The Urban Crisis: A Synthesis of Sugrue and Lehman’s Works Jack Cossman In analyzing the growth and decline of America’s first industrial cities, one is pressed to pinpoint the exact mechanisms at work. Race relations, a transforming economy and business strategies, massive migration, housing issues, community concerns, and political institutions all compound and clash in the cities of the Midwest and Northeast. Indeed, the factors that brought the cities into prosperity also grew to be parasitic. It thus requires multifaceted analysis to understand the cities’ transformations, which Nicholas Lehman’s The Promised Land and Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis jointly construct. Lehman’s documentary takes intricate snapshots around the country to portray the effects of migration, housing, and employment on individuals, cities, and the country as a whole. Sugrue’s analysis, on the other hand, uses the model of Detroit to demonstrate how local and national influences reacted together culturally, economically, and politically. While the two books apply different approaches, both complement each other in analyzing the urban crisis—macro- and micro-oriented—in the virtually unprepared northern industrial cities. Sugrue’s approach is one that statistically and sociologically indentifies all the angles where Detroit became unsteady. According to his research, the urban crisis was a combined result of politics, structure, and behavior, together seeding a pervasive conflict between blacks and whites. Post-World War II cities, including Detroit, established their wealth on white institutions that left no options for racial integration, especially in the urban structure. As a result, the large masses of black migrants into Detroit met, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, walls that forced them into a new social class, the underclass. The underclass is the population locked out of the urban structure due, in part, to marginalizing politics and to the people’s own behavior. By tracing out the tribulations that the underclass encountered, Sugrue captures them in the context of Detroit’s decline; for example, he follows the movement of poor and wealthy black neighborhoods as they temporally migrated throughout the city toward the periphery, forcing white neighborhoods into the suburbs. In addition to his analysis of “white flight” and the attitude towards slums and blight, Sugrue also highlights the exodus of businesses and industries from Detroit. The declining population, loss of business, diminished tax base, and prevalent abandonment, Sugrue contends, left Detroit in a bona fide urban crisis. Lehman, similarly, explores various aspects to the urban crisis, but he puts more emphasis on personal stories in an effort to humanize cities in the urban crisis. He details Ruby Daniels as she is pulled to Chicago and pushed from Mississippi, and he details the squalor that sticks regardless of where she goes. Lehman adopts an attitude that simultaneously blames and pities the victim; there is no wonder how the push factors—agriculture mechanization, low wages, Jim Crow laws—and the pull factors—stories of prosperity and equality from relatives in the North and advertisements—lure Ruby to Chicago, but her own promiscuous behavior and poor choices are less than commendable. Indeed, Lehman frequently uses black behavior as a strong reason for white discrimination. Moreover, on the other side of the spectrum, Lehman provides details of Chicago and Washington politicians, including Richard Daley, Lyndon Johnson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in order to show the individual rationales behind city and federal structures. And finally, he puts all of his narratives in context of national sentiments and local situations; for instance, he analyzes how the Johnson administration’s programs, such as Head Start and the Job Corps, were part of a “war on poverty,” really experimental attempts for the government to act as “an agent of acculturation” (Lehman 150). By varying from personal to national focus, Lehman links all factors at the center of the urban crisis. Although Lehman and Sugrue take different approaches to the urban crisis, elements from The Promised Land easily fit into the scenarios of The Origins of the Urban Crisis. According to Sugrue, the racial tensions were exacerbated in three primary realms: housing, employment, and geography. Many characters in Lehman’s narrative found themselves stuck in or contributing to the problems of housing and urban racial geography. Sugrue spends several chapters discussing housing issues and especially public housing. Post-WWII Detroit saw vast housing development, but it was not enough to accommodate the massive influx of Southern black migrants. Not only were blacks initially confined to small, decrepit neighborhoods, but white community groups also strongly defended housing along racial barriers; the federal government even ranked wards of Detroit in terms of social standing for the purposes of receiving housing subsidies and infrastructure development. Indeed, as Sugrue states, “In the very act of defining the boundaries of the ghetto, whites also continually defined and reinforced the boundaries of race” (Sugrue 229). Ruby Daniels and thousands like her consistently moved between many substandard apartments, their options kept limited by over-priced rents and strictly enforced segregation. Many of Lehman’s subjects were in great need of public shelter and would have benefited had the city—Chicago, in this case—built sufficient public housing, let alone of any standard of decency. Moreover, as the white majority in most cities resisted integration and as the New Deal provided transportation and housing subsidies, spreading black neighborhoods effectively chased many white inhabitants to the suburbs. Eventually, even wealthy black families began to leave Detroit to escape the increasing prevalence of the underclass. Partially instigated by racial intolerance and partially encouraged by government policy, Detroit and other cities soon saw population flowing outward to the suburbs. In addition to government policy and individual intolerance, economic woes—a commonality between The Promised Land and The Origins of the Urban Crisis—further expedited urban decline. Moving to the North meant the chance of prosperity to many Southern blacks, but as far as employment and salary opportunities were concerned, the only difference from the South was the type of occupation. Steep wage inequality, employment discrimination, and restriction to menial jobs were frequent obstacles that Lehman’s characters faced. Unstable employment and a low salary left many blacks without opportunity for advancement, and, as Lehman emphasizes, maintained the miserable behavior that whites detested. Businesses and industries were not only contributing to the perpetuation of the underclass in Detroit and elsewhere, but they were also depriving the cites of tax revenue. Automation, cheap land and access to highways in the suburbs, and a smaller threat of a unionized workforce encouraged more and more businesses to join the “white flight” out of cities. This deindustrialization was perhaps the final punch that knocked Midwestern and Northeastern cities into full urban decline. With dwindling revenue and shrinking populations, the great urban centers that sprung up so quickly had brought about their own undoing through the capitalistic, white dominant structure. Lehman and Sugrue take different approaches that intersect in America’s post-WWII urban centers, and their approaches mutually emphasize the issues that explain how the suburbs have come to overshadow the cities. Through a narrative lens, Lehman takes the macro approach by detailing why people flocked to the cities, why the cities wanted them, and how racism, politics, geography, and economics gradually spurred suburban development. On the other hand, Sugrue takes the micro approach by detailing how all of the same issues conflicted in Detroit, developing the city and then forcing it to give way to the suburbs. Lehman’s characters all fit into Sugrue’s analysis, too. For example, in Sugrue’s portrayal, as housing policy and economic dynamics restrict the options for blacks and encourage whites to move out, Lehman’s characters, such as Ruby and her friends and relatives, have to deal with a Northern version of the South. From above, Detroit’s issues with equitable housing and community involvement stem from the decisions made by Lyndon Johnson’s administration, as intricately detailed in The Promised Land. From all angles, the industrial cities were shaped into unsustainable environments, out of which came social practices, trends, and mentalities that reciprocally influenced the government and people.