By Pete Saunders
Detroit has had an outsized impact on American history. People around the world are familiar with its contributions to the auto industry in particular and manufacturing in general. And Detroit has had an impact on music—from Motown rhythm and blues to rock, jazz, gospel, and electronic dance music—that is unparalleled. Detroit has much to be proud of.
Detroit can also stake a claim to being the home of the American labor movement and the birthplace of the American middle class. Colossal battles were waged between management and labor during the interwar period, with Detroit’s automakers eventually making peace with unions. Stable and well-paying manufacturing jobs, secured by unions, led to a burgeoning middle class seeking homeownership opportunities in the postwar era. New homes were built, bought and sold, creating a new vehicle for developing and transferring wealth through generations. By 1970 Detroit became the major American city with the most single-family homes, in the metropolitan area with the most single-family homes in America.
But Detroit may be one of the leaders among American cities in fully grasping something much more insidious in American history—segregation. The American South is well known for its legacy of slavery, which later developed into a caste system that relegated African-Americans to second-class citizenship until the Civil Rights Movement. However, while Northern cities, particularly large ones like Detroit, were patting themselves on the back for not being like their Southern brethren, they developed and implemented a system that served a similar purpose, eventually depriving African-Americans in the North of prosperity and opportunity. Access to homeownership has been the primary vehicle for growing and transferring wealth, and many African-Americans were unable to gain its benefits.
Northern segregation’s difference from the Southern system can be succinctly summarized by a joke from the 1950s and ‘60s that’s often ascribed to comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory: “In the South, Negroes can live as close as they want to whites, as long as they don’t get too big. In the North, Negroes can be as big as they want, as long as they don’t live too close.” In other words, whereas Southern places opted for a social separation between whites and blacks, Northern places went with spatial separation, forcing blacks into certain areas of cities through a collection of federal, state, and local policies alongside private practices. Historian Richard Rothstein covers this territory exceptionally well in his 2017 book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, which details how policy tools such as redlining, urban renewal, public housing construction, and federal support of white flight created the conditions we have in many of our cities today.
As it was in auto assembly, the labor movement, and music, Detroit was a pioneer in Northern segregation. And while my own family history can be deemed successful, it can also be used to show how segregation has had a personal and generational impact.
My mom’s dad was born in 1899, her mother in 1905. Both were born and raised in Alabama and came north as young adults in the mid-1920’s. My grandfather moved north after an altercation with a white foreman at the steel mill where he worked made him a target of other workers; he escaped to save his own life. My grandmother was in an abusive marriage in Alabama and she also escaped to save her life. They met and married in Detroit.
My dad’s parents were somewhat younger. His dad was born in 1920, his mom in 1922. My grandfather was born in Arkansas but moved to St. Louis at an early age. My grandmother was born in Georgia but also moved out of the South as a youth. She had been in Detroit for years before she met my grandfather; I believe my grandfather moved to Detroit as a teen during the Depression. They met in Detroit and got married in 1941, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor.
All of my grandparents took full advantage of living in the boomtown that Detroit was at that time, particularly in the post-World War II period. There were plentiful employment opportunities in Detroit’s manufacturing economy. My mom’s dad worked at a Uniroyal plant, through the Depression and beyond. He died in 1965, just months after I was born. My grandmother passed in 1980. The two of them raised seven children (my mother is the youngest), and they were able to buy a home in the early 1950’s near Mack and St. Clair on Detroit’s East Side. Like so many homes in Detroit, their house is gone. They lived on one of those Detroit blocks that have become famously abandoned. Here is an image of their block:
See the tall evergreen tree on the right side of the street, and the other foliage behind it? That’s about where my grandparents’ house was. It was a beautiful foursquare home on a small lot, probably built in the 1910s.
My dad’s dad held two jobs, with Ford Motor Company and with Wayne County, and was able to retire with pension benefits from both by 1985. He and my grandmother were able to buy a small Cape Cod home in Inkster, Michigan, in the early 1950s, where they stayed until both moved to live with my aunt in the early 2000s. They raised three children there; my dad is the oldest. Unlike my mom’s parents’ house, my dad’s parents’ house is still around. It is the one on the far right.
The house looks exactly as I remember it from childhood. In fact, it is virtually unchanged from when my dad was a child.
