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The rise and fall of Detroit: Was Henry Ford to blame?


Even in 1827, when the founding fathers of Detroit fumbled for a city motto, they knew it was destined to struggle.

They settled on Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus (We hope for better days; it shall rise from the ashes). Those who love Motor Town read those words now and sigh. They’ve been waiting for better for far too long. 

It’s not all despair, even now. In its distress, Detroit has become home to a growing subculture of young artists, musicians, designers and digital innovators who thrive amid its post-collapse landscape and, of course, its low rents. Something similar happened to New Orleans after Katrina. Visit Slows BBQ on Michigan Avenue to see that the news of downtown’s final demise has been exaggerated.

There are scores of Detroits in America’s heartland – cities crippled by white flight to the suburbs where crime is low and schools still function. Left behind are the poor, who are overwhelmingly black. “Unless we can get the whites interested again, nothing will get better,” a black restaurant owner told me recently in the ruins of his Arkansas town.

Maybe Henry Ford is to blame. His Ford Motor Company had been in Detroit only a few years before he moved his whole operation to the suburbs in 1910. But the Detroit exodus really took off after the summer of 1967. Any Detroiter knows the significance of that year, when 43 people died in the Twelfth Street Riot. For many it was the last straw. The troops were sent in. More than 7,200 people were arrested. Some 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

As the population fell so did the tax receipts vital for city services. 

In the 1950s, when the car industry was still thriving, 1.85 million people called Detroit home. It was the fourth most populous city in America. 

Less than 720,000 live there now, a drop even since 2000 of 20 per cent. The city’s fortunes have always been tied to the car companies, and it is only five years since they were contemplating total oblivion.

New York almost went bust in 1976. It begged for federal cash and Gerald Ford said drop dead. Yet the Big Apple survives. Believers in Detroit insist that this bankruptcy, although humiliating, is exactly what is needed. It can be a forbidding town, to be sure. But may it yet find better days and rise from the ashes.