The message on the downtown wall was brief, and the writer got straight to the point. “Whitey,” it read, “Get out! Your [sic] stupid f–ken [sic] prejudice [sic]! Hit Eight Mile Road!” After a couple of crude but potent illustrative doodles, it was signed, “Mad and Dangerous.”
If you were looking for the authentic voice of a particular type of disaffected Detroit resident in that searingly hot summer of 1976, Mr. Mad and Dangerous might be it. I was a 19-year-old British student on my long vacation from Cambridge, and accepting a friend’s invitation to visit the United States’ most homicidal city (whose 48205 ZIP code enjoyed the status of being the “gun capital of America”) was, frankly, a gamble. In some quarters, Detroit was then a byword for violence, and late-night TV talk-show hosts competed to outdo one another in making grim jests about the place. Crime, one wag reckoned, had become the city’s chief growth industry. As even a cursory glance proved, the looting of downtown stores had become an everyday sport, no longer reserved merely for spectacular set-piece riots. Gangs of feral teenagers roamed the streets, and, on one occasion, rampaged through the dining room of the upscale Pontchartrain Hotel, randomly assaulting customers and yelling, “Black Killers! Black Killers! It’s all about the Black Killers!” You took your life in your hands when you drove down many of the Motor City’s main roads and expressways, which were regularly used for target practice by snipers in the nearby tenements, or came under a rain of rocks and bricks hurled from pedestrian bridges above the street. On the day I arrived, there was a news report about a parish priest having been brutally bound, gagged, and tortured in his rectory. When we drove out to the suburb of Bloomfield Hills one night, my host casually pointed out the parking lot where Jimmy Hoffa had last been seen alive the previous July. As so often happened that summer, I could feel my eyeballs protrude slowly from their sockets, and then slowly retreat again. It was all a long way from the dreaming spires of Cambridge.
By the late 70’s, Detroit’s already impressive rate of social decay was headed for a collision with the latest global oil crisis, sounding the death knell for the domestic gas-guzzler as we knew it. Once the manufacturing hub of America, the place was on the verge of bankruptcy. Soon refugees were pouring out over the city limits, many of them reversing the steps of earlier generations of migrant workers and heading for the new Toyota and Nissan factories opening in the South (while other plants were outsourced to Canada, Mexico, and, ultimately, Asia). The “white flight” exodus from Detroit’s downtown core and inner suburbs had begun in earnest following the 1967 race riots, and now accelerated apace: The outward migration totaled 53,000 in 1976 alone; many of those who left opted to settle in outlying neighborhoods and adjacent towns synonymous with good race relations. As a result, Detroit suffered incalculable losses in income taxes, corporate investment, mortgages, interest, and old-fashioned retail dollars. By then the city’s tourism industry had pretty well shrunk to a few eccentrics like myself, so it, too, failed significantly to enhance the civic coffers. Male unemployment peaked at 18 percent in 1976-77, and the figure for young black men was twice as bad.
The situation as a whole was “quite worrying,” in the measured words of President Carter when he visited the city later in 1977. In January 1978, he still found it all “very worrying.” And in June 1979, Carter told an audience at Detroit’s Renaissance Center that he found the city’s plight “distressing in many ways, and we’ve seen [this] happening here for some years, and it’s a tragedy.” This was the scale of the charge against successive Republican and Democratic administrations: Officials had seen the worst happening, but they had done little or nothing to stop it.
Meanwhile, presiding over the whole municipal fiasco at the local level was the already legendary figure of Coleman Young. Young was incredible. The first African-American mayor of Detroit (an office he held from 1974 to 1994), he seemed an impossibly exotic character to those of us who thought of our civic leaders back home as thoroughly unexceptional men and women who went about opening supermarkets or delivering a few unctuous words of welcome to a visiting royal. There was nothing anodyne about Mayor Young. One night when I was in Detroit I watched as he told a television interviewer about a recent pastoral visit he had made to some young constituents in a downtown bar. Apparently, the bar in question specialized in a dynamite-strength liquor, conveniently distilled on the premises. “It wasn’t advisable to smoke in the same vicinity,” Hizzoner announced in a cackle. “I took a swig of the stuff, and immediately the side of my face went numb.”
