Detroit is French for ‘strait’ and the city of Detroit takes its name from the river channel linking Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The Detroit River separates the United States and Canada. Across this borderline the Canadian city of Windsor actually lies to the south of neighbouring Detroit. The northern Great Lakes were a region of conflict in the early history of the United States, where borders were re-drawn and famous names and legacies were made.
In the early nineteenth century a confederation of Native American tribes formed an alliance with the British and fought the US government along this border zone. Under the charismatic leadership of Chief Tecumseh an indigenous army helped capture the frontier fort at Detroit in August 1812. The following year the US Navy took control of Lake Erie and then Tecumseh was killed and the Native Americans and British retreated. With his death the confederation disintegrated and the Native Americans were forced further west, eventually to be pushed onto reserves by the US government. Tecumseh became an iconic folk hero in indigenous history. Across the continent in the Deep South the Creek People in Georgia had also resisted the encroachment of white men into their land, yet were defeated in 1814. With the help of Tecumseh’s leadership Native people had made a united but forlorn effort to preserve their independence.
Both risings were quashed by future presidents: William Henry Harrison led the fight on the Canadian border and Andrew Jackson defeated the tribes in the South. Harrison was the ninth president of the United States, memorable only because he infamously died in 1842 after just 32 days in the Oval Office. Whereas Jackson, Harrison’s predecessor but one, was a prime example of the type of new American gentleman who merged private interests and public duty. Through his presidency, from 1829 to 1837, he drove forward the relentless expansion of white American power and the removal of Native Americans from the southeast. Meanwhile Detroit – the small frontier town of 800 over which one of the greatest Native American chiefs and the most ill-fated future American president fought – would go on to be a mega hub of industry that symbolized mass manufacturing, consumption and the rise of the American nation.
By the late nineteenth century Detroit’s industry included leading shipbuilding, pharmaceutical and railway businesses. Detroit was successful because it was strategically located near to natural resources and markets. Railroads and steamboats on the Great Lakes connected the city to the mid-west as well as the Atlantic coast. From the mid-nineteenth century until a hundred years later there was no place that better represented American progress and power. Detroit was the Motor City that helped drive the United States forward. That is until Detroit’s disastrous fall from grace in recent decades.
Today, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Art cannot fail to be awe struck by the magnificent Detroit Industry murals painted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. In 1932 Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, commissioned Rivera to paint scenes of the nearby Ford factories. Rivera had open access to the Rouge River industrial complex and sketched the workings of Ford’s automobile production lines.
Rouge River was the largest integrated factory in the world, with its own docks, railway lines, power station, steel plant and over 100,000 workers and 120 miles of conveyor belt. Raw materials including iron ore and coal arrived by barge and rail and completed Ford Model Bs rolled off the end of the vertically integrated production lines. Rivera captured the energy and epoch-defining spirit of Rouge River in his murals in the Institute’s central court. Arriving early in the morning it is possible to enjoy the magnificent space before tourists and local school children fill the court with excited and enthusiastic chatter. The pictures themselves show the heat, energy and movement of the factory, but also the social and political tensions of the time.
Rivera was a communist whereas Henry Ford was a staunch opponent of labour organization and unions. Scenes from the murals depict the workers labouring in harmony with machinery, but also suggest some of the bitter struggles between management and employees. Prescient panels raise the spectre of modern industrial warfare that would sweep the world a few years later as ghoulish masked figures work on poison gas bombs.
Inspiration for Detroit Industry came from Soviet propaganda graphics as well as Aztec and Mexican art and creation myths. Humans are pictured alongside animals and nature reflecting the further transformation of the environment wrought through US industrialization. Both the human body and the American landscape served the interest of industrial capital. Women and men experienced the new modern world in different ways. 1930s Detroit was heavily gendered. Males worked in industry, females worked in the home.
The Ford family grew incredibly wealthy through their mastery of technology and production lines and their extraction of surplus value from the labour of workers. Mass production was perfected by Ford. Henry’s famous Model T was launched in 1900 and by 1918 half of all the cars in the United States were Model Ts. Ford helped to build not just factories but a new type of society. Some of the profits from car manufacturing supported the social and cultural development of Detroit, such as the Art Institute and Hospital. Workers also received salaries that were sufficient for them to increase their level of consumption and enjoy new leisure opportunities. Manufacturing and culture came together in Detroit to make a booming metropolis.
This compromise between industrial capital and wage labour is often referred to as Fordism. People migrated to Detroit for work not just for Ford but in other ‘Fordist’ factories as well: there were 125 auto companies alone in Detroit in the early twentieth century, alongside hundreds of other industrial firms. To fill these factories hundreds of thousands of Europeans arrived, often joining sisters, brothers and cousins who had migrated in earlier waves across the Atlantic. Afro- Americans came up from the South traveling to escape prejudice. Detroit’s population soared from just 79,577 in 1870, to 285,704 in 1900, and to 1,568,662 in 1930 as it became the fourth largest city in America. The assembly lines and the rhythms of work gave new arrivals a purpose and set in motion a relentless movement towards modernity and progress. Mass production would lead to mass employment and in turn enable mass consumption.
