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Detroit riots: Forty-five years later

This week marks an important anniversary that is being virtually ignored. We paid attention five years ago, and will again five years from now. We prefer round numbers.

But given what’s happening today, it makes sense to note that it’s been exactly 45 years since the legendary riot that devastated Detroit for four days during another hot summer.

The causes of the riot have been endlessly debated. Who was most responsible is still in dispute. But the effects are plain. It wouldn’t be too much to say that what happened in 1967 killed Detroit, slowly but certainly.

The burned-down buildings were cleared away. The 43 dead were buried, and money came from Washington and the private sector to try to make things better.

But it all failed. The riot put the pedal to the metal on a flood of white flight that had already begun. Detroit was still more than 60 percent white when the riot began.

Today, maybe 6 percent of Detroiters are white. The total population has fallen by nearly a million since then. Though downtown shows some promise, the neighborhoods are horrifying. The schools have failed, and Detroit is on the brink of state takeover or bankruptcy, or both. Most Detroiters today, including City Council President Charles Pugh, weren’t even born when the riot happened. President Obama was not quite six.

Mitt Romney was a 20-year-old Mormon missionary in France. Mayor Bing, a young basketball player. But I remember what happened, then and afterwards.

Once the U.S. Army stopped the actual riot, people began to leave, pretty much as fast as they could. People left, and the jobs went with them, and the tax base withered and shrunk.

Today, it is hard to see how the city can ever recover. But I had lunch last week with a man who lives in Detroit who describes himself accurately as looking like a homeless person.

His name is Joel Landy. I met him in Atlas, one of midtown Detroit’s nicest restaurants. He wore a black T-shirt and old pants and needed a shave.

He didn’t have any trouble getting in, however, because he owns the building. He owns three entire city blocks, and has renovated an abandoned school into arty theater.

“There’s more going on now in Detroit than I’ve seen in 30 years,” he told me. He meant culturally, and he is doing all he can to contribute to that.

Suddenly, I remembered what the city reminded me of: East Berlin, as it was when communism fell. Talented young avant-garde artists and poets squatted in the ruins and created some amazing work. East Berlin was economically hopeless, until it merged with the west. Today, it’s a different place.

Detroit, too, is economically hopeless. But not if the city and the tri-county region were to merge. The result would be something like the Detroit that existed in the city’s days of prosperity. Just with wider boundaries. For 200 years, Detroit’s motto has been the Latin for, “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes."

Someday, if we ever make that happen, we may look at the riot in a different way. Maybe even as something, long after, that led to the city’s rebirth.

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