Sixty years ago, Detroit was America’s fourth-largest city and a proud emblem of the nation’s industrial prowess. Today its ability to keep providing basic city services may be decided by a bankruptcy judge. The city’s attempt to file for bankruptcy last week is now a contested matter in Michigan courts.
Analysts of Detroit’s slide from 1.8 million people in 1950 to fewer than 700,000 today point to one episode as “the beginning of the end.” In July 1967 — 46 years ago this week — Detroit was the site of the most violent race riot in U.S. history. Five days of lawlessness left 43 people dead.
Minnesotans past a certain age undoubtedly remember those days — in part because of news from Detroit, but more so for the near-simultaneous disruption on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis. In the wee hours of July 20, 1967, the shooting of a black man sparked the torching of an eight-block stretch of the North Side’s business district. Though no one died, the episode was labeled a “riot” and rattled city residents as much as if it had been the real thing.
The way the two cities responded to that “long, hot summer” would set their trajectories for the next four decades. In Detroit, where race-based housing discrimination had been the norm, what had already been a trickle of white and middle-class flight from the city turned into a massive wave. The exodus was encouraged by state and federal policies that made suburban commercial and residential development affordable while doing little to provide a leg up to city dwellers too poor to leave.
Minneapolis saw a lesser exodus. That may be because it also saw a surge of effort by corporate, charitable and governmental leaders to break the habits of discrimination in housing and employment that lingered long after enactment of state antidiscrimination laws a decade earlier. The Urban Coalition’s Minneapolis chapter, founded in 1968, came to the fore. It rallied corporate and public resources to aid city schools, beef up job training on the North Side, open more careers to minorities, and improve the affordable housing stock in inner-city neighborhoods.
Those efforts paid off for Minneapolis. The city did not follow Detroit’s downhill slide. But the persistence of racial disparities in educational attainment, housing, health and longevity in the Twin Cities today shows that there’s more work to do to secure opportunities for all.
Ironically, Minnesotans soon may look to Detroit to see how that’s done. A new book by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” reports that inner-city Detroit is stirring again as an “innovation district” that clusters educational, health care and information-based industries in job-generating synergy. There’s a chance that bankruptcy can be a springboard to Detroit 2.0. We’re rooting for that result.