Why did Detroit decline relative to Chicago and Toronto?

This question was inspired by an article by Richard Florida (the “creative class” guy) in the March '09 issue of The Atlantic magazine. The article is about possible changes to the US resulting from the economic crisis.

In it he mentions that the average house price in Detroit is $18,513 (on page 52). I remember reading that Detroit has vast areas within the city limits that are essentially abandoned, so much so that people are considering bulldozing the abandoned houses there and farming them (which may make Detroit a survivor if fuel prices increase greatly). I worked in the suburbs of Detroit for three months in '89-'90 and my co-workers talked about the riots in the sixties, which even then left a deep impression.

Compare Detroit to Chicago and Toronto. All three are Great Lakes cities, fairly close together, and in the same climate zone. All three are large, with many surrounding satellite suburban cities. All have or have had local culture. Motown music, anyone?

My impression is that many more people left for the suburbs from downtown Detroit than from Chicago, then downtown business collapsed. Is this true? I remember reading that Detroit never got a subway system in the middle of the twentieth century. Why?

I don’t know whether Detroit has commuter trains; I see that Amtrak does stop there. However, when I took the train from Toronto to Chicago, it went through Sarnia/Port Huron and avoided Detroit.

So what’s the deal with Detroit? Why did it decline so much relative to nearby large cities? Or has it?

Detroit once had commuter trains. They ceased to exist with the rise of the auto industry. There have been many proposals to put them back in place since then, but none have gotten very far. Recently, there was an increased conversation about a route between Ann Arbor & Detroit.

Amtrak goes through Port Huron / Sarnia on the route from Toronto to Chicago because going through Windsor would take longer just as it does when you drive. It has nothing to do with Amtrak like or dislike of a city.

Just a guess but Detriot’s thing is cars! cars! cars! (and trucks!)

Why would you install a subway in the motor city?

Now the car companies are having trouble selling those cars and the bottom row of the house of cards is suddenly missing.

Maybe over simplistic but that’s my assessment of it as a Michigan native.

I’m pretty sure that two of the major factors were Detroit’s heavy reliance on the auto industry and white flight after the riots, the busing, and the election of Coleman Young.

That route is actually shorter? I’m surprised. I thought that the larger number of potential passengers in Detroit would have led to the train going through Detroit. Hmm.

Well, it’s all theoretical now, anyways… as far as I can tell, there is no longer international service from Toronto to Chicago. You can take a train from Toronto to Sarnia; you can take one from Port Huron to Chicago. But they don’t connect.

Detroit’s dependence on the auto industry makes it a classic economic boom and bust area. When the auto industry was strong (as it was for many, many, many years) Detroit and its suburbs, thrived. When the industry started to weaken in the 1970s, the whole area started to go to hell.

Granted the city of Detroit has its own set of problems, but again, they were exacerbated by the economic problems associated with the decline of the auto industry.

I travel through the Midwest a lot, and you can see the same thing in a lot of smaller cities that were heavily dependent on auto-related manufacturing: Toledo and Springfield in Ohio, Ft.Wayne and Muncie in Indiana, Rockford, Illinois and of course, Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The political influence of the big three stopped Detroit from getting a subway. The plans were all drawn up. The same pressures ended up with us ripping up our electric streetcar system. We had tracks in the middle of the streets and it was a nonpolluting system.
Detroit has suffered from terrible governance for the last 40 years or so. The system was like a microcosm of the repub admin the last few years. It rewarded its friends and looted the citizens. It set up friends and friends companies . Nobody has faith that anything will get done without graft. You can’t trust the police or the politicians. We talk about how you hire the cities designated company to advise you on a contract. They charge a ton and then you are assured of getting the deal signed.

But wasn’t that pretty much characteristic of any large city in the American Northeast or Midwest that was (or–in the case of Chicago–still is) run by a political machine? In fact, some of the cities that had those same problems you described still managed to function fairly well. However, as has been already stated in this thread, Detroit is different because of its overdependence on the American auto industry. Once that started to decline, the city followed in quick order.

You actually have to go back prior to the 1967 riots, (and take in more information), for a complete picture.

Chicago is a transporation hub, a financial center, (earlier) a meat-processing center, and a number of other things. Detroit has always been a manufacturing center, so it should be more closely compared to Cleveland, Buffalo, Gary, and similar places. When the auto industry took over, it also trended into a bit of a manufacturing monoculture, making it more susceptible to single-industry issues. (Southeast Michigan used to have a fair amount of shipbuilding, but Great Lakes shipbuilding has fallen off and steel was always scattered across the other cities I named without really settling in Detroit. The region also had a fair amount of chemical manufacturing, but not enough to offset auto industry domination and little of it was in the city of Detroit.)

