From Motown to No Town

The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit is a warning and portent. It is symbolic of the ruin wrought by the corrupt one-party rule of urban Democratic bastions. The current issue of the Claremont Review of Books carries Michael Barone’s review of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. Given the CRB’s publishing schedule, I would guess the review was written some four or five months ago, yet it could not be more timely. I particularly appreciate the autobiographical element that Barone brings to the review. Here is the opening:

When people ask me why I moved from liberal to conservative, I have a one-word answer: Detroit. I grew up there, on a middle-class grid street in northwest Detroit and a curving street in affluent suburban Birmingham, and I got a job as an intern in the office of the mayor in the summer of 1967 when Detroit rioted. I was at the side of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and occasionally Governor George Romney during the six days and nights in which 43 people, mostly innocent bystanders, died. I listened to the radio in the police commissioner’s office as commanders announced, shortly after sundown, that they were abandoning one square mile after another. The riot ended only after federal troops were called in and restored order.

Cavanagh was bright, young, liberal, and charming. He had been elected in 1961 at age 33 with virtually unanimous support from blacks and with substantial support from white homeowners—then the majority of Detroit voters—and he was reelected by a wide margin in 1965. He and Martin Luther King, Jr., led a civil rights march of 100,000 down Woodward Avenue in June 1963. He was one of the first mayors to set up an antipoverty program and believed that city governments could do more than provide routine services; they could lift people, especially black people, out of poverty and into productive lives. Liberal policies promised to produce something like heaven. Instead they produced something more closely resembling hell. You can get an idea of what happened to Detroit by looking at some numbers. The Census counted 1,849,568 people in Detroit in 1950, including me. It counted 713,777 in 2010.

In the articles recounting Detroit’s bankruptcy this past week, I haven’t seen many journalists date the beginning of the decline to Cavanagh or the riots of 1967. Here is Barone’s assessment:

I blame the ambitious liberalism of the Cavanagh years, which I believed in at the time, and the 20-year rule of Coleman Young, mayor from 1973 to 1993. Young was smart, funny, and politically ruthless, with a background in left-wing unionism. The story I heard was that he supported the reelection of pro-Communist R.J. Thomas as president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1947 against the anti-Communist Walter Reuther; after Reuther won, Young lost his job as a pork chopper (the local word for union staffer) and was sent back to the assembly line. As mayor he disbanded the police department’s stop-and-frisk unit. Crime soared and Devil’s Night became a Detroit institution. Young occasionally denounced black criminals. But much more often he denounced white suburbanites and in his autobiography, published after he left office, savaged white homeowners who left the city. His economic strategy was to ally with the big auto companies and the UAW, just as their business model was undermined by foreign-based competitors. He got the Big Three automakers to finance the 70-story Renaissance Center, physically disconnected from the rest of downtown, and tore down a viable white neighborhood to make room for General Motors’s Poletown plant. The great northward migration of Southern blacks quadrupled Detroit’s black population from 149,000 in 1940 to 660,000 in 1970. The high crime rates of the Young years reduced its non-black population from 853,000 in 1970 to 250,000 in 1990; it was down to 125,000 in 2010.

The whole thing is must reading.