Detroit: Then and Now

August 4th, 2009 at 10:45 am David Frum | 1 Comment |

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Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the 1920s – the booming home of a glamorous new industry, physician a place where huge fortunes were conjured in years, there sometimes months. But while the creators of the computer industry have as yet bequeathed very little to the built environment, the automobile industry piled up around it an astounding American city, in astoundingly little time.

The Detroit of 1910 was a thriving Midwestern milling and shipping entrepot, a bigger Minneapolis. The Detroit of 1930 had rebuilt itself as a grand metropolis of skyscrapers, mansions, movie palaces and frame cottages spreading northward beyond the line of sight, exceeding Philadelphia and St. Louis, rivaling Chicago and New York. I had a chance to tour central Detroit recently, my first visit to the downtown core in many, many years.

Some of the old visual magnificence remains, has even been improved. The Guardian tower displays again the blazing colors of its vaulted atrium, long covered up by dry wall. The marble adorning the Fisher building still glows. The Renaissance Center, once as walled and moated against the city as a medieval castle, has lowered its defenses, especially on the side facing the Detroit River. But for the most part, all is decay. Whole towers stand empty, waiting to join the long line of grand structures that have either been abandoned to pillage and ruin, like Detroit’s once magnificent neoclassical skyscraper of a train station, or else pulled down entirely, like the downtown Dayton Hudson department store, once the largest enclosed shopping space in the United States.

Detroit’s fall was as steep and rapid as its rise. In 1960 it remained a thriving city, showing early signs of future trouble yes, but still strong, rich, and proud. By 1970, Detroit was a byword for urban dystopia. A small symbol of the change. In 1962, the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company commissioned a new headquarters building. Rather than build tall, they built opulently, hiring the then avant-garde Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, and installing elaborate new technologies: elegant new lighting systems and an elevator management program that ensured that there was always an open car waiting on the ground floor. The building acted as a prototype for Moriyama’s most famous achievement, the World Trade Center. The restaurant at the top, Detroit’s answer to Windows on the World, closed in 1974. It has never been replaced. The gas company moved out. Today, almost every floor of the building stands vacant.

Detroit Then and Now by Cheri Gay compiles a series of photographs to illustrate the change. The book in one way is a disappointment: it’s written in a tone of forced boosterism that requires the author to deny the reality of the collapse she’s chronicling. Detroit was vibrant then, and it remains vibrant now, she wishes to argue… like Sarah Palin’s career, it’s just advancing in a different direction.

This mode of argument will convince nobody. But sustaining it does require the author to avert her glance from those sections of the city where the theme of evolution cannot possibly be sustained: the acres of abandoned houses, the vacant lots where commercial enterprises once stood.

But here is one thing that I do learn from the book: Detroit has never been protective of its past. In the prosperous early 1960s, it used federal urban renewal funds to pull down its grand Romanesque 19th century city hall. (Detroit wants to use today’s TARP money to repeat its vandalism, this time on the old train station.)

Detroit sacrificed a handsome row of pre-Civil War mansions built by then-leading citizens to allow the Detroit News to erect a bland new office and printing block. It has erased almost all traces of its pre-automobile past from the downtown, and only lack of demolition funds preserved its oldest surviving downtown neighborhood, now faintly recovering as a yuppie-gay historical enclave.

Not all the urban renewal schemes failed. I was dazzled by a Mies van der Rohe townhome project, a human-scale garden streetscape in the middle of the city, so lovely that you could almost forgive the grim adjoining Mies van der Rohe high-rise apartment projects.

More often, however, urban renewal was to Detroit what the RAF was to Dresden. One heart-rending contrast: the General Motors plant in Hamtramck, where acres of solid working-class housing were bulldozed – not to make way for the factory itself, which required relatively little space – but so that the factory could be surrounded by parking lots, grass and a wide moat of highway from the rest of the city. It makes a heart-rending contrast to the abandoned 1920s Packard factory I visited, where cottages had been built literally across the lane from the factory wall: literally 40 feet away.

