-- Blue-collar workers poured into the cavernous auto plants of Detroit for generations, confident that a sturdy back and strong work ethic would bring them a house, a car and economic security. It was a place where the American dream came true.

It came true in cities across the industrial heartland, from Chicago's meatpacking plants to the fire-belching steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It came true for decades, as manufacturing brought prosperity to big cities in states around the Great Lakes and those who called them home. Detroit was the affluent capital, a city with its own emblematic musical sound and a storied union movement that drew Democratic presidential candidates to Cadillac Square every four years to kick off campaigns at Labor Day rallies.

The good times would not last forever. As the nation's economy began to shift from the business of making things, that line of work met the force of foreign competition. Good-paying assembly line jobs dried up as factories that made the cars and supplied the steel closed their doors. The survivors of the decline, especially whites, fled the cities to pursue new dreams in the suburbs.

The "Arsenal of Democracy" that supplied the Allied victory of World War II and evolved into the "Motor City" fell into a six-decade downward spiral of job losses, shrinking population and a plummeting tax base. Detroit's singular reliance on an auto industry that stumbled badly and its long history of racial strife proved a disastrous combination, and ultimately too much to overcome.

"Detroit is an extreme case of problems that have afflicted every major old industrial city in the U.S.," said Thomas Sugrue, author of "The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit" and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's been 60-plus years of steady disinvestment, depopulation and an intensive hostility between the city, the suburbs and the rest of the state."

All of the nation's industrial cities fell, but only Detroit hit bottom. Staggering under as much as $20 billion in unpaid bills, Detroit surrendered Thursday, filing the single largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

"What happened in Detroit is not particularly distinct," said Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about his hometown. "Most Midwest cities had white flight and segregation. But Detroit had it more intensely. Most cities had deindustrialization. Detroit had it more intensely."

Detroit's first wave of prosperity came after World War I and lasted into the early 1920s, driven by the rise of the auto industry. "It was the Silicon Valley of America," Boyle said. "It was home to the most innovative, cutting-edge dominant industry in the world. The money there at that point was just staggering."

More affluence followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the auto industry was booming. Tens of thousands of blacks migrated from the South seeking jobs on the assembly line and a foothold in the middle class. In 1950, Detroit's population peaked as a metropolis of more than 1.8 million, making it the nation's fifth-largest city. The transformation was dramatic.

"You've got a vast city of working people who no longer have insecure lives, people with high school and less than high school degrees who can earn enough to buy a house, a car, a boat, and sent their kids to Wayne State University," Boyle said.

But by that time, Detroit's decline had already begun.

The auto industry had started to expand beyond the city and was building plants and putting offices in suburban and rural areas, and eventually sought refuge from the city's powerful unions in the nation's Sunbelt states and even overseas. Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs, said Sugrue, the Pennsylvania professor.

A decade later, as Japanese auto imports started gobbling more of the U.S. market, the hemorrhaging of jobs continued. Membership in the United Auto Workers topped out at 1.5 million in 1978 and stands today at about 400,000, said Mike Smith, the union's archivist at Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library.

"In a way, it's not unlike a small town that has a textile factory for 50 years, then all of a sudden it closes up and the whole town is decimated," Smith said.

It wasn't an uncommon plight: The cities that rose alongside Detroit came to be known as the Rust Belt.

Like Detroit, Pittsburgh was a community defined by its dependence on a single industry. But as steelmaking crumbled under pressure from foreign imports and the decline of the U.S. auto industry, the city's population dropped by more than 40 percent between 1970 and 2006, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

But during those years, Pittsburgh also forged a new identity around health care and technology. It retrained former steelworkers, invested heavily in higher education and launched a controversial campaign to redevelop more than 1,000 acres of industrial brownfields, replacing decaying lots with luxury homes, office and retail buildings, and 27 miles of riverfront parks.

Detroit's unraveling can't be blamed solely on the city's reliance on one industry that itself buckled. Some point to the city's political leadership and its reluctance over the years to make tough decisions.

"I think it (the fiscal disaster) was inevitable because the politicians in Detroit were always knocking the can forward, not confronting the issues, buying off public employees by increasing their pensions," said Daniel Okrent, a Detroit native who wrote a Time magazine cover story on the city in 2009. "They were always kind of confronting the impending crisis by trying to make it the next guy's crisis."

