Detroit’s Depopulation was Inevitable Before the 1967 Riot

detroit decline
Detroit inevitably was destined to depopulate prior to the 1967 riot for it was landlocked and new green-fields were needed for modern auto production. Union wages, whether fair or not, were higher than could auto companies could find outside of Detroit. And continued black migration and expansion into white neighborhoods combined with FHA loan guarantees and the ease of highway commutes led to white flight.

Considering the few U.S. Automobile manufacturers today, it is hard to imagine there were more than 200 such manufacturers in the entrepreneurial days. From 1895, when only 4 cars were registered in America, Detroit quickly became the center of the universe for Autos. By the roaring twenties, the number of manufacturers had dropped to 70, but those 70 made Detroit roar to an annual production of 5.3 million vehicles in 1929. Half the cars in the world were built in Detroit.

Through the Depression, auto production dropped to 2.5 million, compared to Japan’s 24,000. Prior to the Depression, a continued influx of new workers suppressed wages for the Big Three. During the depression, pay for those workers who still had jobs decreased as much as 65%. Yet unions would soon reverse the course toward worker pay. However, their advances along with work stoppages would make Detroit a less attractive location for Auto manufacturers.

With FDR’s support, union membership grew through the depression years to over 8 million members by 1939. The United Auto Workers, UAW, formed in 1935, joined the CIO the following year, and began engaging in strikes for better pay and conditions.

By 1940, the Big Three were producing 90% of American cars. The Depression had created a pent up demand of 30 million cars. Detroit’s 1.2 % of the U.S. population created a US Auto industry revenue of $4 billion out of a U.S GDP of $101.4 billion, or about 3.9% of U.S. output.

Then for 4 years due to the war, between 1942 and 1946, no cars were produced, creating an additional pent up demand of 20 million cars. Not that stopped auto production hurt Detroit, far from it. War revenues increased from $7.5 billion to over $10 billion. While the UAW responded to the war by committing to no strikes, nonetheless, workers did participate in wildcat strikes over working conditions, including having to work alongside African Americans.

From the start of auto industry through two wars, Detroit’s population growth was driven much higher than the rest of the country because of its tie to war industry and the rise of this significant industry. After the war, Detroit was in for additional domestic boom, as millions of returning vets would be itching for wheels.

Two world wars and a Depression had created pent up demand for cars that would fuel Detroit’s growth through 1950. By 1950, U.S. auto production had surged to over 8 million vehicles, from pre-war numbers of just 2.5 million. Auto revenues surged to $12 billion, still around 4% of a burgeoning U.S. output.

Yet, by 1950, at 1.8 million people, Detroit reached its zenith. No more massive stimuli existed to continue fueling growth. In fact, Detroit’s population growth could be considered to have been a bubble fueled by extraordinary circumstances. Now those circumstances would align in the reverse direction to substantially reduce Detroit’s population.

The end of the war would also be the zenith of union participation as a percent of U.S workers. By the end of WWII, union membership had grown to 14 million, over a third of America’s workforce. Through collective bargaining, workers gained a greater share of profits, receiving higher wages, overtime pay, vacations, seniority, and less working hours. But by 1948, buoyed by what many thought were excesses of Union gains, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act reining in Unions. In 1950, the UAW won pensions, but not until workers struck for 104 days at Chrysler.

In 1950, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the United States. But the auto manufacturers began looking for less unionized locales and for land to build single story factories that fit new production technologies and automation. Between 1948 and 1967 130,000 auto manufacturing jobs went elsewhere, particularly to the less unionized Sunbelt. Unemployment in Detroit during the 1950s rose to double that of the rest of the United States, as high as 16%.

Yet even as jobs were leaving Detroit, the second Great Migration of Blacks from the South continued to populate the city, adding to a surge of blacks moving into previously white neighborhoods. In the midst of this job flux and migration, Detroit entered the Highway era. Combined with the rise of FHA insured loans, ostensibly for whites, and loss of Detroit auto manufacturing jobs, the 1950s began the White flight out of Detroit.

By the 1967 race riot of Detroit, thousands of manufacturing jobs and whites had already left the city. As higher paid whites left, small businesses followed their caravan, exacerbating Detroit’s population contraction. Investment and taxes left the city, leaving a frustrated black population that erupted.

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Filed under American Governance, American Politics, Economic Crisis, Racism, social trajectory

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