Both sets of my grandparents were able to establish excellent footholds into the American Dream, just like so many other families in America. But their ability to pass that dream onward and upward faced constraints that white families didn’t have to face.
My mom’s family grew up just two blocks from the home of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who in 1925 fought off a white mob trying to intimidate him out of the home he just bought. Sweet and several friends and family members were charged with murder. Sweet’s brother Henry Sweet was tried first and acquitted by an all-white jury. Prosecutors later dropped charges against all remaining defendants.
The tension of that time continues to touch the air of Detroit.
My mother’s family moved into their home nearly 30 years after that event, but the neighborhood’s inexorable downward spiral began the moment white residents elected to cede the neighborhood to blacks. That started a cycle of drastically reduced demand (only the eyes of black folks were looking at the homes), reduced values, deferred maintenance, disinvestment, and reduced public services that crippled the community within a generation.
Twenty-five miles southwest of my mom’s childhood home, Inkster, where my dad’s family lived, is another interesting case of segregation. Inkster is immediately west of Dearborn, Michigan, home to Ford Motor Company’s headquarters and its Ford Main plant (known also as the River Rouge Complex). Dearborn was also famous for its long-time hostility toward blacks, notably under its racist mayor Orville Hubbard. Hubbard was mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978. Since blacks who worked for Ford, like my grandfather, were explicitly excluded from living in Dearborn, Inkster became one of a handful of communities where, by default, black people had to live. The Downriver communities of River Rouge and Ecorse also became part of the constrained suburban options for blacks in the Detroit area.
Inkster’s position was reinforced by the hasty 1961 incorporation of Dearborn Heights, which surrounds Inkster on nearly all sides—areas that largely black Inkster had tried to annex. Inkster took Dearborn Heights to court, arguing that its officials engaged in racial gerrymandering intended to physically and socially isolate the community. The case was dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1963. It is no exaggeration to say that Inkster calcified as a community after that court case. Although the houses above remain, Inkster followed a descent similar to what was witnessed on Detroit’s East Side. Witness this view of Inkster Road, its main corridor:
There was no transfer of generational wealth from my grandparents to my parents.
Despite that, both of my parents were still able to parlay their working class/middle class upbringings into becoming first-generation college graduates. They met at Wayne State University in the early 1960s, got married, and had a child (me) in 1964. We lived not far from where the Detroit riots started in 1967, my earliest memory. With another child, my sister, on the way, they elected to get out of the tense environs near the riot’s epicenter and buy a house in a more stable and comfortable area.
In 1968 they bought a house on Manor Street on Detroit’s Northwest Side:
That’s my childhood house with the small tree in front and chairs on the front porch. We lived there for thirteen years.
When we moved in, we were maybe the seventh or eighth black family on the block, out of about twenty homes. I do not recall any outright hostility toward us or any of the other black families on our block then, but hey, I was only 4 or 5 years old. What I do recall is that by the time I started first grade in 1970 our block was entirely black, except for the O’Gradys across the street. The O’Gradys remained on the block until about 1978, when their adult kids moved them out. Outright hostility and intimidation wasn’t something that was necessary by then. Most people knew the drill—once blacks move in, cede the ground and look elsewhere. The transformation was swift.
Unlike the neighborhoods of my grandparents, the neighborhood of my childhood home has not fallen quite as far. It is still the home of some of the neighbors I remember from nearly 40 years ago. But in part because of segregation and an overall moribund regional economy for the last half century, it has lost a certain level of demand over time. My last visit to the block was this past May. The neighborhood has remained at a weird level of stasis for a very long time; it looks exactly the same in 2018 as I remember it in 1978. The sense of stasis is reflected in the minimal appreciation in home value. My parents bought it in 1968 for $17,500 and sold it in 1981 for $36,000. Zillow’s “zestimate” for the home today is $83,765.
There was no transfer of generational wealth from my parents to me and my siblings, either.
I’m not writing this to suggest that my parents could or should have been wealthier than they are, nor am I suggesting the same for me and my siblings. In our respective careers we have all done quite well. My dad is a retired A.M.E. Church pastor who spent 41 wonderful years in the ministry. My mom had a varied career that took her from working in the drama department at the University of Detroit to community college work in Chicago’s south suburbs. My sister has been a federal government contractor in northern Virginia since the 1990s; my brother is a college psychology professor in Brooklyn. I’ve been able to carve out a planning and urbanism career in Chicago. All of us are happily married with fantastic kids. We have done well and live well.