Racial strife also infected the city. Sugrue, the Pennsylvania professor, said some of the tensions surfaced long before the city's infamous 1967 riots. Two decades earlier, between 1945 and 1965, he said, there were more than 200 violent racial incidents of whites attacking blacks in Detroit and almost all stemmed from the first or second black families moving into an all-white neighborhood.

The migration of blacks into Detroit, which helped power its economic rise, was followed by an exodus of white residents for the suburbs. In the last decade alone – from 2000 to 2010 – Detroit lost about a quarter-million residents. The city's current population of roughly 700,000 is about 83 percent black.

"Unlike cities such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where segregation produced disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, the nature of segregation in Detroit meant that the entire city suffered disinvestment," Douglas Massey, a sociology and public affairs professor at Princeton, said in an email.

What's left is a Detroit defined by a barren landscape of deserted neighborhoods and abandoned buildings that overwhelms the very recent rebound in parts of downtown. The consequences of that population loss and segregation extend beyond the declining property values and erosion of the city's tax base. The result is an isolated city.

"The racial divisions between the city and the suburbs until very recently remained very hard and fast, creating an us vs. them mentality," Sugrue said. "There's very little political will ... by suburbanites and other parts of the state to provide financial support."

Indeed, it was the state's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who ultimately pushed control of the overwhelmingly Democratic city's decrepit finances into the hands of an emergency manager and signed off from the state capital in Lansing to his recommendation that Detroit file for bankruptcy. There appears to be little appetite there for a bailout.

"Cities are less powerful in the federal government and state capitals that they were 40 years ago," Sugrue said.

For those directly impacted by the collapse, watching the deterioration of Detroit in recent years has been agonizing.

"The neighborhood is so different – the street lights go off, there's more violence and gunfire, the elementary school I went to is closed and boarded up," said Sareta Cheathem, a filmmaker and screenwriter who has lived in Detroit all her 42 years. "I remember as a child winning the `beautiful block' awards . just to see the decay is something that bothers me."

Cheathem said her 92-year-old neighbor was robbed last year and thieves have tried to break into her home and garage. "My heart won't let me leave," she said, later adding, "One more attack and I'm out."

As for the bankruptcy filing, Cheathem said that has been "gutwrenching" and leaves her wondering "Is it going to get worse? Can it get any worse?"

Or will it signal the beginning of Detroit's turnaround and comeback?

Boyle, the history professor, has reservations about what is actually possible in a place that's fallen so far.

"I don't think it'll ever come back to the city it once was," he said. "The bankruptcy is not in itself a solution. It will presumably clear the debt. Something will have to happen for it not to repeat this pattern five or 10 years from now. Hopefully this will make life livable in this city. I think it's doable. But I'm not sure there's the will to do it."

___

Ted Anthony in New York, Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh, Jeff Karoub in Detroit and researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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  • The Caesars Windsor Casino stands in contrast to an abandoned warehouse in Detroit. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

  • A tree stump sits among the ruins of the Packard Automotive Plant, a 35 acre site where luxury cars were manufactured until the 1950s on May 2, 2013 in Detroit. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • Graffiti covers an abandoned building February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • In a photo shot on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, a dog looks out from behind a wall in an abandoned home in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • Abandoned houses are painted orange as part of Object Orange: Detroit, Disneyland, Demolition, are located off of the Davison Freeway service drive in Highland Park, Michigan on Thursday, May 18, 2006. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

  • Residents that live in Detroit's east end came out of their homes to watch the third abandoned building fire of the day at the corner of Frederick and Chene. (Photo by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • In a July 31, 2012 photo, a boat is dumped in a field in east Detroit. Abandoned lots, alleys and neglected parks in Detroit used to be a favorite destination for discarded tires and trash. But over the past few months they have become dumping grounds for the dead. At least seven bodies have been found in some of the most desolated haunts in a half-empty city. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • A City of Detroit fire station that was recently closed is seen February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • Part of the Brewster-Douglass housing project site is shown in Detroit, Friday, March 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • The abandoned Detroit Public Schools book depository

  • Detail of unused books left to rot at the abandoned Detroit Public Schools book depository.

  • The view from the inside of the abandoned Fisher Body Plant in Detroit.