The manufacturing basis meant that it was a location that drew many people from the South in the early 20th century, becoming a huge magnet during WWII. This included an incendiary mixture of blacks and whites from the South. (I have never heard what sort of migration landed in Gary and Buffalo, but the white Kentuckians who wound up in Detroit seemed to have more conflict with blacks than the West Virginians who wound up in Cleveland.) This led directly to the first major riot in Detroit in 1943, in which whites, (mostly immigrants from Kentucky), took to the streets to prevent blacks from being allowed into “white” government housing for the manufacturing plants. Some memories of that riot probably played a role in hastening the “white flight” from the city in the 1950s and 1960s, but it certainly played a role in the memories of blacks. When the racial conflicts of the 1960s began, Detroit was ripe for the sort of violence that also claimed Cleveland and Gary, and on a much smaller scale, Buffalo, but lingering resentment fanned the Detroit incident into a full-fledged disaster. Following that, “white flight” became an utter exodus, taking far too much of the tax base with it, further strapping the city for future efforts at rebuilding.

With the city tied so closely to the car companies, the downturn in that industry that began in the 1970s further hampered any recovery–a downturn that did not affect the three-times larger and much more diversified Chicago nearly as much. Again, comparisons to Cleveland and Buffalo show more similarities, although the steel industry was not as badly hurt and gave those cities a slightly better opportunity to survive. In addition, the riots in those cities were significantly smaller, contained more quickly, and did not result in wholesale exodus, so that there remained/remains a somewhat better tax base on which to attempt recovery.

Also, Chicago has always been a city of neighborhoods. Millions of people who work in Chicago also live in the neighborhoods of Chicago. Many people who work in the suburbs also choose to live in the city. I grew up in the burbs and moved to the city in 1982 when I got my first job out of college. I have never once thought of moving back out to the suburbs.

I wondered whether Detroit had too much of an industrial monoculture… I grew up in Whitby and lived in Oshawa for a time and know what having The Motors dominating the city is like. Which is why I was in Detroit–I was sent to the headquarters of the company I worked for in Oshawa. It sold welders to GM. Oshawa now is hollowing out, and if it was by itself, it would have huge problems. But it’s just a satellite of Toronto, and Toronto has so many other sectors–everything from movies to biomedical research to banking–that one can take a hit without bringing the whole area down.

What is considered Detroit’s peak?

Chicago is famously corrupt, and Toronto is infamous for the ineptitude of its city government. Certainly, in the case of Toronto, it is almost universally understood that the city is livable and productive in spite of its government, not because of it.

I’d have to agree with the consensus that Detroit was simply a bit too dependent on industry. It doesn’t remind me of Chicago at all; it reminds me of Buffalo, another city that’s not doing all that great. Towns and cities have rotted and even disappeared for that very reason. Chicago and Toronto have always been very diverse in their array of businesses.

Why didn’t Detroit ever diversify? Auto jobs soak up all the labors and keep other industries out?

I hope not. The corruption in Detroit was kind amateurish. They did not hide it well.and did not know when to stop. They took funding from everything. They school system supply offices and warehouses were looted over and over. The police worked against the people . We pay 3 million a year for lawsuits against cops.

It seems to be human nature to take the easy path. Cars were easy, REAL easy, TOO easy, for most of the 20th century.

Chicago, OTOH, has been diversified for a long time. From the 1840s on it was a transportation hub. All roads may not lead to Rome, but an awful lot of railroads lead to Chicago, and from there the choice was via another railroad, a ship on the Great Lakes, or on a barge down one of its canals to the Mississippi. That made it a natural center for food distribution, so it got the meat packeries and the commodity exchange, and that made it a financial center.

Without turning this into a Bash Unions thread, or a Love Unions thread, they certainly played a role in the Decline and Fall of Detroit. Apart from any wage issues, unions were like a second management for many firms (and not just in Detroit - much of the region had the same problem). Companies after the 60’s started looking upon them like they were just more trouble than they were worth, and opted for areas where the unions weren’t as strong.

In the end, I don’t think it was so much the wages that were the issue as the control. Businesses, as weve seen over the years, must grow, change, and adapt. It sometimes means firing a lot of poeple just to survive. Unionized businesses have a very hard time with that; they just haven’t been as flexible.

This is really a reason-for-the-reason of Detroits demise, though.

But Chicago and Toronto also had unionized industries. I don’t think unions themselves are enough of a differentiating factor. I’m also leaning towards diversity of industry making the difference. What’s Chicago like for things like research hospitals and the electronics industry?

Kind of, yes. The auto makers do employ A LOT of people and support auto suppliers that also employ a lot of people. According to Wikipedia, GM and Ford are the 11th and 13th largest companies by revenue in the world, even in their tough times. Most of the companies larger them out are US and European oil and gas corporations. So it was so fiendishly easy for them to dominate Detroit and the area around it.

The state is doing what little it can to diversify the industry in the area, but there is nothing out there like the auto industry to fill the gap. Even in Detroit were to rebound, it will still be smaller than it was in the 1950’s. That probably goes for the rest of Michigan as well.

Ahh I see. So it just happened that way, Chicago never made any attempts to diversify, neither did Detroit successfully so it was luck of the draw. Chicago pulled three 7s and Detroit pulled a 1, a 5, the joker, and an uno wild draw two card.

Yea I kind of wonder what Michigan will be like a in few years. Will we empty out or will we find alternative means? To quote Picard, turn the page.