Paper: Book Summary, The Urban Crisis

As the first non-trivial work on urbanization and white flight that I’d ever read, this was actually a more interesting book than I’d expected it to be.

In Thomas J. Sugrue’s intelligent yet mis-named The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he argues “it is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today’s cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood[.]” He examines Detroit in a detailed case study that leaves no stone unturned in its examination of what went wrong.

The book divides itself up into 3 different parts: “Arsenal” (in reference to “Arsenal of Democracy”) details Detroit’s World War II population and industrial boom, the city’s subsequent housing shortage, and the failure of public housing to even get started. “Bust” describes the discrimination blacks suffered in hiring and work, the city’s deindustrialization, and how various interest groups responded. “Fire” describes how the city segregated by class despite increased black mobility, how whites maintained racial segregation even as blacks moved into their neighborhoods, the violent attempts of whites to keep blacks out of an area, and the riots which marked the urban crisis of the title.

“Arsenal” is essentially an extended introduction. In the first chapter, it explains how World War II brought Detroit a great deal of wealth and a population boom. Chapter 2 discusses the inadequate housing for the city’s population, especially after the War’s veterans returned; it moves on to describing how most blacks were stuck in ghettos of run-down houses holding multiple families at rates that would’ve been unconscionable in a city that wasn’t so overcrowded, how a few “escaped” to areas like the Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where they were poor but owned their own (substandard) homes, and how a select few lived in Conant Gardens, the most elite black neighborhood in Detroit. Chapter 3 is entirely about the failure of public housing at all levels: it never gained acceptance, was never widely implemented, and was never implemented well in any place at all within Detroit or the neighboring cities.

Chapter 4, the beginning of “Bust,” describes discrimination against blacks in the workforce. In retail it was quite explicit; storeowners didn’t want blacks to represent the company and scare off white shoppers. In other areas it was subtler: many smaller industries (breweries, chemicals, and machine shops) depended mostly on personal references from employees and friends to fill open positions; in an all-white industry this naturally perpetuated homogeneity. In automobile manufacturing, discrimination varied wildly — mostly according to the factory’s personnel director. Blacks were only rarely found in the skilled jobs and worked nearly all the truly dangerous jobs, but they were involved in the union system, and while seniority was a disaster for the black population as a whole, it did a great deal for the blacks that got into car manufacturing early enough. The chapter also offers a poignant glimpse into the fleeting nature of work for many black men who populated casual labor marts — areas of the street where men loitered in the hopes of being hired for a day by the construction foremen and other employers driving by.

The next chapter, titled “The Damning Mark of False Prosperities,” discusses the deindustrialization of Detroit — how and why factories, money, and jobs fled Detroit for less-industrialized areas of the country. The flight of jobs became possible thanks to increased ease of transportation (highways, mostly) and automation, which (like the assembly line itself) lowered the skills required by workers, increased productivity, and made companies less reliant on their employees. The move was desirable for many reasons: first, it weakened the unions relative to the manufacturers and lowered wage prices. Second, the federal government had started directing money away from Detroit; the Defense Department deliberately encouraged decentralization to protect against air strikes, the car manufacturers had converted to civilian production far more quickly than most of the country, the federal government sent money other places to encourage industrialization. Third, other states and cities taxed the companies at far lower rates and flaunted the fact at every opportunity. And as factories left, Detroit lost jobs. Worst hit were the entry-level and high-danger positions, whose workers didn’t have high seniority; therefore, the worst hit were the blacks. And as a result of the loss of jobs and property taxes, Detroit developed a huge deficit and a dependence on the federal government.

Chapter 6, “Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination,” discusses the response of various groups to the loss of jobs. The UAW Local 600 was the only group in the city to quickly recognize the dangers decentralization posed the local economy; they fought it everywhere, including the courtroom, where they made a unique case based on contract law and the implicit right to work their union contract granted them. Unsupported by the full UAW, the case was dismissed by a judge. The city government worked hard but naively to keep industry in the city; deciding that industry had left because there wasn’t enough space, the city started to clear land and zone it for industry, but the investment took years and paid off poorly. The Detroit Urban League moved its focus from a simple employment agency for all blacks to educating the lower classes and working to open up new areas of opportunity for middle- and upper class educated blacks. Their efforts took years, but slowly began to pay off as blacks began appearing as clerks, hotel stewardesses, and salesmen. Liberal groups began to divide over communist ties, and competed to pass a Fair Employment Practices law, which failed over and over again at both the state and city level before it was passed by the Michigan legislature in 1954.

In 1948, the Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive “covenants,” provisions in a sale of land that prohibited it from ever being sold to non-whites (a common tactic to preserve white communities). New areas suddenly became available for blacks to legally buy housing, but the new freedom of movement caused new problems. Whites had a tendency to flee neighborhoods as soon as too many blacks moved in (and ‘too many’ was often one family). This maintained segregation and gave rise to “blockbusting,” a practice in which a real estate agent would sell one house to a black family, then go convince the rest of the area that the sky was falling, buy their houses cheaply, and sell them at high markups to black families. In response, an open housing movement developed among liberal whites, blacks, and religious elites to persuade whites that integrating neighborhoods wouldn’t harm resale values or neighborhoods, but it was largely unsuccessful. Even worse was that while blacks began moving out from the center of the city, they remained segregated by socioeconomic class — the richer the black family, the farther from the ghetto they moved. Just as the whites had feared blacks, the wealthy black pioneers feared that their new neighborhoods would become too poor, and many of them moved many times as their neighborhoods became too black.

The black movements into white neighborhoods drew a strong response. Homeowners’ associations developed throughout the city, and they became organizational points for restrictive land rules that benefited both homeowners and realtors through high land prices. These groups twistedly trumpeted their fundamental rights to live in segregated communities, but they also reflected fears that the community many members had worked so hard to build and maintain would disappear or be subjugated, and their culture —their very identity — lost. It is odd to learn, then, that groups of whites with little investment in their home (yet still enthusiastically attended association meetings) — renters, those in areas with devaluing property, upper-class whites, Jews — simply fled for the suburbs. This made the “segregation wall” remarkably fluid but still solid.

Peaceful white movement was not the only force keeping the segregation wall solid, though. Some white communities — primarily blue-collar Catholics, with above-average incomes, concentrations of craftsmen, low rates of female employment, and high homeownership — employed violence and intimidation against blacks who broke the color barrier. The rate of organization was astounding; nearly all incidents followed homeowners’ meetings, and many associations had block captains and elaborate tracking systems to watch black movements through the neighborhood; some followed “race traitors” — whites who sold their homes to blacks —and slandered them in their new homes or got them fired from their jobs by threatening a boycott. Age and gender didn’t determine who participated, but did dictate activities: women tended to restrict themselves to picketing and phone calls, whereas men would commit property damage, and adolescents did most of the fighting and the arson. Interestingly, whites that didn’t live near black neighborhoods seldom heard of this racially motivated violence; the city officials “engaged in a conspiracy of silence.” Blacks knew, though, and they grew bitter.

Sugrue takes all of this as the roots — the origin — of the seventies race riots, of the continued segregation and disenfranchisement of inner-city blacks, and Detroit proper’s marginalization in politics. Indeed he is right, but I claim he has mis-titled his book by implying that the segregation and conflict he describes throughout the book is not itself an urban crisis.