A Review of Detroit: A Manual For Citizens (1973)

Published by Detroit Public Schools & the City of Detroit

Detroit is a city difficult to understand. What you see on the surface is not all that is going on. In Detroit’s case, there are countless programs, departments, and organizations filled with people who work to help it function everyday. Many of these entities go unnoticed without a closer look but play a major role in ensuring we are safe, comfortable, and supported in our communities. I would have continued to know nothing of these invisible hands if it was not for Detroit: A Manual For Citizens. But it is these sectors of the city, that help us get through our days in Detroit normally. These supports within the city all have very unique histories and stories of origin that paint a picture of how Detroit once was like as well as how it came to be.

One of the first things I learned was how Detroit was originally founded. This publication described how it all started with just a fort being established on our river’s edge by french settlers. I knew Detroit was good at overcoming, or sort of “bouncing back,” but I would have never imaged the extent of the recovery after the entire city burned down in 1805. Yes, literally every building burned to the ground! However, that fire brought about the idea for Detroit’s “spokes of the wheel” street plan, introduced by Augustus B. Woodward. As the city rebuilt itself, more people were attracted to the new opportunities that were offered. As the population grew, the city’s edge expanded and the land mass increased, growing three times in size from 1850 - 1950. It was really cool being able to see actual size comparison of Detroit now, and how it was in 1830. The large population then required law and order. There was no such thing as a mayor* or governor but until 1824 there was just a Board of Trustees to govern the land. I assumed that a Mayor would have been the first position of power in a city, but that just went to show me again, just how much I didn't know about this amazing city.

When the city and national government was still new and being structured, some parts of the city were private such as the transportation methods and even roads. I would have never thought that a road could even be made private. The book also went into how our city’s budget was gathered and maintained. It included responsibilities of people like the City Treasurer, whose role was to keep an an accurate account of the city’s money and expenses. Some of the organizations in the early 1900’s were similar to today in regards to departments like the Election Commission whose job it was to provide voting places and hire precinct officials.

After this reading, I learned about some of the struggles Detroiters had in just simply finding a home. African Americans had an especially hard time when trying to move into the better, but majority white, neighborhoods. Oftentimes home prices were raised much past their property value as an attempt to deter people from purchasing. White neighbors usually played their roles in preventing neighborhood integration by harrassing the blacks who lived there or by simply selling their home cheap in order to move away fast. Not only were blacks facing unfair practices in the real estate market, but during the 1960-70s, police brutality was the highest it's ever been in the city’s history. Detroit’s police force was 95% white while the city was becoming about 40% African-American. There was a special police task force called S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets). This unit was well known for terrorizing the black community of Detroit at the time. This only made things worse for the people of Detroit. It was not until civil activist Kenneth Cockrel and Mayor Coleman Young disbanded the STRESS unit that relations between police officers and citizens began to turn around.

I also learned about how the background players running Detroit coincided with one another, such as the water department, the public lighting systems, and public transportation. These departments all work to help serve Detroit. I never fully understood how big of a role it is to be a employee of these areas and be responsible for supporting the city as a whole. One of my favorite topics to read about in Detroit: A Manual For Citizens was how the Department of Education has changed so drastically in the last 100 years. From having mostly private schools serving a handful of students to the reverse, with more public schools having majority of the student population. I saw just how important tax payers dollars are to education in Detroit and how much of a change can occur if the tax dollars aren't there. Detroit Public Schools saw many issues when faced with integrated schools and new laws of equity throughout the 20th century. 

With new people, streets, buildings, business, and internal structures, Detroit continued to progress as time moved on. Overcoming racial riots, major population changes, two world wars, and corruption in both the public and private sectors, Detroit is one of the strongest cities our country has. It relentlessly grew in size and opportunities. Following the growth came new public housing projects and plans for urban neighborhood improvements. The Detroit we know today is a result of all these aspects of its history working to shape it. I recommend anyone who has an interest and passion in truly knowing what it takes to run Detroit, as well as how it came to be, to get this citizen manual and read up. Although the latest version of Detroit: A Manual For Citizens is over 50 years old, there are hopes and plans to develop a new edition presenting the history we are all making today.


*From 1806-1809 there were ceremonial Mayors, both of whom resigned because of the lack of power.