Like any living being, cities have a hierarchy of needs that range from a base of survival needs to those that raise a city to meet man’s higher needs of fulfillment. At the base level, a community can survive but it’s citizens will drift to other population centers where higher hierarchy needs are met.
As a city evolves to meet higher hierarchical needs of its citizens, it will begin to attract immigrants and in migrants from other populations. In the case of Detroit, as the city introduced industry, jobs that paid more than wages from other parts of America or Europe enticed immigrants and Southern blacks, for jobs met base needs that were not satisfied elsewhere.
After Ford offered $5 a day, migration accelerated. Blacks, Poles and others flooded into Detroit’s slums to meet their needs of a new life. The city certainly had the base requirements met. Detroit was flush with water on a major waterway for transportation. Michigan had plenty of natural resources or could trade for them along the Great Lakes. And jobs were plentiful as the auto and armament industries concentrated in Detroit.
Housing was an issue but many of those that migrated to Detroit in the early days were just the breadwinners and they combined into the few houses that were available in the slums. However, as the population grew, housing was a major issue that was not being resolved by the city. In fact, prejudice exacerbated the problem, making meeting the base need for shelter five times more expensive through substandard housing in the black neighborhoods than it was in other parts of Detroit.
Nonetheless, during the first half of the century, poverty and oppression of the South was so great that Southern whites and blacks both poured into the densely populated neighborhoods of the city. Yet, many of the requirements of a sustainable city were not being met. For instance, while cities can be sustained even with severe personal prejudices existing amongst the population, in Detroit, these prejudices were prevalent within the institutions of government and business. Food and housing in black neighborhoods cost significantly more than in other neighborhoods. Segregated healthcare caused much higher mortality rates amongst the black population than amongst whites. Arrest and conviction rates for similar crimes were higher for blacks. Job hiring and promotion practices were rampantly and overtly bigoted. School systems were financed differentially and outcome differentials were materially different. And as highways replaced transit, transportation became an issue for those that could not afford it. Even today, 60 years later, 22% of Detroit’s citizens cannot afford personal transportation.
Yet migration continued. Detroit experienced reactionary riots and high crime. The city became landlocked for industry and its housing stock that had been built to support neighborhood factories now crammed in every space in town. Nonetheless, until factory jobs reached the zenith, Detroit did meet some sustainable city requirements. The cost of living was under union wages. City services were functional. The proximity of factories to houses made transportation adequate. Crime was still under a threshold of adequacy given the other benefits of the city. And driven by the auto and armament boom, a growing city government met its obligations through a balanced budget.
But Detroit’s growth was in spite of meeting man’s higher hierarchical needs not because of them. During the early part of the 20th century, most cities in America were dealing with similar problems, especially the big cities like Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and Chicago. So despite Detroit’s lack of insight on the future its institutional racism would bring the city, Detroit thrived with little competition. Detroit was the center of the auto universe and the free world’s arsenal.