- The Urban Crisis As History
In recent years, both popular and scholarly understanding of urban racial conditions have been dominated by the “underclass” thesis of sociologist William Julius Wilson. Relying heavily upon statistical data on employment, crime, and family composition, Wilson argued that the black, inner city poor have become increasingly isolated from white society and middle-class blacks since the 1960s, a trend he found to be more the result of suburbanization, the decline of manufacturing jobs, and other structural factors than the consequence of continuing racial discrimination. While acknowledging the problems of racism and segregation in the North prior to 1960, Wilson nevertheless contrasted the 1945–1960 period favorably with the deteriorating circumstances of the black poor in more recent decades. 1
Thomas J. Sugrue brings a much needed historical perspective to the underclass thesis, demonstrating conclusively that many of the problems of racial and class division that mar today’s postindustrial city existed much earlier, and were far more complex, than Wilson’s rather abstract account contends. That alone would make this volume invaluable. But it does much more. Superbly researched and engagingly written, The Origins of the Urban Crisis provides the first significant model that surveys the evolution of the troubled postwar American industrial metropolis by studying it largely from the bottom up.
The main axes around which Sugrue fashions his history are housing and economics. In both cases, he is one of a growing number of scholars who sees the 1940s as a formative period in social and economic history. During World War II, both African Americans and white Appalachian migrants flooded into [End Page 667] the Motor City to meet the sudden demand for industrial labor generated by the war effort. The conflict over housing that developed as a consequence, however, did not affect whites and blacks equally. Only with great difficulty did black Detroiters escape the ironically named Paradise Valley ghetto, and when they did so they often had to surmount numerous obstacles and fierce white resistance. Blatantly biased real estate companies, exclusionary racial covenants, and the discriminatory policies of banks and the Federal Housing Administration were major roadblocks to equal access to housing.
If these failed, white homeowners in neighborhoods adjacent to ghetto areas established “neighborhood associations.” Allied with real estate dealers and sympathetic white politicians, these groups used legal maneuvers, pressure tactics and, sometimes, violence to prevent integration. Beginning during World War II, whites also staunchly opposed the construction of integrated public housing in previously all-white neighborhoods, and a conservative mayor, Albert Cobo, responded by vetoing most public housing projects. Urban redevelopment and highway construction often forced the eviction of poor black tenants from their dilapidated dwellings, but little effort was made to relocate them. As a consequence of these policies, black residential areas expanded slowly; crowded, inadequate shelter remained the norm for most black Detroiters throughout the postwar era.
Sugrue’s discussion of race and housing builds upon the earlier, path-breaking works of Kenneth Jackson, Ronald Bayor, Arnold Hirsch, and others. 2 What makes his case study distinctive is his placement of housing in the broad context of economic change. Detroit in the 1950s, Sugrue demonstrates, was already beginning to undergo the process of economic decline and deindustrialization often mistakenly associated exclusively with the post-1970 period. Detroit lost 134,000 jobs between 1947 and 1963 as a result of automation and the movement of auto production to new plants in the suburbs or small cities outside the state. But while many workers felt the impact of economic change, “[p]ersistent racial discrimination magnified the effects of deindustrialization on blacks” (p. 144). Until the early 1950s, blacks made rapid gains in auto employment, but mostly at the unskilled or semi-skilled level. In smaller or...