The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 28, 2012

Lessons from a drive through Detroit

September 28, 2012

When we hear about Detroit in the news these days, it epitomizes the failure of a once prosperous American city—homes and businesses vacated, neighborhoods emptied out, public schools failing, and elected officials under criminal investigation.

Between 1960 and 1990, many big cities across the United States suffered from declining population, disinvestment, and distress. Detroit didn’t seem all that unusual. But beginning in the 1990s, a lot of cities enjoyed remarkable turnarounds—assuming new roles in their regions’ economies, attracting new residents and investment, applying new models of civic engagement and effective governance.

Detroit wasn’t one of them. It continued to lose population, jobs, and investment. And today, on too many indicators of economic security and equity, the metropolitan region as a whole receives failing grades.

To explain what went wrong, George Galster, a child of Detroit who cares deeply about this city, has given us Driving Detroit, drawing upon history, sociology, and economics, as well as music, poetry, and the visual arts to tell a compelling story. He argues—persuasively I think—that bitter, unresolved conflicts between whites and blacks, labor and capital, city and suburbs have trapped the region in a zero-sum game, undermining the prospects of its residents and their communities.

If you’re interested in urban America today, this is a book worth reading because the conflicts bedeviling Detroit are by no means unique.

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