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The mayor's history lesson

Jun 2, 2017

Earlier this week, I said words to the effect that I didn’t think many of those attending the annual Mackinac Policy Conference were doing much to relate to the average citizen.

Largely, I think I was right.

Basically, I saw politicians testing the waters, business people making connections, and journalists looking for stories. But late Wednesday afternoon, I saw an astonishing tour de force that made it all worthwhile.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave the best speech I have ever heard on how racism – institutionalized, white racism largely fostered by the federal government -- had done so much to ruin what was one of the nation’s most vibrant cities.

I never thought I’d suggest anyone go watch a speech on a YouTube video – but that’s exactly what I want you to do. Using only powerpoint slides, and no prepared script, the mayor covered in fifteen minutes what it took Thomas Sugrue hundreds of pages to do in Origins of the Urban Crisis.

I am an enormous fan of Sugrue, himself a native Detroiter. But Duggan, who clearly relied heavily on that book, was sharper, clearer, more focused, and kept his audience spellbound.

He began by saying he’d have to start by explaining how Detroit got to this point. “He’s going to give us a history lesson?” a man next to me said. But before it was over, he too was applauding vigorously.

Duggan, without rancor or recrimination, then showed what happened. The Federal Housing Administration, known as the FHA, was created in 1934, and for nearly three decades refused to back mortgages for minorities.

Nor would they make them in mixed neighborhoods. In order to make his homes eligible, one developer in 1941 actually built a half-mile long cement wall that still exists today.

If you were black, “you couldn’t even get a loan to fix up your house,” Duggan said.

During World War II, with newcomers pouring in to work in the plants, the city added a quarter of a million houses without foresight or planning. Economically, that was a fatal misstep. After the war, automakers wanted to build sprawling new one-story plants – but the city had no large tracts of land, so the new factories went to the suburbs.

Mayor Albert Cobo, an open racist, deliberately saw that the new freeways ran through Detroit’s two major black neighborhoods, displacing thousands of people who received no compensation because they had to rent, not buy.

Having explained all that, Duggan then outlined his vision for what he called “one city for all of us,” based on eight principles.

He said he wasn’t going to compete with the strip mall world of the suburbs, but create walkable “neighborhoods of density,” with everything within easy distance of residents’ homes. New development will be welcome, but not at the cost of displacing people already there. He wants to stop economic segregation, require affordable housing everywhere, and pledged a “Detroiters first” strategy when it comes to jobs.

Now this is an election year, and while few expect Duggan to have much trouble getting reelected, it is good to keep that in mind. Yet for the first time in, well, forever, Detroit has a vision for a city that works for everyone, and a dynamic leader committed to carrying it out. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.