Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Origins of the Urban Crisis

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Thomas J. Sugrue
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 432
  • Book Info
    The Origins of the Urban Crisis
    Book Description:

    Once America's "arsenal of democracy," Detroit is now the symbol of the American urban crisis. In this reappraisal of America's racial and economic inequalities, Thomas Sugrue asks why Detroit and other industrial cities have become the sites of persistent racialized poverty. He challenges the conventional wisdom that urban decline is the product of the social programs and racial fissures of the 1960s. Weaving together the history of workplaces, unions, civil rights groups, political organizations, and real estate agencies, Sugrue finds the roots of today's urban poverty in a hidden history of racial violence, discrimination, and deindustrialization that reshaped the American urban landscape after World War II.

    This Princeton Classics edition includes a new preface by Sugrue, discussing the lasting impact of the postwar transformation on urban America and the chronic issues leading to Detroit's bankruptcy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5121-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  5. Preface to the Princeton Classics Edition
    (pp. xv-xxxi)
  6. Preface to the 2005 Paperback Edition
    (pp. xxxiii-l)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. li-1)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    The story I tell is one of a city transformed. In the 1940s, Detroit was America’s “arsenal of democracy,” one of the nation’s fastest growing boomtowns and home to the highest-paid blue-collar workers in the United States. Today, the city is plagued by joblessness, concentrated poverty, physical decay, and racial isolation. Since 1950, Detroit has lost nearly a million people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Vast areas of the city, once teeming with life, now stand abandoned. Prairie grass and flocks of pheasants have reclaimed what was, only fifty years ago, the most densely populated section of the city....


    • 1 “Arsenal of Democracy”
      (pp. 17-31)

      In 1927, Charles Sheeler photographed the Ford Motor Company’s enormous River Rouge plant. His most famous print depicts two starkly angular conveyor belts that transported coal into the power plant. In the background piercing the sky are eight tall, narrow smokestacks. Sheeler’s striking image revealed the might of Detroit’s industry, and did so by portraying only one small section of an industrial complex that consisted of nineteen separate buildings covering more than two square miles. The Rouge included a manmade harbor for Great Lakes coal and iron barges, the largest foundry in the world, and ninety-two miles of railroad track....

    • 2 “Detroit’s Time Bomb”: Race and Housing in the 1940s
      (pp. 33-55)

      In 1949, an unknown African American woman named Ethel Johnson wrote a short letter to Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams. She recounted the difficulty of finding rental housing for her family, and described the substandard house she lived in. “My husband, baby and I sleep in the living room. When it rain or snow it leap through the roof. Because of the dampnes of the house my baby have a bad cold. We have try very hard to fine a place, and every where we go we have been turn down because of my baby.” The same year, Donald Stallings,...

    • 3 “The Coffin of Peace”: The Containment of Public Housing
      (pp. 57-88)

      In September 1945, veteran Charles Johnson returned to Detroit from service in the Pacific, hoping to make a life for himself and his family in the booming city. Johnson arrived at a particularly difficult time, especially for African Americans like himself. Tens of thousands of returning veterans put pressure on a housing market that could not even absorb the thousands of defense workers who had migrated to the city during the war. The small apartment buildings and houses in Detroit’s black neighborhoods were bursting with tenants. Johnson found a temporary apartment on the West Side. He hoped that, like other...


    • 4 “The Meanest and Dirtiest Jobs”: The Structures of Employment Discrimination
      (pp. 91-123)

      In March 1948, Joseph Mays, an unemployed African American, joined the line in front of the employment office at Dodge Main, Chrysler Corporation’s flagship plant. Laid off from a welding job when the Fruehauf Trailer Company downsized its Detroit plant, Mays saw an ad that Chrysler had put in all three Detroit daily newspapers: “Wanted: Die Makers, Template Makers, Machine Operators, Assemblers, Production Workers, Dodge Main Plant, 7900 Jos. Campau.” Mays was confident that he would be hired right away. Production at Dodge Main was booming and the plant was hiring hundreds of workers a day. And Mays came with...

