Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Fringe of History

Yesterday, I got back on the bicycle, and found myself traveling down chipseal roads on the fringe between town and country in my neighborhood of the Rural Republic.  As I pedaled between subdivisions and sorghum fields, between pre-fabs and pasture, with nothing to occupy my mind beside the next foot-stroke, I found that what I saw around me reminded me of an article I'd read a few months earlier about the shrinking of a city, rather than the growth of one.  The article was a piece from The Economist about efforts to “right-size” Detroit, and in hunting it down, I found a New York Times piece dreaming of using that shrinking city as an opportunity to “green” the city.  At issue here is not what to do about Detroit, however.  It got me thinking instead about the fringe between urban and rural. 

America is a young country.  Ours is a country with a history devoted almost entirely to unhindered growth and expansion.  In fact, the idea of shrinking and disappearing cities barely registers in our collective, and then only in tales of frontier towns somewhere else, of boom and bust and gold rushes.  Ghost towns are ghostly – empty and abandoned – but they're also towns: small, out of the way, and easily forgotten.  Historically speaking, however, the idea that only small towns disappear, while cities are permanent, is an outlier – one that could only exist in a country that's only a few hundred years old. 

Hatra, once a major trading hub between Persia and the Mediterranean
In older nations, it's surprisingly common.  I remember flipping through a slide show on historical sites in Iraq, and realizing that I recognized one of the places on the map.  What was once a great capital of the Assyrian empire or something, was now barely a small village on a river.  Does anyone today remember the pain of de-settling that city, which probably housed great monuments that took years to build and of which the people were rather proud?  That's not likely.  Yet it happened.  There are likely scores of such cities in Iraq, not to mention similar ruins dotting the landscapes of the entire world, both Old and New.  Whether a once-bustling coastal city in the New World, or a great capital of trade between civilizations in the Old World, old cities, reclaimed by the jungles and desert, lie dormant beneath our feet. 
Altun Ha was a wealthy coastal city of the Mayan Empire

The idea of such a thing happening to Detroit, in our own civilization, is a difficult one to accept.  But, often, it's a simple economic calculation defining the line between urban and rural.  Up until recently, now-abandoned or nearly-abandoned sections of Detroit were worth much more to the free market, and in turn to the property tax-collecting city, as commercial and residential land.  The market had determined that more money could be made on an acre of land as a factory or a store or a subdivision, or even a parking lot, than could be made as an acre of corn.  And as the city grew, it picked up this land within its borders, to pave the streets and run the utilities and collect the taxes on it.  But now the city is shrinking, and, due to various changes both within and out of their control, can no longer support an economy large enough for the population necessary to make that land profitable.  It's nothing against Detroit – the times passed Altun Ha and Hatra by, as well.  Just as sorghum fields are making way for subdivisions on my bike route, so will that process be reversed, should those subdivisions cease to be supportable.  So, with a few strong years in the commodities markets and weak years in the auto markets, the cycle between urban growth and rural reclamation continues. 

I'd like to get deeper into the relative values of property, and how subsidies prop up the value or agricultural land, or grants prop up the value of urban land, and what role the expense of building and the expense of removing improvements play in the relative shifts between property roles.  But that's something well beyond the scope of this article, and indeed my experience with economic number crunching.  So it's left as something to ponder, and perhaps discuss.  If anyone could shed some light on that, or wants to study it further, I'm sure everyone would love to see what you come up with.  


  1. Your description of Detroit makes me think of this:
    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  2. When I was planning to write this, I thought of putting that at the end, but forgot. That's a little spooky.

