Detroit’s collapse into bankruptcy has been held up by conservatives as a synecdoche for America’s future under Barack Obama. In its literal sense, this is totally wrong — Detroit’s troubles are unique in their severity. In a broader sense, though, there is some truth here. Detroit is a synecdoche for America — not America’s future, but its past.
Everything that happened in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century happened in and around Detroit, but moreso. The enormous mobilization of industry during World War II (“Detroit is winning the war,” said Joseph Stalin in 1945); that industry’s creation of the world’s first mass-affluent working class, a place where families lacking high school diplomas routinely had nice things; and finally the collapse of that economic paradise and the racialization of American politics that split the New Deal coalition.
The 1967 riots were an event so traumatic they still hovered over the city when I grew up there in the eighties. The city burned down, and kept burning for years and years. The owners of its huge stock of abandoned, worthless properties would set arson fires, usually using the cover of “Devil’s Night,” a night-before-Halloween folk holiday of pranks and vandalism that as a kid I thought was observed everywhere but turns out to be mainly a Detroit thing. The city would have hundreds of fires of Devil’s Night, up to 800 a year at its peak.