The United States Congress might use Detroit as a gauge for peering into America’s future if it cannot look past its polarized ideologue stalemate. As Detroit went in the decade after the 1967 riot, so too will America if we cannot address our real issues together. Attempting to fix our problems within two separate political camps that stare past each other as if they do not exist will cause America to take the Detroit slide.
In 1967, African Americans’ vision for the city was one of finally obliterating the scars of racism, gaining access to jobs, housing, education, and political reforms. In 1967, White business and political leaders’ vision for Detroit was of deterring crime and stopping the economic slide through a revitalization of the downtown district. The great compromise that never occurred would have been to correct the social issues that caused the strife in the African American community while creating an environment for businesses and white Americans to return to the city.
Detroit was a city on the decline well before 1967. In the 1950s amidst the beginnings of white flight, it lost 840 manufacturing plants. By 1960, 12% of stores and 22% of houses in Detroit were vacant. 265,000 whites left the city in that decade alone. The 1967 riot certainly caused a blip in the exodus of whites, who had been leaving the city at 20,000 per year and for a period of two years the number elevated to 80,000 before dropping back to its long term trend line.
However, most importantly, the 1967 riot exposed the truth about Detroit. It was not the model city of racial progressiveness that Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh presented to the world as Detroit vied for the Olympics in 1965. The Detroit riot of 1967 spelled the end of Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh’s career. Once considered a potential star of presidential caliber, he instead divorced in 1968, finished out his mayoral term in 1970 and died of a heart attack at age 51 in 1979. His life was a symbol of the higher ideals of white America fettered by the blinders of institutional racism that would constrain progress for the next decades.
In response to the 1967 riot, Cavanaugh, Governor George Romney, and Joseph Hudson of Hudson Department Stores formed a coalition of business and civic leaders called “New Detroit” to identify needed changes for the city, including racial healing. While racial discussions were desperately needed for the Detroit’s future economic health, white business leaders could not be convinced, and instead they shunned New Detroit as an unworkable platform for economic issues due to what they considered radical black agendas. They splintered in 1970, and led by Henry Ford II, white business leaders formed the Detroit Renaissance Group.
In 1970, Mayor Roman Gribbs took office for one term. After being elected sheriff of the county in 1968, he ran for mayor in 1970 on an agenda of law and order and was narrowly elected by a 7,000 vote margin. Opposite of the character of New Detroit, he pushed crime interdiction programs like STRESS, Stop the Robberies, and Enjoy Safe Streets, which led to 17 police killings in 1971. In an era of police brutality, his tough on crime programs only seared the community further. Deterrence of crime is critical to revitalization of Detroit. Yet in 1970, a program to deter crime in a failing city already revolting of police brutality and without a systematic process of turning around the economy, was a program doomed to fail.
The program for turning around the city in 1970 fell on the newly formed Renaissance Group. Its stated mission was to “bring Detroit’s business community’s leadership and resources together to encourage and facilitate the physical and economic revitalization of Detroit and Southeast Michigan.” Two points about the mission are glaring:
1) Focused on structures in the business economy. In 1970, the group disconnected a riverfront consumer economy from the economic needs of the people of Detroit that would be better served by an economy based on production.
2) Included Southeast Michigan. Certainly the region was also impacted by the loss of the automobile industry, but it was a separate nation as far as the issues of Detroit were concerned.
Intended to revitalize downtown Detroit, a first focus of the group was the Renaissance Center, seven interconnected skyscrapers on the river. The concept was to build an enclosed environment for work and shopping that was isolated from crime to draw business downtown. Built for $350 million, it sold in 1996 to GM for $76 million after sustaining annual losses of $30 million, an unfortunate failure that cost Ford, one of the investors, $379 million.
While Detroit’s business leaders focused on buildings for downtown business, civic, and apartment use in hopes of revitalizing Detroit’s economy, it would be another decade before the Renaissance Group would start to develop a strategic plan that contained recommendations dealing with race relations, crime, jobs, education and economic development, a decade wasted in further polarized decline.