Michigan 14th District
Detroit’s early auto factories—Packard, Hudson, Ford Highland Park, Dodge Main, Briggs, Ford Rouge, Cadillac, Kelsey-Hayes, Chrysler, Plymouth, DeSoto—were built between 1905 and 1925 about five miles from the city’s center and at the edge of urban development. Almost instantly the flat farmlands all around were platted in grid streets and filled with wooden bungalows and brick prairie-style houses, often with a driveway at the side and a single elm in the front. Commercial strips lined the mile-square and radial main streets, stretching straight as far as the eye could see. Detroit’s neighborhoods filled up with factory workers and civil servants, professionals and maintenance men, corner-store owners and management personnel, Catholics and Protestants and Jews: a middle-class melting pot. With one exception—Detroit in those days had few blacks; they did not begin their big migration here from Alabama and the rest of the South until around 1940, when defense plants began hiring African-Americans in large numbers.
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The history of black Detroit is one of conflict and uplift, inspiration and tragedy. The wartime mixture of Appalachian mountain whites and Deep South blacks in Detroit proved volatile, resulting in a violent race riot in June 1943. During the war years, blacks were pent up in a few severely overcrowded neighborhoods like the Black Bottom, most of it now covered by the Chrysler Freeway. After 1945, when African-Americans began moving outward, real estate agents played on racial fears, and in the 1950s, whole square miles of Detroit changed racial composition in a matter of months. In the 1960s, there was hope that the civil rights movement, encouraged by Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers union, and antipoverty programs would improve blacks’ fortunes, and in fact many black Detroiters found good jobs and made good incomes, bought their own homes and built community institutions. Then came the riot of July 1967, followed by extensive white flight and terrible increases in crime. Detroit’s first black mayor, Democrat Coleman Young, elected in 1973, responded with policies that may have seemed appropriate in the 1960s but had disastrous results in the 1970s and 1980s: He pressured major employers like the Big Three auto companies to build facilities in Detroit, raised taxes to support a vast army of city employees, and attributed city problems to white racism. Violent crime became a part of everyday life, and arson became common.
Detroit took on a garrison atmosphere. Crime reduced the value of residential real estate to near zero, and the city’s population dropped from 1.7 million in 1960 to 919,000 in 2007. In political dialogue, most black politicians called for an ever-increasing public sector. Yet the existing public sector, which took a larger share of residents’ income than almost anywhere else in the country, served citizens poorly. Turnaround came agonizingly late in the 1990s, when Democratic Mayor Dennis Archer, elected in 1993, worked to fight crime and encourage private-sector growth. Incomes rose, and the median housing value doubled from $32,000 to $63,000. But the city has remained in decline by almost any measure, from the high rate of home foreclosures and to the low achievement of students in public schools.
The 14th Congressional District of Michigan consists of nearly half of Detroit, with the exception of the downtown area and some disparate suburbs. Its part of Detroit is north and west of where the old auto plants were built and is mostly residential—square mile after square mile of grid streets, some always working class, some middle-class, a few upscale, such as Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Rosedale Park. In most of them, abandoned houses and empty lots are commonplace, and yet in many neighborhoods, residents struggle to maintain their houses and patrol their streets. Commercial frontage on Detroit’s straight-line avenues is still patchy and often vacant. Politically, this is one of the most Democratic districts in the United States.
The suburbs of the 14th are diverse. Highland Park is like much of Detroit; Hamtramck still retains the flavor of its original Polish immigrants (on Fat Tuesday, this is where to find the best paczki), who made it America’s fastest-growing city in 1910-20. It had 56,000 people in 1930 but only 21,000 in 2007. The 14th District now includes most of Dearborn, including the Ford headquarters, the Ford Rouge plant and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. It is known today as the home of the nation’s largest Arab-American community, with 30% of residents claiming Arab ancestry, among them Lebanese, Iraqis and Yemenis. From Dearborn, the district extends south, to take in the working-class suburbs of Melvindale, Allen Park, Southgate, Riverview, Trenton, and Gibraltar.