Where were you when Detroit failed?

(Editorial piece for the Detroit News: August 13, 2013)

“Where was I? I was living quietly in the suburbs, officer! This bankruptcy business has nothing to do with me!”

This is the answer I once might have given, before I looked into my fifties childhood in Garden City, the history of our all-white neighborhood and its relation to Detroit.  Now, I consider suburbanites to be deeply and historically implicated in the state of Detroit, its economic decline of some six decades, its present crisis and uncertain future.

During the first suburban boom of the 1920s, Garden City was marketed as the “sun parlor of Detroit.” Realtors went door to door downtown, in search of customers for newly subdivided lots. Buyers were told that “children might be raised in safety, far from the maddening crowd, the factory smoke and the city’s noise.” When Garden City became incorporated as a home rule city in 1933, its separation from Detroit was fully established, along with its identification of itself as a living space that was emphatically white and anti-urban.

The attraction of incorporation was that it further localized municipal power over zoning and public services.  Public maintenance, schools, and police and fire departments fell under the jurisdiction of the suburban municipality. The point here is that incorporation allowed for the gains of a growing suburban tax base to be kept in local coffers. In the 1950s, an additional twenty-two new suburban cities incorporated themselves, bringing about a proliferation of local governments surrounding Detroit, each creating a closed political entity, each part of the larger disinvestment of Detroit.

Positioned as it was, less than twenty miles from Detroit, Garden City stood to benefit from post-war industrial and commercial suburbanization.  With manufacturing facilities relocating from Detroit to nearby industrial corridors, Garden City’s growth was assured. Soon shops, supermarkets, gas stations and fast food restaurants would appear along nearby suburban strip roads.

Those of us who grew up in the fifties and early sixties recall that many of our fathers commuted to downtown offices; we recall family outings to Hudson’s, the movie palaces around Grand Circus Park or Tiger Stadium.  But by the 1960s, these outings had already become less frequent. Take shopping, for example. Between 1954 and 1961, twenty-nine “one stop” shopping centers opened in the suburbs. Eventually, Garden City residents had several malls within striking distance of home, including Wonderland and Westland.  Kern’s, Detroit’s second-largest department store, closed in 1959, removing almost an entire commercial block from the city tax rolls. Hudson’s downtown store clung to life until 1983, but its sales began to decline as early as 1954, the losses temporarily offset by suburban outlets at Northland and Eastland.

Suburbanites had less and less to do with Detroit, yet when we travelled out of state or abroad for vacations, we continued to tell people we were Detroiters, not only because nobody had heard of Garden City or the other suburbs, but because suburbanites retained an oddly nostalgic attachment to Detroit, expressing pride in the automotive dream, in our sports teams, in Motown music.

Two points might be made immediately here. First, we were using the city, visiting it, claiming its successes, even as we withdrew from it. In what Detroit’s radical geographer, William Bunge, called “the great American tax dodge,” suburbanization was part of the historical shift of people, money, industry, commerce and resources away from the heart of the city to its surrounding areas, all of which were busily separating through incorporation.  Separating and segregating. And this is the second point: how ironic that we should take such pride in Motown, when so few of us had ever met a black person. Suburban Detroit always was, and largely remains, closed to black residence.

Interviewed for David Mast’s 1994 Detroit Lives, Dr. Arthur Johnson, formerly of Wayne State and the NAACP, put it this way: “If you’re thinking about Detroit in the ‘50s, what you call the good old days is a question of who’s talking.  I could not possibly want to return to the Detroit of the 1950s… Whites literally walked away from this city, literally abandoning all they had built, rather than make a reasonable accommodation.  As a result, we have seen a pattern of economic disinvestment in this city that cannot be matched by any other major city in the United States.  When I say it rides on race, I absolutely mean that.”

Watching the twitter feeds in the hours following the bankruptcy announcement, it was easy to spot the suburbanites, many of whom continue to resort to racist interpretations which are more or less explicit. Nothing saddens and disappoints me more, although it comes as no surprise. Suburbanites have regularly blamed black Detroit for the city’s problems since before the disorders of 1967, seeing the violence of that long hot summer and of Detroit’s larger decline as events that had nothing to do with them. As a child of Garden City, and indeed it was a happy childhood, I recognize this great suburban denial, the failure to see the violence embedded in the segregated suburban spaces that were so close to Detroit, and yet so far.

In 1957, the Garden City School Board heard that Packard Motor Company was in a state of liquidation and duly arranged to purchase Packard’s opulent boardroom furniture for the School Board meeting room. I don’t know where that massive board-of-directors table is now, but nothing would give me greater hope than to carry it back downtown only to find it too small to accommodate all the suburbanites eager, finally, to acknowledge our part in Detroit’s history, to overcome the divisions of race, to listen, talk and work together, and become Detroiters again. Call me naïve, but that is my abiding dream.

Amy Kenyon is Visiting Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  She is the author of Dreaming Suburbia (Wayne State University Press). Her first novel, Ford Road, was published last year by the University of Michigan Press.  A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Detroit News, August 13, 2013.
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About Amy Kenyon

Amy Kenyon is a historian, writer and photographer.
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