WITH LAST WEEK'S news that Toyota had surpassed General Motors as the world's most prolific carmaker, and the coming 40th anniversaries of many of the urban riots of the 1960s, I decided to reread Thomas Sugrue?s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
First published in 1996 by Princeton University Press, and reissued two years ago, the widely acclaimed book is about the erstwhile Motor City but has broader applications; as Sugrue wrote in the original version, "Detroit's journey from urban heyday to urban crisis has been mirrored in other cities across the nation."
Equally relevant is his take on what has happened to cities of the Rust Belt and the Northeast ? a group that includes Baltimore as well as Detroit ? in the decade since his book was published.
"For folks like you and me, for folks of upper-middle-class backgrounds, cities have become much more appealing than they were," Sugrue said by telephone from Philadelphia, where he is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There are more choices in restaurants, entertainment and housing. But for the workingclass people and poor people, the improvement in urban life has been nonexistent or incremental."
Detroit's urban riots occurred in July 1967, after police raided an after-hours bar; Baltimore's in April of 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In his book, Sugrue, a native of Detroit, concluded that the genesis of the problems of abandonment and poverty so apparent in Detroit and many other cities began much earlier than most scholars realized.
"The coincidence and mutual reinforcement of race, economics and politics ? from the 1940s to the 1960s set the stage for the fiscal, social and economic crisis that confront urban America today,?" he wrote.
For example, he observed that the "rusting of the Rust Belt" began not with foreign competition of the 1970s but with the largely unnoticed movement of manufacturing jobs in the 1950s to rural areas of the Midwest and South.
The de-industrialization was occurring at the same time millions of blacks were leaving the rural South for the cities, where they faced discrimination in jobs and employment.
"The most visible and intractable manifestation of racial inequality in the postwar city was residential segregation," Sugrue wrote.
Many of the events and circumstances Sugrue described in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s had equivalents in Baltimore. The placement of public housing in poor, segregated communities and the resistance of the suburbs to public housing, for one. White opposition to neighborhood integration, for another. The practice of blockbusting, for a third.
His description of the process of neighborhood change is also pertinent: "During economic slumps, houses in predominantly black neighborhoods changed hands with alarming frequency. As a result, housing values fell, and all but the most exclusive black neighborhoods were unstable. The instability of newly black neighborhoods and the rapid deterioration of older housing stock drove many middle-class black homeowners out in search of better housing opportunities on the city?s ever-changing racial frontier."
The population of Detroit and Baltimore peaked in 1950 ? the former at 1.85 million people, the latter at just under 950,000.
But with the well-documented woes of the auto industry, Detroit's problems have been much greater. The city has lost more than half its population, compared with about a third for Baltimore. And while Baltimore?s population loss shows signs of leveling off, Detroit's continues unabated. Detroit has lost 65,000 people this decade, according to census estimates.
Sugrue said Detroit's casinos have helped generate revenue for the city but have not had much economic spillover. He said the city has had trouble creating jobs and attracting immigrants and others to live there.
"The most significant change over the last 10 years has been the increased popularity of urban living among the well-to-do and empty-nesters," he said. "That's been true in Detroit, too, but not in the same degree as Chicago, Philadelphia or NewYork.
"But if you go even to Chicago, there are large sections that still look a lot like Detroit. By and large, the forces that have gentrified downtowns have not made their ways to minority neighborhoods. Poverty, disinvestment and isolation more or less continue."
Sowhat?s a city to do?
Sugrue called expanding affordable housing "crucial." Also, he said cities must continue to support core employers, which in many cases are medical and educational institutions ? something Baltimore is doing most notably with the East Baltimore biotech park.
"They're critical not just in terms of the built environment but in terms of providing a wide range of diverse jobs," Sugrue said.