Detroit: A Biography

Living in Detroit

I’m always interested in the history of movements, places, and institutions, so after we moved to Detroit, I really wanted to learn more about the city. I grew up in the suburbs and had a very limited understanding of Detroit, as I think many suburban Detroiters do. So, I picked up “Detroit: A Biography” by journalist Scott Martelle.

One topic I was most interested in was race relations within the city. By reading the book, I learned that race relations and riots in Detroit are nearly as old as the city itself. It seems obvious now, but I hadn’t realized that the issue was very present and very contentious long before the infamous 1967 riots (or “rebellion” as Martelle explained that some Detroiters call it).

Many of us might like to think that race is no longer an issue in Detroit (or anywhere else), but it clearly is. Martelle cites one study with surprising results. In a chapter dedicated to land covenants (documents that forbid the sales of homes to African Americans), Martelle discusses a study by the University of Michigan and the Institute for Social Research that was completed in 2004. Martelle wrote:

“Three-quarters of the whites said they’d move into a neighborhood in which blacks accounted for less than 20 percent of the residents, but only half would move into a neighborhood if the black proportion rose to one-third. If a neighborhood was more than half black, less than a third of whites said they would be likely to move in. Blacks, though, were most likely to move into a neighborhood that was evenly split, and less likely to move into predominately white or predominately black neighborhoods. So, in broad terms, black home owners were seeking new neighborhoods in which there was a racial balance. But once that balance was achieved, the neighborhoods became less attractive to whites, who one can presume, then began moving out.”

This study was done only nine years ago, and it’s sad to think these attitudes still prevail.

Another highlight of the book, was Martelle’s interviews with individual Detroiters. His conversations with them demonstrated how diverse the Detroit experience can be. If you’re interested in Detroit, please check out “Detroit: A Biography.”

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