Detroit was the world’s greatest working-class city in the most prosperous nation the world had ever seen. The automotive industry and the giants such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler that dominated Detroit were to the jazz age what California’s Silicon Valley and the tech monopolies of Apple, Google and Twitter are to today’s era of smartphones, software and social media.
Beneath the gloss of mass consumption Detroit always hid inequalities. Social tensions erupted in 1943 and again in 1967 when massive race riots tore through the city. On 23 July 1967 police busted an illegal after-hours salon in a black neighbourhood. Eighty-five people were arrested. Tempers rose between the detainees and the officers. A riot erupted that would last for five days and be quashed by 17,000 police, national guardsmen and federal troops resulting in 7,231 arrests. Black people were expressing rage over limited housing, racial animosity and reduced economic opportunities. Underlying the dissent was a history of racial violence and discrimination and an ongoing process of deindustrialization. Detroit increasingly became a black majority city as the white working classes moved to suburbs beyond the city limits; 80,000 people left in 1968 alone. The city seemed to be facing terminal decline as crime rates rose and employment fell.
A downward spiral continued in the 1970s. American car manufacturers began to face increasing competition from smaller, economical, reliable and affordable Japanese cars. De-industrialization was part of the problem as car makers laid- off workers when sales fell, or moved production to cheaper locations, or automated manufacturing processes. A further factor was administrative, political and geographical.
Growing suburban wealth mirrored the urban decline as richer auto-workers and managers moved out from the city. Ironically the growth of a car-based society and the central role of the mall and the suburbs in late-twentieth-century America life helped kill Motor City. Property-based tax collection and suburban lifestyles colluded against Detroit. Local city authorities rely heavily on property taxes, which are dependent on property values. When the rich left they moved to homes in neighbouring towns with well-funded local administrations and shopped in out-of-town malls. Suburban communities grew affluent and their local authorities were well- funded. Outside Detroit some towns became rich enclaves protected through exclusionary zoning legislation that prevented low-income residents from moving into certain areas, because they require minimum house sizes and limit land use density. Detroit city lost its tax base and the urban crisis worsened.
The 2007/08 global financial crisis shook the auto industry to its foundation and Chrysler and General Motors faced bankruptcy. For the auto manufacturers help was at hand and they were bailed out by the US tax payer and to some extent recovered. There are still lots of good jobs around. Across Metro Detroit half a million people work in manufacturing including 130,000 jobs in the auto sector, many of which are unionized positions paying 75 per cent above the state average salary. Detroit city did not fare so well during the financial crisis. The funding situation went from precarious to disastrous, leading to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history in 2013 and further social crisis. Metro Detroit now consists of two contrasting places: the city on the one hand and the surrounding suburbs and outlying towns on the other. The contrast between these two types of settlement is stark.
On the fringe of Detroit are places like Livingstone County, which are part of Metro Detroit, but completely different to the city. Many rich and successful people live in Livingstone where there is a 96.7 per cent white population and a median household income of $73,694. Livingstone has been ranked in the top 100 richest counties in the whole of the United States. You find shiny out-of-town malls, good roads full of big comfortable SUVs and wealthy inhabitants. The city of Detroit is like another country. The city is around 82.7 per cent black or African American, has a median household income of $26,096 and 39.8 per cent of people live in poverty. More troubling is that an estimated 57.3 per cent of Detroit’s children live in poverty. Half of all adults are thought to be illiterate and around a half are unemployed. Detroit south of the 8 Mile boundary – made famous by Eminem’s early 2000s rap movie – is widely considered to have one of the highest murder rates in the country and Detroit is the most dangerous city in the United States.
Driving around the city the upwards of 112,000 empty lots are readily apparent. There are abandoned skyscrapers, ruined factories, entire streets vacated and inner city blocks that look more like rural fields. A new voyeuristic pastime of ‘urban exploration’ attracts thrill seekers to spy upon the ‘ruin porn’ of the broken landscape for a glimpse of what a city looks like when capitalism and government collapse.
The duality between these spaces – a decaying city and affluent suburbs – is a simplification; the real geographical patterns are more complicated. Walking around the downtown area of Detroit some positive signs can be observed. Sports stadiums have opened alongside a revitalized opera house, regenerated skyscrapers and a new light rail network spanning out from the business district. Much of the change has been led by controversial real estate entrepreneur Dan Gilbert. Positive social developments in the Midtown area, like art installations and urban garden projects on empty lots, have been praised, yet the scale of transformation required is epic. Despite some green shoots of urban renewal the big picture shows a huge gap between the haves and have-nots.
Detroit matters not because it is unique, but because it is a signal case for a process which has happened throughout the industrialized world. Cities across the rust belt of the American mid-west, or northern England, or in Spain, Portugal and Greece continue to suffer from the last global financial crisis of capitalism. These places remind us that the problems of poverty and impoverishment are not only found in the former colonies of the Global South, but also on a huge scale in even the richest and most successful nations. Capitalist society is riddled with moments and places of crisis.
The End of Development is available now from Zed Books.