojourner Truth Housing – image via Feministe
The Federal government flip-flopped multiple times on location and type of housing – at one point within a two week period switching from black to white, and back to black. The New Deal dichotomy of rights vs. existing protection was at play in many of these conversations as well, as mentioned by Segrue, while: “Acknowledging the ‘moral and legal right’ of blacks to adequate housing...” existing residents countered that they “had established a prior right to a neighborhood which we have built up through the years – a neighborhood which is entirely white and which we want kept white.” (p.80) The government, with pressure from residents, unions, and other groups, implied redlining from real-estate agents, and continued white flight to the suburbs, often acquiesced to these demands, further creating a tension of high rent and little opportunity that continued to flare up in violence.
The venue of public housing debate became a political touchstone as well – with mayoral elections being decided not by the traditional means of party affiliation and union membership, but by black and white, specifically a candidates views of public housing. This conflict, as Segrue mentions, of “politics of home” versus the “politics of the workplace” was another interesting institutional element that made Detroit a large city with very little public housing compared to many other US cities.
As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the racial and social strife had already taken a toll on Detroit, even before deindustrialization, and that loss of industrial might that made the city the Arsenal of Democracy, will continue to play out in racial division, housing, and employment.