[T]he 1950s brought the first sobering inklings of crisis, and Detroit mayors for two decades made halting attempts to get ahead of it. Albert Cobo (1950-1957) formed the Dodge Committee to recommend diversifying the city’s tax base as wartime contracts dried up. Jerome Cavanagh (1962-1970) responded to falling revenue by instituting Detroit’s first income tax. Roman Gribbs (1970-1974) spearheaded an effort to revitalize downtown and Detroit’s tax base.First, the federal policies that encouraged single-family home ownership undermined the existing patterns of pre-federal involvement single-family home ownership within Detroit proper.
But two trends were undermining Detroit and the nation’s industrial centers like no foreign enemy had been able to do.
All cities spread out postwar into the farmland at their perimeters. Automakers and road builders eager to sell cars, home builders eager to sell new houses, village mayors eager for new taxes — all promoted suburban growth. So did the federal government with its subsidies and tax incentives. Eager for elbow room, families in crowded cities like Detroit and Cleveland and St. Louis began moving to the new communities. The process of spreading out hasn’t stopped yet.Whether public policies that were supposed to ameliorate that stratification actually enhanced it remains a topic for future research.
Discriminatory practices, such as redlining — denying minority buyers mortgages and access to homes in white neighborhoods — made the process in Detroit and many other cities an ugly one. Unscrupulous real estate agents encouraged white flight by stoking some whites’ fears of black people moving in next door. Rancor ran deep. Experts warned of two Americas: one privileged, suburban and white; the other poor, urban and black.
Second, the New Industrial State proved unsustainable.
Cities like Detroit and Flint that rose to power in the first half of the 20th Century were shocked to find in the second half how many factory jobs would be lost to foreign competition. Detroit auto executive Lee Iacocca once boasted that U.S. carmakers would kick their Japanese competitors back into the Pacific Ocean. He was wrong. American steelmakers learned the same hard lessons.There's plenty of blame to go around. It wasn't the Japanese or the Germans who introduced near-net-shape continuous casting or thin-slab technology that could recycle scrap into sheet suitable for washing machines. It was Nucor Steel, operating out of a small office in the South. But raising taxes on residents and businesses without providing public services commensurate with the taxes simply induces anyone who is able to flee to flee.
Even by the late 1950s, the signs of strain were showing in industrial cities. Population and housing values peaked in Detroit in the 1950s and began their long and seemingly unstoppable decline. The urban riots of the 1960s, including Detroit’s, accelerated the process.
By the 1960s, in Detroit as in city after city, the process was well under way. And mayors and civic leaders, here and elsewhere, began their long, anguished battle against decline.