Once upon a time, there was a wealthy booming city – in 1950, the fourth largest in the United States. Its prosperity and growth was founded on an industry that was both conquering and transforming the world – the automobile – and was the site of the world’s first freeway. And although the phrase was coined by President Roosevelt to refer to American industrial capacity to support arms and munitions during World War II, this city became known as ‘the Arsenal of Democracy’ as well as the more prosaic – but entirely accurate – “Motor City”. So why did the BBC last week screen a documentary film about the current state of that city, under the title “Requiem for Detroit?”.

For those who missed the programme (available until Saturday at BBC iPlayer), it was truly gripping – but truly alarming and eye-opening too. To give you an idea of the current state of Detroit, a few statistics might be illuminating.

  • Unemployment stands at a fraction under 30% (although an Investor’s Business Daily editorial stated the unemployment rate at 50% in 2009)
  • 47% of the population are functionally illiterate
  • After increasing by over 600% during the first half of the twentieth century, the city area’s population in 2008 stood at only 49% of the figure for 1950
  • Approximately 40% of the city area – where buildings have been raised not just by arsonists, but to reduce the number of opportunities for crack cocaine dealers to operate – is now ‘urban prairie’
  • 20% of homes stand empty
  • Detroit has only a 29% high school graduation rate; schools, hospitals, even police stations are being closed
  • The median price of houses sold in December 2008 was $7500; realtor.com listed 709 Detroit properties for less than $3,000 and properties have changed hands for as little as $1 – in the home of the automobile, houses are now cheaper than cars
  • No national grocery chains operate a branch in the city
  • There is no longer a rush hour in the city, as there are insufficient drivers to clog the roads.

Film-maker Julian Temple has described the city – without the hyperbole that his words might suggest – as “a slow-motion Katrina that has had many more victims”. So how did this all come to pass? There’s more than one reason, of course, and the case for the defence of ‘the guilty’ might quote the words of economist John Kay, writing in The Guardian on 18 May 2010:

In a necessarily uncertain world, a good decision doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome, and a good outcome doesn’t necessarily imply a good decision, or a capable decision maker. The notion of a best intention may itself be misconceived.

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of share-holder value. […] The architects and planners who believed that buildings could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities should be drawn on a blank sheet of paper, and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities.”

Detroit’s now empty freeways – the roads to its relatively prosperous, considerably less-ravaged suburbs – may even have been paved with good intentions. But the city’s ‘golden goose’ – the cars for which they were built (after the automobile industry realised that building suburbs with little public transport infrastructure built a market for cars, and then used its leverage to get public authorities to build roads) – was laying as many time-bombs as it was laying golden eggs.

Henry Ford, famous leader of one of ‘The Big Three’ car companies in the city, is a contradictory figure that illustrates this seeming contradiction. In 1914, he doubled minimum pay and shortened the working week, earning himself disapproval from Wall Street and a reputation for ‘welfare capitalism’. Yet he was sternly opposed to organised trade unions, employing a former navy boxer to undertake intimidation tactics to squash attempts at organisation. Although he eventually signed a contract with the UAW union in 1941 – under favourable terms to the union – he did so only after threatening to leave and break up his own company to prevent this from happening.

Ford should perhaps have learned a lesson about short-sightedness and urban development, from the Fordlandia experiment (an overview is available online at damninteresting.com). In 1928, he set out to build not just a rubber plant but an entire workers community in Brazil, to avoid dependency on imported rubber and cut costs. Subject of a recent book, the utopian Fordlandia experiment was summed up neatly by Icelandic musician, Jóhann Jóhannsson, in the liner notes to album recorded about the project, which described it as:

[… ] the rubber plantation Henry Ford established in the Amazon in the 1920’s, and his dreams of creating an idealized American town in the middle of the jungle complete with white picket fences, hamburgers and alcohol prohibition. The project – started because of the high price Ford had to pay for the rubber necessary for his cars’ tyres – failed, of course, as the indigenous workers soon rioted against the alien conditions.”