Born in Alabama in 1918, Young had already enjoyed a storied career before narrowly defeating Detroit’s police commissioner to land the city’s top job. Variously a union organizer and an agitator for desegregation of the U.S. Army, he was one of those who defied the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s. Among other things, he told them, “I am not here to address any un-American activities, because I consider the denial of the right to vote to large numbers of people all over the South un-American.” As mayor, Young was an advocate for spectacular (and often ruinously overbudget) construction projects, such as the Joe Louis Arena, as well as for rapidly integrating the city’s police force, where the proportion of black officers rose from 8 percent in 1974 to 43 percent in 1980. (In time, Young’s appointees as police chief and deputy chief would be convicted of stealing $1.3 million apiece from department funds.) There was a natural exuberance of spirit, a swagger and self-confidence about Young that tended to polarize observers into those who mistrusted and disliked, or those who mistrusted and liked, the man. What few people did was to ignore him. “I think people who go around solemn-faced and quoting the Bible are full of shit,” he once genially remarked. Speaking to Detroit journalists on a live television broadcast from Hawaii, he opened with the greeting: “Aloha, Mother F–kers!” Summing up Young’s 20-year tenure, the respected political commentator James Q. Wilson wrote, “In Detroit, Coleman Young rejected the integrationist goal in favor of a flamboyant, black-power style. It won him loyal followers, but he left the city a fiscal and social wreck.”
Even so, Mayor Young at least spared the long-suffering citizens of Detroit the ultimate indignity of bankruptcy, which his successors in office finally declared in July 2013. According to court papers, by then the city was some $18.5 billion in the hole, and suffering a spate of closures, layoffs, and budget cuts as bad as anything seen in the disco decade. Several of the city’s school districts were operating under state-appointed emergency supervisors, and the original manager in Highland Park had himself been indicted for embezzlement. In the suburb of Pontiac, the Silver dome, a sports arena built with $55.7 million of public funds, was sold to a private developer for $583,000. The former home of the Detroit Lions and Pistons now stands domeless, structurally unsound, its removable parts picked over and auctioned off, moss and mold thriving in the luxury boxes. In Hamtramck, the emergency financial manager banned the mayor from entering his own office, and stopped paying the members of the city council. In other neighborhoods, court-appointed officials made major cuts in their local emergency services, leaving, for example, the 13,000 residents of Highland Park with a lone functioning fire engine operating out of an “uninhabitable” 1917-era station, and a makeshift, chain-link pen serving as a central police cell. To call such public-safety assets Third World would be to confer a somewhat flattering sense of modernity and sophistication on facilities that better belong in a museum. On top of everything else, it was announced that there would be “significant sacrifices” expected of Detroit’s 21,000 retired civil servants and its 12,000 current ones as a result of the city’s insolvency. This being the United States, several lawsuits were, in turn, filed alleging that city managers had misused their mandate in order to slash retirees’ pensions and medical insurance, and that this was done, in the words of the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Marcia Fudge (D-OH), “to make African-Americans the scapegoats for Detroit’s problems,” which she characterized as “the worst since the Great Depression.”
We all have our perspectives. To this day, Detroit struggles to make an impression on the annual World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, which currently ranks it behind the likes of Mumbai on a list of leading business or holiday destinations. When I visited recently, some of the city’s inner neighborhoods seemed to resemble one of Samuel Beckett’s existential, bombed-out landscapes, not so much actively sinister as starkly barren. Pausing in front of the home where I had stayed 38 years earlier, I found only a sort of abandoned archaeological dig, where great sprays of unruly brambles and ragwort flowered through the ruined masonry, the front sidewalk cracked from underneath, whole slabs of it lifted up like crypts in a horror film. On a purely visual level, it was easy to agree with Miss Fudge that modern-day Detroit falls some way short of a jewel in America’s crown. Even the Detroit River, as it snakes under the Ambassador Bridge linking the city with Canada, seems to be composed of a particularly unappealing brew of sticky green hair oil, while in many of the new, prefabricated neighborhoods, the chief physical characteristics are endless one-way road systems and mortuaries.
