Detroit has shrunk from a peak population of two million to approximately 700,000. Last week we looked at Detroit at its apogee: today we look at its perigee.

Detroit has shrunk from a peak population of two million to approximately 700,000. Last week we looked at Detroit at its apogee: today we look at its perigee.

Two Cities

Detroit is a demographic island ringed by affluent suburbs from which they are separated on three sides by two railroads and on the south by the Detroit River.

Windsor, Canada, in view a half mile across the river is politically and culturally a nation away through the Ambassador Tunnel and across its bridge.

It is isolated by rail lines and interstate highways bringing in supplies and commuters from richer suburbs that were recipients of the businesses and workers that fled Detroit beginning about 1950.

By 1960, the middle and upper classes began fleeing to the suburbs and commuting back into Detroit over the freeways.

Inside, one is struck by the glaring contrasts between past and present. Downtown one marvels at the new Comerica Park — home of the Tigers. It and the Red Wings Hockey club are owned by Mike Ilitch, who thoughtfully retains some cheap, upper-deck seats. The Detroit Art Institute [DIA] in the Cultural Center mid-town houses a world-class collection.

Downtown a “people mover” makes a 3-mile one-way circle around the GM towers, Greektown, and several city buildings.

It serves mostly the occasional tourist, keeping them safely above city life — and muggers. It is almost solely for locals.

GM brought together a consortium of auto-related firms to buy and dismantle the city’s trolley line and replace it with busses. There is no regional public transportation system that would allow Detroit’s workers to commute to jobs in the suburbs. The city’s poor have limited choices when it come to jobs in the suburbs. [1]

Detroit has 139 square miles, 40 of which are vacant — a space that would hold Paris. One’s main impression is the stillness that comes when people move out. The second sight one sees is the intrusion of weeds, bushes, and trees around, in, and through every orifice in man-made structures. Nature abhors a vacuum.

City of Yesterday

One notices denuded, crumbling structures, survivors of architectural scavengers who come in the night. (On my daily walks from WSU through the Highland Park streets, I’d see an abandoned brick house or an auto which the next day would be a frame house and a stripped car frame on concrete blocks. What I couldn’t see was inside where anything metal — especially copper — would be gone.)

There are “tens of thousands” of stray dogs. If your car is stolen, you don’t report it, you get friends and go looking for it. Street lights are not replaced. Night is a scary time. Five of nine city council members pack weapons as do many pastors — even in the pulpit. One enterprising church created an 18-member Ministry of Defense, all packing. (One reason: A prominent pastor was robbed of his $15,000 Rolex and luxury Infinity SUV. A thief broke into another church where he was promptly shot by the pastor.)

Coming Apart

Civic culture amounting to a civil religion is unraveling. We are coming apart as a society, and the seams are class, not race. Detroit has all the fissures of class AND race which confuses the issue.

From its inception, the city was riven by racism.

Workers were brought up to Detroit from the rural South — hotbed of racial discrimination. These workers brought their prejudices with them, worked together, then went home to segregated neighborhoods. When industry moved out for a variety of valid reasons, the middle and upper classes followed, leaving the lower-classes — black and white, behind.

Charles Murray cites four “Founding virtues” of our nation that separate the classes today. Two are virtues, industriousness and honesty, and two are institutions, marriage and family and religion. Without the possibility of making an honest living capable of supporting a family, it is highly unlikely one or a couple can attain these virtues. Every aspect of life in Detroit after 1960 began to work against the poor either trying to make a living or moving out. They were stuck and their children have been more so subsequently.

In the city’s Golden Age, Detroit awarded city employees benefits comparable to the union’s. In that heyday, the city could charge taxes adequate to pay for those compensation levels and build elaborate architectural monuments. Workers bought into a false American Dream of amassing things e.g., he who dies with the most toys wins. Autos had a monopoly in global markets for a quarter century following WWII and could afford to pay union demands. America was a co-conspirator by borrowing additional purchasing power through loans from our grandchildren. Auto workers with only an eighth-grade education made more than many much better-educated workers.

Murray’s first virtue is industriousness, which calls for constant striving a la Horatio Alger novels. In today’s knowledge economy, it assumes equal opportunity through education, which their school system denies them. Higher education is priced far out their reach. Second, honesty assumes people are so inner-directed that they follow the rules willingly, by nature not monitoring and coercion. People must have unbounded respect for the law.

Third is the institution of marriage — the fundamental institution of society. The thing most distinguishing civilizations and cultures is the role of women and children. Historically, marriage was before cohabitation and children, and it was considered a permanent covenant, not a temporary liaison, and it was to be based on love not solely lust. Most of these features have been eroded and openly admitted and practiced without shame.

Religiosity is the fourth — and bedrock institution. The Protestant work ethic was changed into a civil religion through teachers, Bible reading and religious exercises in public school. For generations, McGuffey’s reader was required in most schools, and it contained numerous moral teachings. As John Adams and others opined, our Constitution was meant for a religious people who did right voluntarily.

My view is that if we lock up a group of people, deny them the possibility of earning an honest, livable wage, and many of their children are born out of wedlock and raised solely by their mothers, socialized mostly by their peers and Hollywood’s pagan programs, then we cannot expect them to rise above their present reality.


Standing beside the river and looking across to Windsor less than a mile away, one wonders how two cities so close physically and historically could be so different.

Windsor has many blacks because of its proximity to the pre-Civil War Underground Railway that ran right through what is now Greektown. There, blacks are a normal and integral part of life and the city is quite healthy.

The difference can be traced to racism in Detroit that was translated into factors destroying the four factors responsible for social class.

Detroit has little industry or tax base and an $18 billion dollar deficit. They are imploding as they try to cut their way to solvency and survival. Is Detroit a harbinger of our nation’s future?

[1] Binelli, Mark, ‘Detroit City: The Place To Be,’ NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2012, p144.

[2] Murray, Charles, ‘Coming Apart,’NY: Crown Forum, 2012.