Saturday, August 7, 2010

The fate of Detroit

One thing that communities do well to avoid is becoming overly dependent on a single industry. In some cases, it's hard to avoid (places like Leaf Rapids and Elliot Lake come to mind). But it's harder to explain when it happens with a large city, and the effects are much more dramatic. The Guardian's John Kossik has some ideas about how Detroit came to be the way it is:

The auto industry has always been cyclical and, from its origins when there were over 200 different manufacturers to its currently dominant "big three", the brunt of these ups and downs has fallen on the inhabitants of the Detroit area. As the US economy went through its numerous swings, when these hit the auto industry they had significant effects on Detroit. Even in the 1950s, when the rest of America was in postwar economic euphoria, auto plants were closing in Detroit – long before the effects of globalisation were felt in the US.

Where other major cities in the US had populations of varied education and skill levels, Detroit was unique in being heavily skewed towards unskilled or low-skilled workers. The assembly line required only limited technical ability to perform highly repetitive tasks. Since Detroit was dominated by the industry (albeit converted to wartime uses during the second world war), its population was chiefly a pool of labour for the auto factories. Detroit enjoyed middle-class levels of affluence, but without middle-class levels of skills and education.

Moreover, Detroit developed traditions of workplace segregation and racial prejudice not seen in most other major industrial cities. As the economic cycles moved through the general US economy, they were intensified by the Detroit area's dependence on one industry. And these economic tensions manifested themselves in enduring racial chasms. Even today, south-eastern Michigan is one of the most racially divided areas in the US, with a black population in Detroit exceeding 80% and a white population in the surrounding suburbs exceeding 90%.

And for a look at what this has done to the city, check out these videos:

What does the future hold for a place like that? Nothing good, I fear.

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