The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit


Once America's "arsenal of democracy," Detroit over the last fifty years has become the symbol of the American urban crisis. In this reappraisal of racial and economic inequality in modern America, Thomas Sugrue explains how Detroit and many other once prosperous industrial cities have become the sites of persistent racialized poverty. He challenges the conventional wisdom that urban decline is the product of the social programs and racial fissures of the 1960s. Probing beneath the veneer of 1950s prosperity and social consensus, Sugrue traces the rise of a new ghetto, solidified by changes in the urban economy and labor market and by racial and class segregation.

In this provocative revision of postwar American history, Sugrue finds cities already fiercely divided by race and devastated by the exodus of industries. He focuses on urban neighborhoods, where white working-class homeowners mobilized to prevent integration as blacks tried to move out of the crumbling and overcrowded inner city. Weaving together the history of workplaces, unions, civil rights groups, political organizations, and real estate agencies, Sugrue finds the roots of today's urban poverty in a hidden history of racial violence, discrimination, and deindustrialization that reshaped the American urban landscape after World War II.

In a new preface, Sugrue discusses the ongoing legacies of the postwar transformation of urban America and engages recent scholars who have joined in the reassessment of postwar urban, political, social, and African American history.


A FEW SUMMERS AGO, I spent a humid afternoon driving through the neighborhoods where my parents had grown up on Detroit’s West Side. My tour took me to the intersection of Chalfonte and Santa Rosa, an unassuming corner in a quiet neighborhood of working-class homes where my father had spent much of his childhood. My grandparents’ house is still standing, but they would not recognize the neighborhood around it. My father and his brother and sisters used to run across the alley to play at their Aunt Margaret’s house. Only faint brick and cement traces of that long-ago demolished house remain—the hint of a foundation, pieces of the cement walkway. Aunt Margaret’s house exists intact only in yellowing family photographs. Parts of the neighborhood have reverted to nature. By mid-summer, waist-high grass and weeds obscure the many vacant lots where twenties-era wood-frame bungalows and simple brick and shingle homes like Aunt Margaret’s once stood. Just a few blocks away, a little house, very much like my father’s (fig. El) had collapsed into a pile of shingles and splinters. However grim the vista, many longtime homeowners have created little oases amidst the rubble and ruin. Postage stamp-sized, neatly cut lawns, bordered by zinnias and impatiens, stood out amidst the overgrown lots. A group of boys played hoops underneath a backboard nailed to a telephone pole—a small pocket of vitality in what was otherwise a dreary place.

The neighborhood around Santa Rosa Drive is, in many ways, a typical blue-collar Detroit neighborhood, a microcosm of the city’s twentiethcentury history. In the years following World War II, when my father was a teenager, manufacturing jobs were plentiful in the city. Along Lyndon Street, just a few blocks from my father’s house, was a row of small factories that fabricated parts and supplies for the automobile industry. Livernois and Wyoming Avenues, the major thoroughfares that bounded the neighborhood on the east and west, provided easy access to the big West Side General Motors plants and, further to the south, to the massive Ford River Rouge complex and the myriad steel mills and chemical plants along the Detroit River. A short drive or bus ride to the east led to the archipelago of Dodge and Chrysler plants near Highland Park and Hamtramck. My grand-

I am indebted to my colleagues, friends, readers, and critics who have offered astute com
ments and asked hard questions about The Origins of the Urban Crisis over the last eight years.
I am particularly grateful to the dozens of scholars, teachers and writers, activists, and poli
cymakers who have invited me to speak about this book and have generously taken time to give
me tours of their own cities. Thanks also to Dana Barron, committed urbanite and sharp critic,
for her comments on this preface, and to Liz Moselle for her useful suggestions.

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