What killed Detroit?

The collapse of the automobile industry seems the obvious answer. But is it a sufficient answer? The departure of meatpacking did not kill Chicago. Pittsburgh has staggered forward from the demise of steelmaking. New York has lost one industry after another: shipping, garment-manufacture, printing, and how many more?

Two other factors have to be considered.

The first is the especially and maybe uniquely poisonous quality of Detroit’s race relations. Like Chicago, Detroit attracted hundreds of thousands of black migrants between 1915 and 1960, mostly very unskilled, hoping to gain well-paying employment in factories and warehouses.

Their arrival jeopardized the ambitions of the white working class to raise its wages through unionization. Henry Ford eagerly hired black workers in order to defeat the unions, and in the violent labor clashes of the 1930s, whites and blacks often confronted each other as strikers and strikebreakers.

After the war, the United Autoworkers union tried to integrate blacks into the industrial workforce. But by then automation had begun, and industry’s demand for unskilled labor would first cease to grow, then diminish, then disappear. For many migrants, the promised land soon proved a mirage. Or maybe worse than a mirage. If the promised land did not yield the hoped-for industrial jobs, it offered something else: generous new welfare programs, the ashy false fruit of urban liberalism. The children of the parents who accepted the fruit grew into the criminals who drove first the middle class and then the working class out of the downtown and then altogether out of the city.

As the white working class departed, Detroit became a black-majority city, governed by a deeply aggrieved and flagrantly corrupt political class. Political dysfunction spiraled the city into another cycle of dissolution and abandonment – and the abandonment in turn provided the politicians with fresh grievances.

The second factor in Detroit’s decline is the city’s defiant rejection of education and the arts. Pittsburgh has Carnegie-Mellon. Cleveland has Case Western Reserve University. Chicago has the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and a campus of the University of Illinois. Detroit has… Wayne State.

A city that celebrated industrial culture spurned high culture. The Detroit Institute of Arts is very nice. But it does not begin to compare to Cleveland’s museum, let alone the Art Institute of Chicago. Detroit has a symphony orchestra, but its history has been troubled and unstoried in comparison to Philadelphia’s or Cleveland’s. On the plaza in front of the Detroit municipal building is a huge bronze replica of Joe Louis’ fist and arm, as if to say: “Here is a city ruled by brawn.” Brawn counts for very little in the modern world. The earnest redevelopers who hoped to renew Detroit by razing its history instead destroyed the raw materials out of which urban renaissance has come to so so many other American downtowns.  A couple of days after I returned from Detroit, I telephoned a friend who had lived and worked in the city for many years. My friend, it’s relevant to mention, is the son of an Irish cop, ardently Catholic and defiantly conservative. Why did Chicago recover and Detroit fail, I asked. What doomed the city? He thought for a moment. “Not enough gays.”

Detroit confirms the lessons taught by Jane Jacobs and Russell Kirk. Preservation is as vital to urban health as renovation. Indeed, they are inseparable. The preservation of the old incubates the new.

It’s a lesson with application not only to Detroit’s past, but its future. The great factory complexes along the Detroit River have shuttered. America no longer manufactures here. Some will want to rip the factories down. Leave them be – leave them for now as monuments and memorials of the achievements of the past; leave them for the future, when somebody will want them. Want them for what? Who can say? Who in 1950 could ever have imagined London’s Docklands converted into condominums? Who would have guessed that New York’s emptied toolshops would provide some of the city’s most coveted office space? The 22nd century will put the artifacts of the 20th to equally unsurmisable uses, if only we permit it. Cities can molder for a century or more, and then reawaken to a new era that rediscovers something of value in the detritus of an earlier time. Brooklyn did. So did Miami Beach. Ditto Boston and Charleston – and even more spectacularly, Dublin and Prague. The promise of renaissance may yet come true, even for the ghost city of Detroit.

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