Reynolds Farley has contributed a chapter entitled “Detroit: The emergence, decline and possible revitalization of a great city” for the August 2017 book A Twenty-First Century Approach to Community Change: Partnering to Improve Life Outcomes for Youth and Families in Under-Served Neighborhoods, edited by Paula G. Allen-Mears, Trina R. Shanks, Larry M. Grant, Leslie Doty Hollingsworth, and Patricia L. Miller.
Detroit was the world’s most important city in the 20th century. No innovation had a greater impact on where people live, work, and shop; how and where they take vacations; and how young people court than the automobile. The development of affordable, reliable vehicles that could be purchased by working families and farmers occurred in Detroit. Between the Civil War and the 1920s, the United States shifted from an agrarian to an industrial nation; most people lived in cities and the typical worker went to a factory to manufacture something. Detroit played a larger role in that shift than any other city. The modern American blue-collar middle class developed in Detroit. And by the 1950s, Detroit had the nation’s strongest and most powerful blue-collar middle class. Those workers, along with the unions that represented their interests, strongly supported the liberal Democratic Party coalition that dominated the American political scene from the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The United States and its Allies defeated potent German and Japanese armies in World War II thanks to the ingenuity of Detroit’s engineers and the strong backs and arms of several hundred thousand workers as the war effort transformed the city into a true “arsenal of democracy” (Baime, 2014).
Despite its illustrious history and its vibrant tradition as a creative center for music, arts, theater, and professional sports, Detroit went into a steep decline after World War II. It became, arguably, the most negatively stereotyped city in the nation, with a reputation for crime, abandoned homes and factories, vast vacant spaces that were once prosperous neighborhoods, and corrupt politicians. In 2013, Detroit became the largest city in United States’ history to enter bankruptcy. This chapter summarizes Detroit’s fall into bankruptcy and the many current efforts to revitalize it.