  3. I stayed last summer with my family in downtown Detroit in a run-down old dormitory about a week before it was demolished (we were literally locked in at night for our own safety). Across the street was an old VA hospital and some lower-income apartments. Depressing is the best word to describe it. One thing I found surprising to me was the extreme racism still found. Not so much by 'white' people, but the pain instilled generations ago and inflicted towards the black community was still being carried on the backs of the generation today. White people are not trusted in inner city Detroit. Past definitely dictates the future. The black community was taken advantage of and then thrown to the curb and left to rot. Sad and despicable. In essence, the rich, white businessmen in the industry even created physical barriers (the creation of the highways and use of the river) to separate themselves from the black community. Poor black neighborhoods were created with the intention to keep them there.

    But beginning in the 1950s, the big car manufacturers, Ford, Chrysler and GM began to automate their assembly lines and outsource parts production to subcontractors located in other municipalities and foreign countries. (Sugrue 1996:128) Detroit, like other cities, was deindustrializing and black workers, who had less seniority and lower job grades than white workers “felt the brunt” of this change. Young black men were particularly hard hit by the combination of deindustrialization with historical job discrimination in the automobile industry. According to historian Thomas Sugrue, young workers, especially those who had no post-secondary education, found that entry-level operative jobs that had been open to their fathers or older siblings in the 1940s and early 1950s were gone. “By the end of the 1950s, more and more black job seekers, reported by the Urban League, were demoralized, ‘developing patterns of boredom and hopelessness with the present state of affairs’ The anger and despair that prevailed among the young, at a time of national promise and prosperity, would explode on Detroit’s streets in the 1960s. (Sugrue 1996:147) [See for more info on riots that started]

  4. The Demographic Changed best described by the aforementioned website:
    Like Newark, Detroit was swept by a wave of white flight. During the 1950s the white population of Detroit declined by 23%. Correspondingly, the percentage of non-whites rose from 16.1% to 29.1%. In sheer numbers the black population of Detroit increased from 303,000 to 487,000 during that decade. (Fine 1989:4) By 1967, the black population of Detroit stood at an estimated 40% of the total population. (National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders 1968:89-90). As in Newark, some neighborhoods were more affected by white flight than others. This was particularly true for the Twelfth Street neighborhood, where rioting broke out in the summer of 1967. “Whereas virtually no blacks lived there in 1940 (the area was 98.7% white), the area was over one-third (37.2%) non-white in 1950. By 1960, the proportion of blacks to whites had nearly reversed: only 3.8 percent of the areas residents were white. Given that the first blacks did not move to the area until 1947 and 1948, the area underwent a complete racial transition in little more than a decade.” Sugrue 1996:244)

    This rapid turnover in population in the neighborhood brought with it the attendant ills of social disorganization, crime and further discrimination. It’s impact in the 12th street area was devastating. According to Sidney Fine, “The transition from white to black on Detroit’s near northwest side occurred at a remarkably rapid rate…In a familiar pattern of neighborhood succession, as blacks moved in after World War II, the Jews moved out. The first black migrants to the area were middle class persons seeking to escape the confines of Paradise Valley. They enjoyed about “five good years” in their new homes until underworld and seedier elements from Hastings Street and Paradise Valley, the poor and indigent from the inner city, and winos and derelicts from skid row flowed into the area. Some of the commercial establishments on Twelfth Street gave way to pool halls, liquor stores, sleazy bars, pawn shops, and second hand businesses. Already suffering from a housing shortage and lack of open space, Twelfth Street became more “densely packed” as apartments were subdivided and six to eight families began to live where two had resided before. The 21,376 persons per square mile in the area in 1960 were almost double the city’s average” (Fine 1989:4) This neighborhood would serve as the epicenter of the 1967 riot.

  5. When 'touring' Hamtramck (a city within Detroit), it was very noticable to me, as a mom, the number of kids at the park who were there unsupervised with no adult in sight. It was explained to me that the car industry destroyed family life in Detroit. What happened initially was in a typical family, Dad left the home to go work for a car company and Mom would stay home with the kids. Because of the environment mentioned above, many of the workers turned to alcohol. Alcoholism still controls much of Detroit, sadly. Then, in an era of women's rights and birth control, the rise of single moms and/or double income families were the norm. Thus, mom left the kids with grandma or grandpa who were still battling this increase of alcoholism disease. Children began being raised not by their parents, but by grandparents who were also alcoholics. Thus, there is currently a generation who is basically raising themselves with no adult supervision and left to tough it out on the streets.

