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To really understand Detroit's problems, you should read this book

Jack Lessenberry

I flew to Florida early last month, and while in the air re-read from cover to cover the one indispensable book that explains as nothing else what really happened to Detroit.

Eighteen years ago, University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue published a volume mind-blowing in its brilliance of analysis and depth of research.

The title, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” is somewhat misleading.

This really is the book on how Detroit was destroyed - and destroyed itself - over the last 70 years.

Now, a new edition has just been released by Princeton University Press, with a new introduction looking at the city’s bankruptcy and what lies beyond.

I wish our leaders would all read this book.

And yes, I did mean to say the decline began 70 years ago.

Sugrue, who is from Detroit, shows how the seeds to the city’s catastrophe were sown, not under Coleman Young, but during and after World War II.

Those were the years, remember, when Detroit was the admired Arsenal of Democracy, the city that put the world on wheels and then produced the wheels and weapons that won the war.

Jobs were plentiful and good-paying, and the population booming. But there was a cancer in its midst, and that was Detroit’s total reliance on the auto industry.

Other cities chose consciously to diversify their economies during the war. Detroit leaders made a decision not to. They knew there would be a huge postwar demand for autos.

And they were right, but there would also be a need for modern and more efficient factories to build them. That was hard to make happen in cramped industrial Detroit. The wide-open spaces needed for mammoth, often one-story factories wasn’t available.

When new facilities were built, they would be in wide-open, sprawling suburbs, or in other states - eventually, in other countries.

Once, 300,000 people went to auto industry jobs in Detroit every day, mostly on assembly lines.

Today, there’s only one factory left, the North Jefferson Chrysler plant, plus some white collar and clerical General Motors workers in the Renaissance Center. That’s all.

Nothing, really, has appeared to take the vanished industry’s place. Part of the reason, of course, is racial. We know the myths.

“Origins of the Urban Crisis” documents the reality of astounding institutional, official, and social racism. White voters elected politicians systematically determined to oppress black citizens.

White residents attacked African-Americans who tried to move into better neighborhoods; threatened them, damaged their property, poured salt onto their lawns. One developer put up a cement wall to try to keep blacks out of a neighborhood.

That does not excuse mistakes African Americans have made, or criminals like Kwame Kilpatrick, but without knowing the backstory, you really cannot understand the present or the future.

Sugrue, who is my model of what a scholar and a public intellectual should be, understands this as no one else.

His diagnosis today?

“So long as austerity politics worsen the everyday quality of life in the city, so long as capital and people continue to flow away and so long as the city and its people lack political influence in the state and national capitols, Detroit will have a nearly impossible climb out of its slump.”

I wish our leaders would all read this book.

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