As early as the middle of the 19th century, Detroit had emerged as a leader in the Great Lakes maritime trade. It was perfectly positioned to capitalize on the Industrial Revolution, and soon was home to major industries producing machine tools, maritime steam engines, and horse carriages — the business in which William Durant, founder of General Motors, made his first fortune. Standardization of parts meant that many were interchangeable and could be used for a variety of things. When the gasoline engine was developed, Henry Ford put together his first automobiles largely from readily available components.
The rise of the machines led to an explosion of industry and a huge demand for unskilled labor. Between 1900 and 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world. But soon, especially in the years after World War II, machines began to replace a lot of that unskilled labor. The ranks of the unemployed swelled — especially among blacks. In the 1950s and 1960s, large populations of idle young black men became a mainstay of neighborhoods such as Paradise Valley. Crime quickly became epidemic.
Race relations deteriorated, until they finally exploded in the riots of 1967. This time the trouble started with a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar that was packed with nearly 100 people. The police tried to arrest all of them, and a crowd gathered outside the establishment to protest. Most of those arrested were black, and the mostly black crowd became enraged and began looting. With all the velocity of sudden combustion, the violence turned into one of the worst riots in American history.
White flight began in earnest soon after and never abated. Court-ordered public-school desegregation encouraged the trend, and those who moved took the tax base with them. In 1973, Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, an unabashed grievance-driven liberal who thrived on stoking the very tensions of race, class, and politics that were pulling Detroit apart. His highest priority seems to have been to show that he was the “m———r in charge,” as he would quaintly call himself: “M.F.I.C.” became his semi-official nickname.
Young’s administration bore more than a passing resemblance to Barack Obama’s in this sense: He used the machinery of government to attack the economic interests of his political opposition and extract benefits for his own supporters. As these policies drove his opponents’ political base out of the city, his own political base expanded proportionately. He apparently believed that increasing the political power of Detroit’s blacks was worth impoverishing the whole city.
Detroit’s transition to a majority-black city (the population is now more than 80 percent black) occurred just as the welfare programs of the Great Society started to destroy the black family. The Great Society was not merely an enormous disincentive to competition and self-reliance; it also disincentivized marriage by supplying the income that mothers used to depend on their husbands to provide.
Mayor Young presided over this disaster for 20 years. The city he left behind is a disheartening relic of its past. Of its 350,000 homes, more than 80,000 stand vacant, and the business-vacancy rate is 62 percent. As if that were not bad enough, many Detroiters enjoy whiling away the empty hours by setting empty houses on fire. Devil’s Night is a local tradition of vandalism and arson on a massive scale around Halloween. It was vigorously celebrated under Coleman Young, when it was common to have as many as 800 fires in the last days of October. Last year, there were more than 160 fires around Halloween, the drop due at least in part to the fact that the city has lost about a third of its population since 1993. City Hall is full of calls to tear down empty buildings, but there is no money even for demolition.