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Bookmarked: A classic, revisited

With Detroit’s bankruptcy, Tom Sugrue’s 1996 Origins of the Urban Crisis rises back to the fore.

Perhaps no book has better clarified the story of 20th century urban decline than the 1996 Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton Press) by Penn historian Tom Sugrue. That book, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998 and cemented Sugrue's place among the top urban historians, illuminated the ways in which racism, federal policy, and corporate disinvestment combined to send Detroit—and dozens of other industrial cities—into freefall. Sugrue, who grew up in Detroit and lives in Mount Airy, is a careful observer of both his cities.

In recent weeks, as politicians and news media responded to Detroit's bankruptcy, Sugrue has been called on to comment. Often, he's found that he's had to counter the same myths and often ideologically-charged misinformation about the causes of decline his seminal book dispelled 17 years ago. "When I wrote Origins, Sugrue told me in an interview, "I discovered a forgotten history that essentially ran counter to the myth of Detroit: namely that it was a thriving bastion of prosperity and racial harmony until the 1967 riot and the rise of black political power. Detroit's problems were much deeper—a long roiling history of white on black conflict and steady corporate disinvestment beginning in the 1950s. Today's conventional wisdom on Detroit is similar—black misrule, corruption, self-serving public workers all responsible for fiscal collapse."

So who killed Detroit? "Decades of disinvestment. Deep rooted city-suburban conflict. Pervasive housing and school segregation by race. Hostility toward the city in the state capitol. Steady federal withdrawal from urban spending. A tax base inadequate to pay for even basic city services. And some incompetence in city management. Blaming Democrats, public workers, and mayors might be politically expedient, but it overlooks the real causes of Detroit's troubles."

Like Philadelphia, Detroit benefited substantially from federal investment during World War II. High demand for jobs, the enormous investment of capital in industrial infrastructure, and some hard won gains on African American access to jobs created a false prosperity. But federal spending shifted irrevocably as the nation became suburban. "As the nation's largest majority black city," says Sugrue, "it was victim of the poisonous 'us versus them' mentality that separated suburb from city. Why should 'our taxes' go to 'those people?' So Detroit was left to fend for itself, as population continued to fall, as tax revenues shrunk, and as racial hostilities persisted."

While some commentators today trace the city's problems to longtime mayor Coleman Young, in Origins, Sugrue points out "by the time Young was inaugurated, the forces of economic decay and racial animosity were far too powerful for a single elected official to stem." And now, he says, the present mayor is completely powerless. "Detroit's fate is now in the hands of the emergency manager Kevyn Orr and courts. The most important decision that they will make is how much will city pensioners lose as the city restructures its debt. Right now, the average municipal pension in Detroit is about $19,000 per year. Firefighters and police officers, who have the best pension plans, get about $31,000 per year. In other words, Detroit's retired workers are living on the brink. In some scenarios, pensions could be cut by 50, even 70 percent. How will they survive?"

Sugrue isn't quick—as others on this website have been—to overplay Philadelphia's similarities to Detroit. But he thinks the issues facing Detroit are endemic to urban America. "Even our richest, most vital cities—for example, New York--have stunningly high rates of poverty," he writes. "Just because cities have trendy boutiques and corporate headquarters and tourists galore doesn't mean that, somehow, they are more equal, just, and humane places. As long as our education system fails a large segment of the population, and as long as most of our new jobs barely pay subsistence wages, urban revitalization is a hollow promise."