I remember riding in an Army truck with 15 other National Guardsmen that had spent a July night on fire duty in Detroit. It was late July, 1967 and one of the guys leaned over and said to me, “you know this City is never going to be the same.” I replied, “You are absolutely right as we have seen a door close and are heading down a path for which there is no going back.” How prophetic!
As I picked up yesterday’s paper, I couldn’t help but remember that night. Now, 44 years later, the City of Detroit is but a shadow of what it was. It did seem that after that July/August of 1967, things never were quite the same in Detroit. The population movement out of the City began and never seemed to really let up. The retail and food industry stayed for a while in Detroit but, with the development of the suburban malls, there was a definite trend to the “directional” malls of Northland, Eastland, and eventually Westland.
I am often asked, “Do you think that Detroit will come back?” My answer is always yes, but I have to qualify my answer. I don’t think Detroit or any city will ever reflect the times that existed during the 50’s and 60’s. General Motors will never be the force in the auto industry that is was in the mid 50’s when they had the lion’s share of just about every car and truck market in the United States. Back then, Detroit had just built the tanks, planes and trucks that had helped win World War II. The Motor City had an industrial base without equal anywhere else in the world. Our departmental stores were the envy of every city in the Midwest. As hard as it is to believe, there was a time when more American automobiles drove down our roads than foreign cars and many of these popular cars were made here in Detroit – Studebaker, Nash, and Packard to name just a few. Even the mighty Motown Sound headed west. Now, we have moved to a twenty-first century service industry and the old plants set vacant and idle reflecting a bygone time.
We should not be surprised at the population decline in the city. For years, Detroit did all it could to tear down and demolish thousands of homes and buildings. The city’s leaders must have known that their tax base was eroding as literally nothing new was being built to replace these homes and businesses. Just the other day came the announcement that leaders had planned to demolish Ford Auditorium with no plans to build anything in its place. Was it not the same for Tiger Stadium, Olympia, and sadly although it still stands, Grand Central Station?
The sad decline in the number of Detroit Public School (DPS) children that has declined steadily since the year 2000 should have been another indication. Estimates are that the school population around the year 2000 was in the area of 163,000 students. Today, DPS is struggling to forecast where the student count will be this Fall, but again estimates are in the range of 76,000 to 80,000 children. True some of these children will be reflected in Charter schools within the city, but the added enrollment from Charter schools does not come close to the number of lost students.
Year ago, there was a certain stability that existed in the City of Detroit. My sister went to a Catholic school in the city for 12 years, something almost non-existent today. Actually, she went to the same school for 13 years if you include kindergarten. My grandfather worked for a firm called Budd Wheel. I can’t remember him ever working anywhere else. My aunt worked for the J. L. Hudson Department Store and retired after 37 years. Back in those days if you were a part of Detroit, it seems that you had no reason to ever leave. As I finished school, I caught the end of some of the landmarks in Detroit: Stroh’s Beer, Sanders Ice Cream, and riding on one of the two Boblo Boats. Now, I have a hard time in certain areas of Detroit in finding my way around. All the land marks that I knew are gone. One thing for certain, the future City of Detroit will have plenty of land to develop.
Detroit needs an influx of new young people who will invest in the city. The City of Detroit needs people to build homes and live where my parents and their parents used to live. Once this starts, supermarkets will open, businesses will be built and the sad exodus of population leaving Detroit will reverse itself. Until that happens, the busloads of people that have left the city everyday for the last 10 years will continue!