In 2013, America hasn’t quite figured out how to solve our problems, but we do know we are in real trouble. We also don’t know quite how to get a politician to share a vision that we can follow, one that is as large as the problem that we face. So we have flip-flopped through a few election cycles trying to flush someone, anyone, out of their safety zone, like flushing a political pheasant out of its Party roost. Until the path is clear, America will continue to be polarized.
The problem is that the path can remain unclear for decades, damaging the lives of its citizens. Detroit began its decline in the 1950s. In 1950, Detroit’s strategic plan included reinforcing property values downtown with a new campus, hospital, civic center and building an extensive highway system through town. Detroit’s plan nowhere near met the needs of its citizens, yet it was the path followed for the next three decades.
In 1950, city planners did not talk about an employment bubble caused by two world wars and a depression that would have to normalize with decreasing employment. No one talked of plans to correct the excessive reach of unions due to inordinate power caused by the employment bubble in Detroit’s concentrated auto industry. No one talked about how Detroit had become landlocked and how future growth would either have to come from demolishing neighborhoods or from building plants elsewhere. No one talked about changing technology that made existing plants obsolete, or about what impact new highways would have on neighborhoods. And no one talked of how to correct the institutional racism that had deteriorated race relations for so long.
The city would soon violently explode, dysfunctionally polarizing the city for decades. And yet, the signs were all there for someone to paint the vision of what was needed to reverse course and save the city. Instead, in 1967, Detroit went through a bloody 5-day riot.
Instead of voting on a big vision to chart Detroit’s path through these new challenges, Detroit’s elections of 1970 and 1974 would choose between polarized paths of either hard lined policing of high crime or racial integration of the police force in response to its brutality. Police brutality needed correcting and crime needed to be dramatically reduced. Yet these problems were symptoms of a much larger problem that required a more global solution.
In 1970 and in 1974, the Republicans would put forth law and order white candidates to crack down on crime and the Democrats would place Black social reformers on the ballot. Both elections, both whites and blacks would vote over 90% for their candidate. Roman Gribbs, a Republican, barely won by 7,000 votes in 1970, the last year that whites would have a majority of voters in Detroit. Gribbs won but his hardline policing policies did not reverse the murder trend as Detroit murders climbed steadily from 439 in 1970 to 714 in 1974.
In 1974, Coleman Young, the Democratic candidate, promised to reform the police department and won by 7,000 votes. Mr. Young did implement his campaign promise to integrate the police department, and would serve Detroit as its first African American Mayor for the next 20 years.
Young, who had been a successful activist for racial equality, continued his advocacy throughout his 5 terms in office. He also pushed for economic revitalization of his city and was instrumental providing the political muscle to support downtown developers. However, 50 years of political choices including those of Young’s 20 years did not solve the racial divide that held back the city nor did they change the trajectory of Detroit’s financial downfall.
None could have been a stronger advocate of the cause of African American citizens of Detroit than Coleman Young, yet by 1993 their plight was exacerbated. None could have been a better consolidator of political and financial support for city projects, yet these major projects did little to turn around the city’s blight. Detroit imploded when other major cities turned around from the rust belt years. Why?
The plan was flawed. The root causes of white flight remained unsolved. The root causes of racial injustices remained unresolved. The root causes of economic implosion and city blight were not reversed. And they remain to be fixed to this day.