History Does Matter

— Heather Ann Thompson

I AM QUITE taken aback by Eddie Hejka’s response to my review of Tom Sugrue’s book. Until only last August (when I had to move for a teaching job) I too grew up and lived in that same "racially-mixed, predominantly African American, community-oriented safe neighborhood" that Hejka describes, called Rosedale Park.

My two boys have attended Detroit day care, elementary school and have played on Rosedale-Grandmont little league and soccer teams as well. It is probable that Hejka’s children and my children know each other and, indeed, my "personal relationships and experiences" in this wonderful neighborhood make me as optimistic as he about the future of the city.

This discussion is not, however, about my having Detroit "credentials," not is it about the Detroit of today that is experiencing dramatic rebirth. It is about trying to understand the evolution of urban America after World War II historically.

As an historian I believe that it is necessary to figure out why it was that Detroit in the 19080s topped the charts in poverty, infant mortality, etc. while its neighboring and overwhelmingly white suburbs were experiencing notable affluence.

Further, as an urban dweller who lived through the economically devastated 1980s in Detroit, a time when Rosedale homes were selling for peanuts and the community did not yet have the integrated baseball teas and soccer leagues, I am convinced that the politics of race is of paramount importance to understanding that history.

Tom Sugrue located Detroit’s devastation in the 1950s, largely in white actions and politics. I place it in the 1970s and link it to the politics and actions of both the white and Black communities. Either way, we both attempt to go beyond the relatively vague explanatory term "white flight," and examine the many complex struggles for the future of the city that played out after 1945 and determined its demographic contours.

Yes, numbers of whites stayed in the city after Coleman Young won, and yes, whites even helped to elect him. Yet it is indisputable that Detroit experienced a severe demographic and economic dislocation after 1973-and the question is why.

I argue that this was due not simply to recession, but also to the loss of the city’s tax base and its fully biracial character following the urban crisis of 1965-73. The fact that Detroit is being reborn, today in 1998, comprises a different chapter in the city’s history—one that neither Sugrue nor I was trying to address in our work as postwar urban historians.

Finally, in response to Hejka’s claim that I simplify and/or romanticize whites, Blacks and oppression, let me say that in my own book-length study of Detroit (Motor City Breakdown, forthcoming from Cornell University Press) I fully address the ideological and class complexities of Detroiters as I was unable to do in the necessarily general and brief review for ATC.

Importantly and ironically, however, it was my insistence that ideological and class differences do exist, and that they should be accounted for, that led me to write about this subject in the first place. Hejka should remember that it was the recent tendency to characterize the white community as too powerful, to portray the Black community overall as a victimized underclass, and as Ze’ev Chafets (Devil’s Night) does, to sensationalistically condemn Detroit, that I was arguing against.

ATC 74, May-June 1998