Detroit in the 1950s was the wealth­iest city in the country, said jour­nalist and author Dan Okrent of his home­town. Now the city is broke, with more than 30 per­cent of its workers unem­ployed and 40 per­cent of its people illiterate.

The people of Detroit are suf­fering more than any­where else in the country as a mass of people,” said Okrent, a former editor at Time Mag­a­zine and the New York Times. “If Detroit had been for­tu­nate enough to have a flood like Kat­rina, the country would know what was hap­pening there and would do some­thing about it.”

How did it happen and what can be done now? Okrent, and Theresa Lynch, a senior researcher at the Ini­tia­tive for a Com­pet­i­tive Inner City, explored those ques­tions recently at Northeastern’s Open Class­room Policy speaker series, spon­sored by the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

The begin­ning of Detroit’s down­ward spiral, said Okrent, occurred “many, many, many” years ago. In the 1950s, when car own­er­ship became uni­versal and the only three auto com­pa­nies that mat­tered were in Detroit, it was a city of high employ­ment and home­own­er­ship, of single-​​family homes on elm-​​lined streets.

Every­body thought we were blessed,” he said.

But the city and its leaders were blind to their over-​​dependency on the auto com­pa­nies. When the chairman of Gen­eral Motors said, “What’s good for Gen­eral Motors is good for the country,” said Okrent, the people of Detroit believed.

The Big 3 auto com­pa­nies called the shots and every­body lis­tened to them because they employed every­body,” he said.

What fol­lowed was a series of social and polit­ical mis­steps: urban renewal poli­cies replaced neigh­bor­hoods with soul­less devel­op­ments or built express­ways that served to draw people out of the city; white flight to the sub­urbs increased, exac­er­bated by the 1967 riots.

Politi­cians who believed they were serving the city’s inter­ests instead facil­i­tated its down­fall, said Okrent. For example, they fought off stricter fed­eral gas mileage stan­dards in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the assump­tion that these would ben­efit only the Japanese car com­pa­nies. “And what hap­pened is people bought the Japanese cars instead of the Detroit cars and the industry began to crumble,” he said.

To recover from these decades of mis­takes and mis­cal­cu­la­tions, said Okrent and Lynch, a once great city will need to get smaller.

The city can’t afford to pro­vide ser­vices to res­i­dents living in some of its sparsely pop­u­lated sec­tions, they said. “This means we’re going to give up on … neigh­bor­hoods and help [people] move,” said Okrent. “It’s heart­less, but now we have an entire city suf­fering without these ser­vices. If you don’t have safety and schools, you don’t have a func­tioning city, and that’s where Detroit is right now.”

Lynch, who is working on an eco­nomic devel­op­ment strategy to restart the city through the Detroit Work Project, said the strategy must focus on growing the job base, par­tic­u­larly in the city’s core.

She said it will be impor­tant to deter­mine the skill sets of workers, and which skills are in highest demand. With 20 per­cent of the work­force lacking col­lege degrees, “You have to create jobs for people without col­lege degrees as well as with col­lege degrees,” she said.

Her group has sur­veyed Detroit’s indus­trial land, and found 22 per­cent to be vacant. “We can start to match parcels with those looking for land,” she said.

There’s been a lot of talk about bringing industry back [in America], and Detroit would be one of those places where this would work,” she said.

Adds Okrent, “I think Detroit has a chance, but it will take an act of polit­ical will that we’ve never seen before.”