And yet for all that, Detroit remains perversely calm—if not exactly a synonym for idyllic race relations, not apparently prone to Ferguson-style outbreaks of mob violence, either. This comparative tranquility clearly perplexes both the decadent voyeurs and the more ideologically right-on among our news media. In what might loosely be called the apocalyptic view of American urban life as a whole, Carl T. Rowan once wrote in the Washington Post, “[We] are all subordinate to the mad-dog, white supremacist goals of those who are currently waging war to gain the power to say who can live in America.” Even cooler heads than Mr. Rowan’s have spoken of the inevitability of future race riots in Detroit, such as the anonymous but prolific internet commentator who writes of the coming day when “the folks tear down the jails and free the prisoners, [and] create a new society from the ashes of the fires.”
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that such critics actively seek the self-immolation of Detroit, but it’s perhaps fair to say—and I do so respectfully—that there would be a kind of self-fulfilled satisfaction to be found, were that the case. And yet when the Detroit News recently published a six-part overview of the city’s fortunes from the 1940’s to the present, it was able to quote a retired General Motors employee named Joann Thomas, who says of her mixed neighborhood around Lakewood Street in Grosse Pointe Park, “At night, all you hear is crickets. There’s whole families of deer now and possums. I wouldn’t mind some neighbors, but there’s no trouble here. It’s beautiful.” It should be noted that the area of which Miss Thomas speaks is not some outlying rural outpost, but an urban ghetto roughly four miles northeast of City Hall.
Why this strange refusal on Detroit’s part to gratify so much of the mainstream media and erupt in a Ferguson-style inferno? Apart from the sheer desolation of the place—it’s hard to summon the true spirit of urban warfare when your surroundings are those of a semiderelict garden suburb—one clue may lie in the figures behind all those municipal retirement plans Representative Fudge mentions. Take, for example, the case of Michael Mulholland, who is currently vice president of the Local 207 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and one of those who has warned of the “tinderbox” sitting under Detroit. Allowing for a recent 4.5 percent cut in his city-funded retirement package, Mr. Mulholland is eligible to receive benefits of just over $1,800 per month. That would of course be in addition to any private pension or healthcare arrangements he may at any time see fit to arrange. Or there’s the case, as quoted in the Detroit News, of David Angeleris, who took retirement after some 30 years as a city emergency-services dispatcher. Mr. Angeleris receives a check for the equivalent of $32,000 per year, exclusive of taxes. We can agree (if in less excited tones than the News) that these are not fabulous sums, even in a city like Detroit, where the price of commodities such as houses, cars, and food has plunged in recent years. But, by the same token, neither do they suggest the kind of truly abysmal poverty the media might wish us to associate with Detroit’s public-sector retirees and the many others dependent on the city’s exchequer. On the one hand, unless you’re suffering a severe attack of compassion fatigue, you’ll agree that it’s a salutary struggle to get by on a typical state pension, whatever its point of origin. On the other hand, life in your 50’s and beyond on a guaranteed municipal stipend of around $2,000 per month might not seem the worst fate in the world to some of those who have chosen a more entrepreneurial path in life. Put bluntly, an emolument like Mr. Angeleris’s is not a tragedy so much as a statistic.
It would be an overstatement to claim that Detroit’s continuing acquiescence in its fate is all down to the comparative prosperity of its citizens, who loll in front of their wall-sized LED TVs among the detritus of another junk-food banquet while awaiting the arrival of their latest cyclical government check. But it does not seem fanciful to suggest that the great majority of the city’s residents are insulated from the full horrors of unemployment, or underemployment, as their ancestors may have known them. It’s true that there are many houses and apartments in Detroit’s inner neighborhoods with no pretension to external elegance. I have often visited such homes, and the general ambience is much as one imagines might be the case in the aftermath of a nuclear war, or following the nearby arrival of a particularly destructive meteor. The word wasteland would be the operative one. But within, many of these same dwellings would seem well suited to serve as a showroom for Best Buy, with submerged Moroccan hashish-den undertones. Again I generalize, but a reasonable case could be made for saying that today’s average resident of Warrendale or Hamtramck exists in a world founded on unprecedented consumer affluence and fueled by delusive drugs. It might also be fair to say that to many or most such people, the fate of a Ferguson is the subject of cynical indifference. It may be a truism among some that the white man continues to hold the whip hand over the black man, but that would not in itself seem to be grounds to burn your town down. I offer the following exchange I had recently with an early-middle-aged male resident of Detroit’s Sugar Hill neighborhood as, if not definitive, then at least illustrative: “There’s one thing I can’t understand,” he told me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, ‘I’m a black man, and almost every night we’re told by people like Brian Williams and the other white guys on TV that everything in America’s gone to hell, and the races are beating the shit out of each other, and we’re all right on the edge of losing it and starting a revolution.” He gave an ironic chuckle. “But around here, for the past few years, the biggest problem, as far as I can see, has been getting good cellphone coverage. I mean, you literally can’t keep a conversation going, and the conversation you do have is broken up, bleeped out, or sometimes just goes dead. Text messaging is awful. You tell me Detroit should be fixing to blow in a riot, and I tell you that if we do the first people we’ll come for are T-Mobile and Verizon.”
