The Full Story of Detroit's Decline: The Shunning

The decline of Detroit can't be completely explained by the decline of the U.S. auto industry, according to an editorial commemorating the 50th anniversary of a five-day period of rioting and protest that resonates to this day. ... Though Saunders acknowledges that the shunning has ended, there is still a great deal of skepticism about the city's ongoing recovery.1

Detroit has finally become able to move on from the specter of the unrest.  The city’s long era of ostracization is over, and it’s slowly reconnecting with the family of cities in America and around the world.

Some call what started in Detroit in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967 a riot; others call it a rebellion or uprising.  People on either side of the terminology debate have reasons for their preferred terms.  However, what’s far less in doubt, yet hardly even acknowledged, is the impact of those days of disturbance on the future of the city.  ... This is what shunning looks like.  Fearful city residents hear newly elected mayor Coleman Young issue a warning to criminals to “hit 8 Mile Road” (a euphemism for getting out of the city), and interpreting that either as an unleashing of criminals on suburbia, or a warning for whites themselves to leave the city.  Unscrupulous real estate practices fanned the flames of fear, urging people to sell – now – to salvage whatever you can in property value.  The city and suburbs can’t coexist on things such as regional transit policy, leading to a disjointed, dual regional transit system where city buses never cross the city limits and suburban buses head straight downtown without ever picking up potential riders in the city.  Suburban leaders like Oakland County Executive L. 


Shunning had a tangible impact.  Property values in the city, in 2013 dollars, dropped by 67% between 1960 and 1980, due to the exodus of city residents and businesses and ensuing abandonment and compromising the city’s ability to provide services for remaining residents.  Narratives center on Detroit’s population loss over time, from 1.8 million in 1950 to about 670,000 today.  People talk of what to do with Detroit’s vast acres of abandonment, while neglecting the fact that in 2010 Detroit still had a higher overall population density (5,144 people per square mile) than Houston (3,501), Dallas (3,518), San Diego (4,020), Denver (3,923), Portland (4,375), or Atlanta (3,154).


Detroit’s number of white residents dropped 93 percent between 1970 and 2010, from 839,000 to 56,000.  Ninety-three percent.

There are those who will say that I’m putting too much on the backs of Detroit’s past and current white residents.  That I’m singularly implicating whites in Detroit’s fall from grace, absolving Detroit’s black majority of any failure to revitalize the city, and being overly celebratory as Detroit’s rebound occurs at precisely the time whites return in growing numbers.  But can anyone describe how a city is supposed to rise from the ashes when so many people say, “good riddance”?  In the latter half of the 20th century, blacks were newcomers to Detroit and disconnected from the economic and social networks that made the city work.  How were blacks supposed to restore the city when those networks fractured, before they were even able to understand and utilize them?