But there are many people who have grown up with an expectation of housing value appreciation throughout their lifetimes and have taken full advantage of it. That just has not been something my family has experienced. Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Harris describes how Tatjana Meschede and Joanna Taylor, researchers at Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy, identified the role of family inheritances as one aspect of maintaining the racial wealth gap in America:
The two researchers focused specifically on inheritances among families where at least one parent has a college degree. They looked at families like this in order to test the notion that higher education is a great equalizer.
The differences that they found between black and white families were stark. “Among college-educated black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families,” Taylor said in a release announcing the new research. More specifically, white families that receive such an inheritance receive, on average, more than $150,000 from the previous generation, whereas that figure is less than $40,000 for black families.
The head start on wealth via inheritance has intergenerational repercussions. It could mean a college student has the ability to accept an unpaid internship that provides valuable work experience, without worry. It could mean repaid student debt, or no student debt at all. It could mean a down payment on a home purchase one would otherwise be unable to afford, at a relatively young age. It could mean the chance at pursuing a career passion, instead of intensely focusing on providing for self and family.
But what happens when communities are allowed to decay — due to federal, state and municipal, housing policies as well as extralegal actions taken by local white residents — to the extent that Detroit’s East Side and Inkster have? There is no chance for intergenerational transfer.
Detroit’s broader development patterns were deeply influenced by its legacy of segregation established in the aftermath of the Great Migration that brought African-Americans north from rural Southern states over the first half of the twentieth century. Early on, Detroit adopted a strategy of African-American avoidance, facilitated by its utilization of the above-mentioned policy tools but also by the real estate industry, police practices, and even mob violence in city neighborhoods. This led to Detroit becoming a bifurcated region: sprawling suburbs that thrive where the policy tools that enforced segregation were minimally used and a city that lags because it has been starved of the investment that fuels growth elsewhere. Detroit has made a remarkable rebound over the last ten years, but it still has far to go.
Let’s come back to my parents’ pleasant old house in Detroit. Again, they bought it for $17,500 in 1968, sold it for $36,000 in 1981, and it is estimated to be worth $83,765 today. It is a wonderful home, and it is as affordable as they come. However, it has appreciated at a rate less than that of inflation for fifty years. Consumer Price Index growth suggests that a home purchased in 1968 for $17,500 should have cost $43,000 in 1981, by virtue of inflation alone. And that same home would be worth $107,000 today.
These values are a far cry from the actual $36,000 sale price in 1981 and $83,765 estimate today, and even further from the real estate windfalls witnessed in other places for decades.
The urban story of the last 40 years, especially during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, has been the fantastic turnaround of many of the nation’s cities. Once left for dead, places including New York, Boston, and Washington built on their legacies and established a new foundation for growth. They have been able to transition from their earlier industrial pasts to a New Economy future based on technology, finance, education and health care. Rust Belt cities like Detroit, despite making remarkable turnarounds, have yet to shed their industrial legacies and complete the transition that others have made. Why? Most people know of global competition, manufacturing job loss, and automation as key factors. Segregation should be added to the list.
Detroit’s transformation will take the next step when it addresses its full legacy.
Featured image (at top): Barbecuing in our backyard in Detroit, sometime in 1979. Of course, my dad is taking the picture. Source: Ben Saunders
Pete Saunders is Detroit-born and raised, Hoosier-trained and Chicago-polished. Saunders has been a planner for more than 20 years now, based in Chicago working in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. He holds a bachelors in urban planning from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, and a masters in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently, he’s a planning consultant. Having long held an interest in the rise, fall, and (hopeful) revitalization of old industrial cities, Saunders blogs at the excellent The Corner Side Yard. In addition, his work has been featured in Urbanophile, Planetizen, Rust Wire, New Geography and the Atlantic Cities. He’s a regular contributor to Business Insider. His Twitter handle is @petesaunders3.
 Todd M. Michney and Ladale Winling, “New Perspectives on New Deal Housing Policy: Explicating and Mapping HOLC Loans to African Americans,” Journal of Urban History 46 no. 1 (January 2020): 165-166
 Tom Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Politics in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).