The Guardian • Issue #2036

Three months in Detroit: capitalism & racism in a “segregated” city

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2036

First Black family moving into the Sojourner Truth neighbourhood, Detroit, Michigan, 1942. Photo by Arthur S Siegel – (Britt Fuller) Public domain.

I lived for three months in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. The house on Tyler Street was not far from Eight Mile Road. One side of which was White and middle class. The other side was African American and poor. There was not a single Black driver in the White area. It was as if self-imposed “segregation” had fallen upon the city. The house, which cost US$1,000, was in the African American area. The houses nearby had bars on the windows, others were long abandoned. Buildings had collapsed and were now empty lots with tall trees. Grey squirrels ran across the roads. Cables hung from electricity poles to get free power and pipes were tapped to get water. The poor were living life as best they could.

There were no stores in the Black area. On Eight Mile Road there was a Party Store, which sold alcohol and canned food, but nothing fresh, the counter protected with bulletproof glass. There was a store for women to have their nails done. Next door sold expensive hubcaps. Otherwise, the locals had to go into the White area for shopping. Most people did not have cars, they rode bicycles. A few churches survived, Catholic and Baptist. There was a shooting at a nearby school. Kids waiting for a bus were shot in a drive-by. It had become part of daily life in a tough city.

The few Whites I met had been in jail, were old, or were alcoholics. Even with their poor background their racism towards African Americans is evident in the way they spoke and treated Black people. I was at the counter talking to the young Black woman serving and she asked where I came from. I said Australia. She replied, “Wow, they are nice people over there.” After hearing this response several times from African Americans, I asked what it meant. “White people usually just shout at us and abuse us. But you are different.” It was a nice, but sad, compliment. I can honestly say that all the African Americans I met in Detroit treated me well. The image portrayed in Hollywood films, of African Americans being drug addicts and pimps, is false. I called up a plumber to fix the sewerage. He was two metres tall and all muscle and came to the door visibly shaking. The plumber looked around terrified. “This is a Black area!” The neighbours were friendly, but he never bothered to find that out. When I walked the streets at night, I was told by White locals that I was crazy. No one ever bothered me.

I drove or walked along every main street and many backstreets of Detroit. A nunnery was boarded up for sale. Dilapidated mansions had for sale signs, “Highest Cash Offer.” Houses were selling for US$1 each. People had abandoned their homes, handing the keys to the local police station for the banks to take over the mortgage. As it cost US$2,500 to clear a site, the banks sold off at auction streets of once beautiful Art Deco buildings. Many had collapsed roofs and mould on the walls.

The original name of Detroit, (French meaning “strait”), was Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit, founded by French settlers in 1701. By 1920 it was the fourth largest city in the USA, after New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. At its industrial peak the Detroit River was the busiest commercial hub in the world, its freight throughput was four times that of London. By the 1950s Detroit was a symbol of US car manufacturing (Motown), dominating car production around the world. It was an icon of American capitalism with its large industrial middle class and good wages.

The workers were proud union members. At its peak in the 1970s, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had a membership of 1.5 million, which could shut down the city with a strike. Many Black workers felt alienated by the union’s majority white leadership. After a wildcat strike in 1968, they formed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), guided by Black liberation and Marxism-Leninism principles. In 1971 it merged with the Communist League and in 1974 it became the Communist Labor Party and worked with the CPUSA.

Today, downtown Detroit has a population of 640,000, down from 1.85 million in 1950, having lost sixty-five per cent of its inhabitants. Detroit’s wealth and population decline began with the Race Riots of 1967, when much of the White population began moving out. The violent confrontation with the city’s police in predominantly African American neighbourhoods began on 23rd July 1967 and lasted five days, resulting in forty-three dead: 33 African Americans and 10 Whites. Since then, the city has razed to the ground more than 200,000 houses, as unfit for human habitation, leaving great spaces that have gone back to wilderness.

After the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) in 2008, General Motors and other car manufacturers went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the Federal government. The Subprime market had collapsed. Banks and finance companies had tranched their mortgages assuming that by so doing they could weather any financial storm. When the GFC hit banks had no idea of how many subprimes they held, nor how much they were worth. The term “subprime” comes from loans given to African Americans in Detroit, as being below prime real estate, being unreliable loans. The American dream of house ownership was shattered and the Crash spread around the world. One economist calculated that the amount of money lost by US banks in 2008 was equivalent to all profits from all US banks since the end of the Civil War in 1865. It was the biggest collapse of US capitalism since the 1929 Crash, which created the Great Depression.