    • 5 “The Damning Mark of False Prosperities”: The Deindustrialization of Detroit
      (pp. 125-152)

      The intersection of Grand Boulevard, John R Street, and the Milwaukee and Junction Railroad, just four miles north of downtown Detroit, seemed the heartbeat of the industrial metropolis in the 1940s.Within a two-squaremile area extending along the Grand Trunk and Michigan Central railroads was one of the most remarkable concentrations of industry in the United States. To the north was Detroit’s second largest automobile factory, Dodge Main, which employed over thirty-five thousand workers in a five-story factory building with over 4.5 million square feet of floor space. Studebaker had a plant at the corner of Piquette Avenue and Brush where...

    • 6 “Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work”: Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination
      (pp. 153-178)

      On Labor Day 1951, the national economy was running at a feverish pitch. The atmosphere at Detroit’s annual Labor Day parade was celebratory. Auto workers, machinists, chemical workers, building tradesmen, bus drivers, and a myriad of other laborers thronged Woodward Avenue waving American flags, singing union songs, cheering lustily at Miss CIO, and roaring to applaud Michigan’s popular Democratic governor G. Mennen Williams. Capturing the mood of optimism was the parade’s prize-winning float, a glistening metallic horn of plenty built by members of two Sheet Metal Workers locals. Not everyone was in a festive mood, however. The parade’s largest contingent,...


    • 7 Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit
      (pp. 181-207)

      The scene was tense with drama. The place was the Wayne County Circuit Court in May 1945. The case was a civil suit against a middle-class black couple who had bought a house in an all-white West Side neighborhood. The defendants, Minnie and Orsel McGhee, were upwardly mobile, better off than most Detroit blacks at the end of World War II. She was one of Detroit’s two hundred black school teachers, he was a relatively well-paid automobile worker. The plaintiffs were Benjamin and Anna Sipes and other members of the Northwest Civic Association. With the assistance of the NAACP and...

    • 8 “Homeowners’ Rights”: White Resistance and the Rise of Antiliberalism
      (pp. 209-229)

      Tens of thousands of white Detroiters rebelled against the open housing movement in the 1950s and 1960s. One of their leaders was a local lawyer and Democratic party activist, Thomas Poindexter. A tall, heavy-set man with flaming red hair and a deep, booming voice, Poindexter made a first try for political office in 1954, running for an open congressional seat against popular party regular Martha Griffiths. An economic populist, Poindexter argued “that the government has the power and responsibility to see that there is a job for every man who wants to work.” He was one of the few politicians...

    • 9 “United Communities Are Impregnable”: Violence and the Color Line
      (pp. 231-258)

      Life was good for Easby Wilson in the spring of 1955. The city was in a recession, but Wilson was still steadily employed on the day shift at the Dodge Main plant. At a time when many of his fellow black workers were being laid off, Wilson was lucky. He had saved enough money so that he, his wife, and their five-year-old son could move from the crowded and rundown Paradise Valley area to the quiet, leafy neighborhood around the Courville School on Detroit’s Northeast Side. The Courville area was popular with Dodge Main workers because it was affordable, attractive,...

  12. Conclusion. Crisis: Detroit and the Fate of Postindustrial America
    (pp. 259-272)

    In late July 1967, one of the most brutal riots in American history swept through Detroit. On July 23, 1967, in the middle of a summer heat wave, the police decided to bust a “blind pig,” an illegal after-hours saloon on Twelfth Street in the center of one of Detroit’s largest black neighborhoods. Arrests for illegal drinking were common in Detroit, but usually the police dispersed the crowd and arrested a handful of owners and patrons, taking the names of the remainder. On the steamy July night, they decided to arrest all eighty-five people present and detained them—hot, drunk,...

  13. Appendixes

    • Appendix A Index of Dissimilarity, Blacks and Whites in Major American Cities, 1940–1990
      (pp. 273-274)
    • Appendix B African American Occupational Structure in Detroit, 1940–1970
      (pp. 275-278)
  14. List of Abbreviations in the Notes
    (pp. 279-280)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 281-364)
  16. Index
    (pp. 365-376)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 377-378)