If there were lessons to be learned about cultural sensitivity and its longer-term importance to business, they weren’t learned. The racial segregation – into polarised neighbourhoods built from migrant workers from the American South – in Detroit itself turned out equally unhappily. Although the race riots of 1967 (which killed 43 people, injured nearly 2,000 and lasted for a week) are infamous, Detroit suffered major race riots as early as 1943 (when 31 people were killed in three days of rioting). Although Detroit had a comparatively large black middle-class, factors in their dissatisfaction included promotion policies in the automobile industry that might be politely described as ‘colour blind’. (This blog is not the place, but Henry Ford’s legacy – despite the first industry employer to recruit from the African American community – includes more than a few accusations of overt racism. Detroit is the only US city where the army has been called in twice to quell major race riots.)

Another theme in Detroit’s unravelling – the way in which industries can succumb rapidly to external threat – came just two years later, when synthetic rubber was invented: Fordlandia, with its blighted trees unused to being grown in crowded spaces in the Amazon and ravaged by bugs, no longer had a reason to exist. It was subsequently sold at a loss of $20m. Yet it was to be only the first of two cities left in a perilous state.

The oil price rises of the early 1970s were a major blow – the 1970s saw the fastest stage of the population fall in the city, as the automobile industry suffered and ‘white flight’ (down those freeways to the safer suburbs) took hold. The car factories that saw themselves as so indomitable, and which continued to turn out large cars with woeful fuel consumption figures (usually applying the coachwork of ‘this year’s model’ to an outdated and fuel-inefficient underlying engine and chassis), were not prepared. Smaller, more efficient cars from overseas – and particularly from Japan – suddenly fitted the market rather better.

The decline that set in – and continued through the years of the SUV – seems, as of 2010, unstoppable. The industry that had set out to make its city – and the world – mobile had run out of road. Its leaders later faced the ignominy of pleading with the national government for support, and being castigated for arriving to seek aid in private jets. (Perhaps they meant well, but – as Detroit men – were unaware of the possibilities of public transport?)

Written in February 2009, and nearly sharing a title with the BBC Documentary, the Gerson Lehrman Group News article, Requiem for Detroit, sees so little hope for the city, it omits that final question mark.

Even the documentary’s Director, Julian Temple, is in little doubt about how dubious a distinction ‘pioneering’ can be:

Detroit was the frontier city in the US, powering the American dream. What I find fascinating is the fact that it is still ahead of the game, becoming the first big US city to virtually fall off the map.”

Most of the comments in online forums since the broadcast (seen by some Americans online) have been by British viewers, but I was struck by one comment by one poster at Digital Spy:

I grew up inside Detroit and I’m proud to be from there. It sounds like the first documentary claimed the downturn was because of the decline of the auto industry? I would say some of it was also because of the predominance of the auto industry. My mother tells me that back in the 70s they had a really nice trolley system in the downtown area, but got rid of it (although there are some touristy trolleys, or were the last time I was home) to try to make people buy cars.”

Indeed, however generous we might feel like being, it is hard to resist the conclusion that – forgetting even carbon footprints, but remembering things like failure to spot potential competition and sources of threats (oil prices) – the automobile industry in Detroit spent many years soiling its own doorstep. In a city so dominated by a single sector (even a café surrounded by car plants is in reality part of the automobile industry), one can hardly blame the parents.

Yet ironically given the level of doorstep ‘soiling’ that has gone on, what one might politely call ‘fertilizer’ may yet be a source of hope. Henry Ford may even have had a lasting point when he said:

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”

As Requiem for Detroit? showed, the faster growing sector and activity in Detroit is urban agriculture. Its recent past having already caught up with it, Detroit’s older past – or that of many of its remaining citizens whose families originally migrated there – is now making itself felt. Many in the city are taking advantage of that vast percentage of urban prairie, of the tracts of now building-less land, to ‘go back to the farm’ … albeit while staying in the city.

They are creating a new strand of history for Detroit: locally produced, affordable food, some of it produced on organic principles. There are still 900,000 people in Detroit, many of them – joking aside – without the means or opportunity to leave. Nor will Detroit be the first major city to ultimately experience ‘post-industrialism’: what it’s young urban farmers and network of activists do over the next few years will provide valuable lessons – not just in terms of surviving against very adverse odds, but in creating new forms of sustainable enterprise that create less wreckage for those that follow them to clear.

I’ll leave the final words to Julian Temple:

With the breakdown of 20th-century civilization, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first “post-American” city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all. So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest.”]

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