The residents of the White city never enter the Black city, which today remains in economic decline, suffering from deindustrialisation and urban decay. The White population moved to places like Grosse Pointe, where the film Gran Torino (2009), starring Clint Eastwood, was shot. There are photographs of Eastwood with the proprietors in the hardware and barbers. Black residents moved to Harper Woods and Eastpointe. According to the 2020 Census, the Black population in Harper Woods increased fifty-eight per cent since 2010 and Eastpointe by eighty-nine per cent.

Since the 1970s Detroit has been the king of the “Rust Belt.” Its factories, stores and houses have been abandoned, with poor African American families moving in. The Detroit News reported (27th September 2021) that the metropolitan area, with 4.3 million inhabitants, is the most dangerous city in the USA, having a violent crime rate in 2020 of 2,248 per 100,000 residents. The 14,370 violent crimes reported, included assault, robbery, rape and criminal homicide. Murders rose 19.3 per cent from 2019. Not surprisingly, thirty-eight per cent of the residents live below the poverty line.

The city’s decay has produced such an iconic image of social dystopia that Hollywood films use it for their films. In Robocop (1987), directed by Paul Verhoeven, Detroit is shown as a corporate success with towering glass and concrete monuments to American capitalism, while the dystopian suburbs are filled with decaying hovels, filled with the poor, where crime goes unchecked. The law enforcement system had been privatised by Omni Consumer Products. The movie begins in an abandoned steel mill where Alex Murphy is shot up and later turned into Robocop, half man, half machine. The residents so relate to the fictional crime fighter, who laid down his life to protect the people, that they crowdfunded a 2-metre-high statue of Robocop, weighing 2.5 tonnes, to be erected in the city.

I was walking along Pelkey Street, with its big brick pre-World War II houses, when an old man told me that this is where one of the Supremes lived here before the neighbourhood collapsed. Today this area is a mere shell of its former African American wealth and glory. “You should check out the Museum. That is where they recorded.” I drove downtown to see the Motown Museum. From outside there was not much to see, but in the basement was where the studio was and it was an amazing experience. In this small recording studio, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson), Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes recorded their hit songs. An X marked the spot where blind Stevie Wonder would stand at the mike. The budget was so small that that they cut a hole in the ceiling to create echo effects.

These singers were household names in Australia in the 1960s, when it still had a White Australia Policy, with furniture stamped, “By White Labour.” While their music played on the radio, they did not show their photographs, as it would have revealed that they were African American. Motown (Motor Town) is an African American-owned label which played an important role in integrating local soul music blended with White popular music, achieving an amazing success internationally. The label was worth US$61 million, with seventy-nine records in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. Following the 1967 Riots and the loss of the songwriting and production team of Holland, Dozier and Holland over pay disputes, Motown moved to Los Angeles, California. The Motown Museum closed in July 2021 because the elevator needed repairs. It is presently undergoing an expansion after receiving US$55 million in donations, to make it a world-class entertainment and education centre to bring in tourist dollars.

I have been a fan of the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, for years, so I drove to the Institute of Arts Museum to see his masterpiece. He went to Detroit in 1933 to do a mural celebrating the American car industry. What he painted was a Marxist view of American capitalism. The Detroit Industry murals are a symbol of modernity and the power of labour and capitalism. Commissioned by Edsel Ford, president of the Ford Motor Company, Rivera completed a 27-panel masterpiece. It was at the height of the Great Depression and Rivera prominently represented the working classes and indigenous cultures of Mexico, showing the constructive/destructive and organic/mechanistic side of the automobile industry. When the murals were unveiled, critics attacked the images of the working class being featured so prominently, instead of the Capitalists. Outraged, the Detroit City Council even considered whitewashing over the murals. Standing before them, in the courtyard of the Institute of Arts Museum, I could easily see why they are one of the most important modernist works of the twentieth century. In 2014 they were given the National Historic Landmark Status.

In 2022, TIME magazine named Detroit “One of the World’s Greatest Places” to visit. “Detroit is truly the textbook definition of a great American city,” said Wayne County Executive, Warren Evans. A new US$126 million investment into the Michigan Central Innovation District, around the iconic Michigan Central Train Station, will be a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2017, The New York Times named Detroit, “The Most Exciting City in America?” Two years before, Detroit became the first American UNSECO listed city, calling it a “City of Design.” This investment has gone into the White area of Detroit. The poor African American areas remain destitute and forgotten.

Further Reading:
Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Chicago, Il.: Haymarket Books. (1998) 2012.
Linda Bank Downs. 1999. Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals. New York. W. W. Norton Company.
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