Of course, in addition to the numbing effect of materialism, Detroit, like so many once-vital communities, has succumbed to a sort of municipal nervous breakdown occasioned by indiscriminate drug use. It’s long been known that, along with a desire to kill without practical reward, the desire to take medicine is what distinguishes man from the animals. This desire, indeed, is now the primary social characteristic of many urban American neighborhoods. To tour Poletown or Hamtramck today is to be exposed to a generation of adolescents reared on an exclusive diet of junk food and narcotics. Naturally, I generalize again: I’m sure there are still polite, alert, civic-minded young people busy at work in those areas, but when walking the streets the eye rather travels to the opposite extreme—block upon block of vacant, hollow-eyed souls inhabiting a razed wasteland, much like the set of one of those George A. Romero films where the decent folk are progressively taken over by zombies. The sheer stupefaction of the place is almost impressive in an end-of-civilization sort of way. After some 30 years of relatively innocuous use as an analgesic, a drug like Vicodin—to take a prime example—has now undergone a radical distillation. Taken in sufficient quantities, Vicodin apparently produces a temporary sensation of inner warmth and even euphoria. Unfortunately, it’s also powerfully addictive, with a range of side effects that include debilitating nausea, constipation, and a pervasive physical and mental inertia. On the whole, this would not seem to be a means to sharpen the perceptions in any sustainable way. That did not stop the U.S. healthcare industry from handing out 145 million prescriptions for Vicodin’s parent drug, hydrocodone, in 2013, quite apart from its various black-market derivatives. When you come to consider rampant drug addiction in a city like Detroit, you should forget about any Breaking Bad-like histrionics, and instead focus on the reality of tens or hundreds of thousands of men and women mentally enfeebled, if not totally crippled, by a combination of legal and illegal narcotics, which serve as a substitute for any more meaningful attempt to engage with the outside world. Of course, the drugs themselves are morally neutral. They enslave and kill their victims regardless of their race.
Finally, for those brave enough to read it in all its eye-glazing detail, there’s now also a legally approved exit plan designed to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy and into full fiscal health in the year 2053 (by which time presumably few of the city’s existing retirees will be alive to see it). Essentially, this calls for a Grand Bargain: The state of Michigan, and various foundations including the Detroit Institute of Arts, will pledge hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster the civic purse, while, in turn, retired city workers will accept modest reductions in their monthly checks. When signing off on this deal, Judge Steven W. Rhodes of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan referred to the cuts as representing a “gentle downward trajectory” in the expected mean household income of some 35,000 current and future municipal retirees. In the event of another 2008-like crash, that lightly graded slope may turn out to be a fiscal cliff. “History will determine the correctness of this finding,” the judge allowed. The state of Michigan must “ensure that its greatest single municipality adequately fund[s] its pension obligations, regardless of the changing economic circumstances around it. If not, history will judge that this court’s approval of [the] settlement was a massive mistake.”
Meanwhile, the media continue to overlook the real story of the perennial crisis in Detroit: that, with a few notable exceptions among the government and legal fraternity, nobody really cares anymore. While NBC News and others eagerly seize on the most spurious “evidence” that our great metropolitan areas as a whole are set to explode in a wave of cataclysmic racial violence that will make that of the 1960’s look like a little local difficulty by comparison, the reality is that Detroit, like many other once-proud American cities, has long since embarked on its slow, quiet, but inexorable communal suicide. It will go out not with a bang but a whimper.