A post-war tale of two cities

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 12:11 PM

Reading the past couple of weeks of about Detroit’s bankruptcy has been a depressing experience.
Detroit, of course, once was one of the major cities in the United States, its auto industry a colossus astride the world’s markets, its recording industry influencing popular culture, its arts organizations respected widely, its middle-class prosperity a hallmark.
I don’t have much personal familiarity with Detroit. Because I worked for Knight Ridder Newspapers for 17 years, and because Detroit was a major newspaper in that group, I had a number of professional contacts. On my single trip there, in the 1980s, I visited some of them, saw a downtown that then was enjoying one of its erratic resurgences and had some great food in Greektown. 
Even then, the city’s declining fortunes were giving my colleagues at the Free Press what turned out to be a preview of the devastating onslaught the entire media industry would eventually feel.
All of that – plus memories of Detroit’s pivotal role in the urban riots of the 1960s – had me looking with more than casual interest at the unfolding bankruptcy. And it prompted me to take a look at the changes in our area while once-proud Detroit was tanking.
Consider this: It’s the immediate aftermath of World War II, Detroit having seen a final surge of the growth that propelled it through the first half of the 20th century. The city’s population in 1950 was about 1.85 million; it was the fifth largest city in the United States.
In sleepy central North Carolina, the tobacco-and-textile town of Durham had 71,311 people in the 1950 census. Interestingly, we were larger at that point than Raleigh, with its 65,179 people.
Oversimplifying a bit, the manufacturing heft of Durham outpointed a city resting on state government  -- much smaller then -- and N. C. State University, long known by the nickname “cow college” that described its agricultural-school, land-grant roots.
Today, financially collapsed Detroit’s population is down to around 700,000 – not far ahead of Raleigh with 423,000 folks. There’s no reason to believe Raleigh’s growth or Detroit’s decline will change soon, so there’s a decent chance Raleigh will outstrip the Motor City within a couple of decades.
Here’s another perspective on the changes – when I was born, Detroit was 26 times the size of Durham. Today, it’s about three times the size.
In exaggerated form, this tale of two cities is the arc of the Sun Belt and Rust Belt in the past several decades. Detroit, it should be noted, suffered not just from economic calamity but also from decades of poor political choices and municipal mismanagement.
But its decline began and accelerated as the heavy manufacturing that powered Northeastern and Midwestern cities disappeared in the face of technology changes and lower-cost competition. Ironically, that lower-cost competition first was in the South and powered Sun Belt growth, but we’ve seen that manufacturing keep moving in search of even cheaper production overseas.
Here in the Triangle, the latest wave of growth from research, education and medicine has favored us, with the Research Triangle Park launched and prospering even as textiles and tobacco cratered. Meanwhile, the institutions of higher education that helped spawn it – and their medical and research complexes -- exploded as economic and cultural engines.
It’s no great insight to say Detroit should be a cautionary tale. Back when 1.8 million people lived there, it’s safe to say no one looked down the road and envisioned a city with thousands of abandoned homes and businesses.
We should celebrate our city and our region’s good fortune – but never take it for granted.
Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.