    I was amazed to learn that in the Detroit school system, children to not receive 'tardies'. The teachers are just happy that the kids go to school because it is the responsibility of most kids, not the parents, for the kid to get up and go to school. Many times, older sibilings are left in charge of younger siblings, so kids come and go as they please.

    So sad, yes, that the once known 'Paris of the West' is on the path to becoming a has-been city. However, I think it does show that greed and hard-heartedness are the paving stones on this path...sad similarity to what the nation is going through.

  6. J-Lo, I was hoping you'd have something to say about this topic. You certainly didn't disappoint. It's incredibly sad how quickly and completely society has fallen apart there after industry left. It's a long, hard fall from Civilization, indeed.

    I do have one disagreement with your point, however. Specifically, I wouldn't be so quick to simply single out "greed" as the major factor. Was it greed that made the coopers and wheelwrights jobless? Or was it just that time passed their arts by?

    I was meaning to use this on a future post, and I still may, but I think it applies here. In the Wealth of Nations, just after the passage I quoted in The First Brick, Adam Smith notes a fundamental difference between how industry and agriculture affect the economic output of a nation. Namely, aside from the occasional accident of geography, the only difference between the circumstances of countries with regards to agriculture is the price of labor.

    The natural result being that if the cost of living is high in England, the cost of labor will be high in England, and the agricultural produce will be expensive. If the cost of living is cheaper in Poland, the cost of labor will be cheaper, and the agricultural produce will be cheaper. Therefore, England will get their food from Poland, and English farmers will not produce as much.

    Back to Detroit, I think a similar thing has happened there. Part of the success of Detroit was just such an accident of geography. It's close to the coal mines of upper Appalachia, the steel mills of the industrial Midwest, and the shipping afforded by access to the Great Lakes, not to mention the plentiful access to labor afforded by being a terminus of the Underground Railroad just 50 years prior.

    Over time, however, as the success of the area increased, the cost of living increased, and therefore the price of labor increased. Additionally, the success of modern transportation and energy production reduced the advantage of being that close to fuel and steel. Along with some poor business decisions on the part of the manufacturing companies, as well as the modernization of supply chains providing parts for modular assembly, all of the above factors conspired to make continued operation in Detroit less advantageous than operation elsewhere.

    I guess you can call it greed if you like, but it's just the way the market works - seeking out the path of least resistance. As Bret said in his post, it's the job of people in a community, not of the employers or government, to provide the support for a community like that.

    The greater problem of supporting an area when the cost of labor passes the threshold of acceptable operations (not when other labor is nominally cheaper, but also when it's cheap enough by a factor that allows the movement of operations and supply chains) is one that's puzzled just about everyone. Essentially, it's the fundamental premise of Marxism, and, ironically, a driving force behind the labor unions that raised the cost of labor in the auto industry to unacceptably high rates.

    I suspect it's cyclical in nature. The trouble with Detroit, I suspect, is that they didn't hold together society during the downturn enough to make the cheaper labor and cost of living that resulted from economic blight cheap enough to offset the costs of setting up shop in such messed-up neighborhoods.

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  10. I agree completely! Maybe a misuse on the word greed on my part (unless applied to labor unions). Irresponsible would probably be more accurate when applied to the car industry bigwigs. You are a sense, it is smart business to maximize your profit line. However, as seen played out today, they might have done so at the cost of having loyal customers. Unprepared politicians and locals probably added to the calamity by not responding to the auto makers leaving and trying to find more creative answers to change. Their identity was too wrapped up in the auto industry. Detroit put all their eggs in one basket. Sure, you have mo-town, but I don't really see that industry financially supporting the city.