Friday, July 25, 2008
CAN'T FORGET THE MOTOR CITY
Just a little over four decades ago, as a wee slip of a child, I lived through the Detroit uprising of 1967. Over the course of a week, 43 people were killed (34 of them black, almost all by the police and National Guard), thousands of houses and stores were burned, and more than 7000 people were arrested. I don't remember much, except the sight of National Guard vehicles rolling past my house and the fact that I could not play in my front yard, for fear that I'd be the victim of sniper fire.
The riots were a trauma on the body politic. Many burned-out shopping districts never recovered. Detroit had been steadily losing population and jobs since the 1950s. That hemorrhage continued after the riot--the pattern of economic flight, disinvestment, and population loss was already deeply entrenched. The aftermath of the riots certainly did not improve Detroit's fortunes, though it's historically inaccurate (if compelling narratively) to blame Detroit's woes on that week in late July 1967. But even if Detroiters exaggerate the centrality of the riots in their city's fate, the events of 1967 forever shaped the way that Detroiters and other urbanites talk about their cities.
Our memories of the urban past are inevitably tinged with nostalgia--the product of forgetting as much as recollection. Whenever I visit Detroit, I am struck by the wistful memories that city residents (or more likely former city residents) have about their childhood neighborhoods. White folks invariably see the 1967 Detroit riot as the turning point. Before "they" took over the city and ruined it, Motown was a city of tight-knit neighborhoods, of racial harmony, and tranquility. If only "they" hadn't destroyed Detroit, it would be a thriving metropolis still. The film above, prepared for Detroit's bid for the 1968 Olympics, captures some of the romance of the lost past (though as you watch, recall that Detroit's population was about one-third black when the film was made and further recall that they city had already been devastated by the loss of more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs, mostly in the late 1950s). Whites don't have a monopoly on romantic evocations of the urban past. Black folks also have sepia-toned memories of the segregated city, where neighbors were friendly, where middle-class and working-class people lived side-by-side, and where they all patronized "race" businesses.
Both sets of memories have elements of truth. The city was a safer place 60 years ago than it is today; many neighborhoods (especially compared to their turn-of-the-21st century counterparts) were close-knit. And the cumulative effect of sixty years of disinvestment makes things much, much worse economically then when Detroit was the nation's "Arsenal of Democracy." But the story of decline and memories of a better past simplify and distort the city's history. White neighborhoods were tight in large part because of their racial exclusivity. There wasn't a lot of racial harmony in the postwar city--the city's segregation was the result of a poisonous combination of racist public policy, real estate discrimination, and grassroots organization and often violence by whites who wanted to keep their neighborhoods free of black "invaders." And the "they" who ruined many urban neighborhoods includes lots and lots of white folks--absentee landlords and shopkeepers who let their properties run down, industrialists and business leaders who abandoned the central city, and politicians who aided and abetted white flight. And the black romance with the past overlooks the high rates of poverty that characterized black lives, the ravages of systemic underemployment and unemployment, the dreariness of most black shopping districts, and the fact that most "race" businesses were economically marginal.
Several years ago, ethnographer Phil Kasinitz published a fascinating paper on his interviews with long-time residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood Red Hook. At that time, Red Hook was on the brink of gentrification, as artists and hipsters, priced out of more expensive neighborhoods, began moving into the old tenements and warehouses along the Brooklyn waterfront. But Red Hook was a heterogeneous place, home to a large public housing project, shipyards, storage facilities, and small factories. Many of the neighborhood's older residents were blue-collar workers and stevedores who resented the mostly black residents of the public housing projects and the monied newcomers who opened galleries and coffeehouses.
What Kasinitz found was a huge gap between how white old-timers (the subject of the article) remembered their 'hood (usually romantically--everyone knew each other, people left their doors open at night, the economy was booming) and the reality of their own lives (unemployment and economic insecurity, the lack of public safety, substance abuse, and crime). In other words, people retold the history of their community through the lens of their current reaction to changes going on in the neighborhood.
My childhood memories of racial conflict temper my still rosy-hued recollections of life in my little corner of the city. I saw white racism--even as a child--for what it was. But I still miss the lively street life and the sidewalk camaraderie of my West Side block. It's those two sides of the urban experience--the spirit of community and diversity and the vast political and economic forces arrayed against it--that continue to shape both my scholarship and my choices about where to live, and my politics. I can't forget the Motor City.