Many publications have taken a look at Detroit’s decline recently. They make important points. The 1967 riots caused “white flight” from the city. The unions and Big Three entered into contracts with expensive legacy costs. America shed its industrial base. Mayor Coleman Young left a Chicago-style legacy of corruption. Over a decade after Young’s departure corruption, incompetence, and unemployment have continued to blight Detroit. The ‘67 riots provide researchers with a convenient starting point for this decline. However, the population decline began a decade earlier. In the fifties, the government created the interstate highway system. Highways made America mobile and people left the cities for the suburbs. People left Detroit for greener pastures and took their money with them.
The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 created modern America and provided the hole in the dyke that led to Detroit‘s depopulation and decline. Detroit lobbied hard for a highway system to promote car ownership. Americans could only go so far without roads. The new system would open up the country. Americans could travel everywhere in their automobiles. This new freedom would mean more profits for the auto industry. Consumers would feel the need to purchase vehicles as status symbols and for the freedom of mobility the highways created.
Opening the nation to car travel also opened areas outside the major cities for settlement. People could go to work in the city and live in the suburbs or country. Americans did not have to live in apartments in crowded, dirty cities. Instead, they could live in homes they themselves owned in clean surroundings. There would be elbow room, privacy, and backyard barbeques. This especially appealed to those parents responsible for the baby boom. Many Detroiters and began moving to cleaner suburban pastures.
In 1950, Detroit’s population stood at 1.8 million. Over the course of the decade, it dropped 10%. On the other hand, the Metro Detroit Region which includes the suburbs surrounding the city grew by 25%. The middle class was abandoning the city a decade or so before the riots. These were auto workers benefiting from the Big Three’s halcyon days. High wages, good benefits, and a strong union made the Detroit area a great place to live. Workers took their wages to the suburbs and purchased homes. People could commute between homes in the suburbs and jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the tax base began to decline.
The 1967 riots accelerated the exodus. The riots pitted whites against blacks. African-Americans felt besieged by white racism and rebelled. In the aftermath, whites felt besieged by black racism. With highways available to evacuate the populace, whites began to flee the city. African Americans with the resources to move were barred from moving to the suburbs by de facto segregation. During the seventies, Detroit’s population declined by over 20%. By 1980, the destruction of Detroit was complete. Despite efforts at revitalization in the nineties, the process has accelerated in recent years.
Detroit’s demise did not begin with racial issues in the aftermath of the riots. It did not begin with economic stagnation or the shipping of jobs overseas. It did not begin because of bad deals cut between the UAW and G. M., Ford, and Chrysler. Instead, it began because people wanted their own homes on their own plots of land. The Interstate Highway System gave us Modern America. It created soccer moms, minivans, and the world of Leave it to Beaver. However, it also opened a Pandora’s Box which began the decline of America’s fourth largest city.