  • Graffiti covers a crumbling building February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • The General Motors (GM) world headquarters is seen February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • Detroit firefighters arrived on the scene of an abandoned dwelling fire at 2645/51 Frederick Street in Detroit's east end. (Photo by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • A sign advertising building rates is seen on an abandoned building on February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • An abandoned boat filled with trash sits on Conant Street in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, April 9, 2006. Detroit eliminated bulk trash pick up three months ago due to budget cuts. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

  • A man walks past an abandoned house that is painted orange as part of Object Orange: Detroit, Disneyland, Demolition, located off of the Davison Freeway service drive in Highland Park, Michigan on Thursday, May 18, 2006. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

  • Barbed wire blocks the entrance of the abandoned Michigan Central Station on May 2, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The station was opened in 1913, closed in 1988, and has fallen into disrepair since. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • Steam rises from a manhole at dawn among abandoned buildings and factories along East Warren Avenue on May 2, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • A man walks past the abandoned East Grand Boulevard Methodist Chruch on May 2, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • Two abandoned apartment buildings burn on Waverly Street in the declining Detroit enclave of Highland Park. Last year the Detroit Fire Department received 27,000 calls. (Photo by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

  • Michigan Central Stationis Detroit's most famous ruin, with the train station last open in 1988. Designed by the same architects as New York's Grand Central Station.

  • An interior shot of the massive Michigan Central Station.

  • A worker measures the former Detroit Fire Department Ladder No. 10 firehouse on Mt. Elliott in Detroit, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Detroit plans to sell seven unused firehouses and a renovated but long-vacant police facility that once housed horses as part of an effort to raise money and encourage redevelopment. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • A July 31, 2012 photo shows a memorial to two killed teens whose decomposing bodies were found July 27 in a field in east Detroit. Abandoned lots, alleys and neglected parks in Detroit used to be a favorite destination for discarded tires and trash. But over the past few months they have become dumping grounds for the dead. At least seven bodies have been found in some of the most desolated haunts in a half-empty city. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • This Oct. 24, 2012 file photo shows a graffiti-marked abandoned home north of downtown Detroit, in background. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

  • Graffiti covers an abandoned building at the former Belle Isle Safari Zoo February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • In this Dec. 11, 2008 file photo, pedestrians walk by the abandoned Packard plant in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

  • Members of the Detroit Fire Department exit after putting out a fire in an abandoned house in Detroit on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Shuttered Packard motor car company plant in Detroit.

  • In this Oct. 24, 2012, photo, a broken streetlight lies on a sidewalk east of downtown Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • The abandoned Harbor Light Center, in Detroit, Michigan on July 21, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • The abandoned Hotel Eddystone, in Detroit, Michigan on July 21, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • An abandoned home is seen on February 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

  • The abandoned First Unitarian Church, in Detroit, Michigan on July 21, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • The abandoned Detroit Public Schools book depository.

  • The back of an abandoned building facing, in Detroit, Michigan on July 21, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • Abandoned Detroit Central Depot shot from street.

  • This Oct. 24, 2012, photo shows a broken streetlight base on a sidewalk east of downtown Detroit. When the World Series was broadcast that week, television viewers saw vibrant crowds and skyline shots of the city. Yet beyond the hot dogs and home runs, Detroit is struggling to cross home plate. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • The General Motors world headquarters building is shown near an abandoned building March 30, 2009 in Detroit. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

  • Exterior of abandoned house in Detroit, a familiar sight in many neighborhoods.

  • Detroit Abandoned Buildings

    The back of the abandoned Michigan Central Station on May 1, 2013 in Detroit. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • An abandoned home in Detroit.

  • An abandoned building in Detroit.

  • In a July 31, 2012 photo, a trashed strewn street is seen in east Detroit. Abandoned lots, alleys and neglected parks in Detroit used to be a favorite destination for discarded tires and trash. But over the past few months they have become dumping grounds for the dead. At least seven bodies have been found in some of the most desolated haunts in a half-empty city. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • Graffiti decorates the ruins of the Packard Automotive Plant, a 35 acre site where luxury cars were manufactured until the 1950s on May 2, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Sitting on the East side of Detroit, the former automotive plant is now a site for scavengers, urban explorers and graffiti artists. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

  • The abandoned Fisher Body Plant.

  • The Fisher Body Plant in Detroit, which is abandoned.

  • Part of the Brewster-Douglass housing project site is shown in Detroit, Friday, March 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • Aerial photograph of the Michigan Central Station's Beaux-Arts facade in Detroit, Michigan.