"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 decrypted 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."