Resurgent Detroit: America’s most important city

Got this image from a site with the same name - seems apropros

Got this image from a site with the same name – seems apropros

I started thinking about this post before I arrived in Detroit, but it really came together when talking to one of my friends who was on the trip after we got back.  More than Washington, D.C., Chicago, the state of Texas, Los Angeles, or even New York City, Detroit may be the single most important American city.  I’m not calling it the best, the most diverse, the most innovative, or the most popular (far from it, I imagine).  For better or worse – and there is a great deal of both – this city founded in 1701 in many ways has defined our country and our relationship to our neighbors. Here’s what I mean…

A little history

Before I can write about what I saw in Detroit and what it feels like in 2016, it is important to write about what it has been.  Detroit gave birth to a style of music that moved our country’s racial divisions as smoothly as it has moved generations on the dance floor.  With the rebirth of racist bloviating for political gain it might be easy to forget the context in which Motown was born.  Perhaps more importantly, it might be easy to forget the impact the devoted – and racially integrated – following had as those rebellious teens became parents.  We sometimes fail to see in the moment what the true arc of progress has been.  The label, founded in 1959, wasn’t merely the start of the most successful African-American business of its time. Nor was it merely about a new style of music.  As Motown grew in the 1960’s, its sound weaved through nearly every major event that shaped a very turbulent decade, and on its way it snaked through living rooms and card parties, dance halls, skating rinks, and more than a few bedrooms of little girls and boys of every hue grabbing a pick (or a brush) and dreaming about being a Black superstar. Diana Ross was Beyonce first.  And kids never dream about being Michael Jordan if their parents didn’t make it acceptable by first dreaming of being Michael Jackson when they were little.  Music wasn’t even close to Detroit’s biggest contribution to American society, but that’s not because it was of trivial importance.  Motown made Detroit cool and paved the way for important progress, but there were two vastly more important contributions to America and we ought to think about those before turning to modern Detroit.

Going underground

Long before building stood vacant, rotting in place, before white flight and bankruptcy, and before anyone grabbed a microphone to talk about ‘my girl’ Detroit was important.  Before riots and the assembly line, before the first great legal migration out of the deep south, there was a secret guarded by many in the still of many Detroit nights.  In Detroit, before America allowed the better angels of its leaders’ character to win the day and they passed the Fugitive Slave Act, there was a gateway to freedom.

No better place for this than on the banks of the Detroit River

No better place for this than on the banks of the Detroit River

Detroit was the last stop on the most important railroad our country ever built. It was the terminus of the Underground Railroad.  Next stop, Canada FREEDOM.  Most people, myself included, have never heard of George de Baptiste. Although we don’t have currency named after this free Black business owner who moved north to Detroit and ferried escaped slaves south to Canada, de Baptiste was an important conductor along that railroad. (Note: The reference to “south” in the last sentence is not a typo, as this map shows, the Detroit river actually requires crossing south in to Canada!).  In the decades that a well-honed series of secret, dangerous connections formed the ties and tracks of the underground railroad, more than 30,000 enslaved Americans made their way from Detroit into Windsor and other parts of Canada. This particular Detroit contribution likely partially explains why so many African Americans headed north for work after the end of slavery.  The irony of this particular mode of travel is stunning as we turn to unquestionably what is Detroit’s most significant impact on every aspect of American life since the early 20th century. If we are to properly frame the Detroit of today and our potentially outsized interest in making sure it survives, we really need to honor the impact – both positive and catastrophic – of the automotive industry.

The Assembly Line Changes Everything

I’m not the first person to write about the impact of that moment on December 1, 1913, when Henry Ford’s team first flipped the switch on the assembly line. But the assembly line isn’t just a story about American ingenuity or massive economic growth.  It’s not just about major economic opportunities for poor and working class Americans – including many sons and daughters of American slaves – that made the assembly line so important.  The biggest reason the assembly line – and by extension the city of Detroit – is the most important American city is that it enabled, for better and worse, the full modernization, expansion and in many cases destruction of the United States.


Vox does some really interesting work and if you aren’t familiar I really recommend it.  The above video helps make sense of something that many, many people in this country know very well.  The upside of highway projects are that they made it more efficient to move goods from one part of the country to another, they employed people (not a great justification, but relevant), and they opened up more of the country to more people.  The downsides are that they didn’t just stop at the city’s edge and actually cut through many of them, and many of those “cut-throughs” were politically powerless, poor, often minority communities.  The justification, of course, was frequently that the community being cleared was blighted and in slum-like conditions.  Although this was frequently true, few seemed to care that it was frequently the very government seeking to do “slum clearance” that created the slum with investment-averse regulations and restrictions on where a person could live or work.  This isn’t a piece about race or about poverty necessarily, but it seems at least in American cities we can’t really have a full conversation without dealing with those two realities.

Detroit is America’s most important city not just because of the assembly line, that was just the start.  If we stop for a moment and think about what that assembly line brought us over the 100 years since that fateful day, we get a better picture.  Mass produced cars made them more affordable. Stories of the role of the car in what America has become and the historic significance are everywhere.  It also created more people whose relatively high wages could afford them.  And the increased demand for places to drive those new, expensive transportation options pushed us to create more roads. The Lincoln Highway Association is just one example of many politically connected groups that pushed for more and bigger and longer roads. Decades before the bailout most Americans are now familiar with, the auto industry employed nearly 1 in 6 Americans. Without Detroit, the entire rust belt of car-centric industry towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania and many other states never materializes.  And you know what may never happen? The west coast. The weather, the promise of gold, and the desire for adventure probably would have made the western United States more than a collection of sleepy outposts.  But without automobiles to move goods and to more easily move people do we ever get the set of circumstances that creates the modern American west?  It’s at least an open question.  I love New York City as much as any place I’ve ever been.  It’s importance as a global center is undeniable.  But Detroit gave rise to important shifts in the way America viewed itself.  It changed what was possible in a way that no other city other than maybe Palo Alto, the home of Bill Hewlett and Larry Packard.

The decline and the what now

There are plenty of stories about Detroit’s decline.  Here’s a good one from the New York Times.  We could blame it on the massive short-sightedness that our political system fosters – rewarding quick wins over prudent planning.  We could blame it – as the New York Times piece suggests – on over-reliance on one industry.  To me, what happened is much less interesting than what is happening now. For one, billionaire Dan Gilbert and the guy from Little Caesar’s appear to be buying up the city. For another, there are signs like these of the city finding ways to reinvent itself for the people willing to take a chance. Like most urban communities, Detroit has some growing (or re-growing) pains.  There is a not unreasonable concern that the benefits of new investment will not inure to the long-struggling residents of Detroit that couldn’t afford to move when many fled for greener pastures.  In fact, Detroit’s real story is likely to be very similar to the one that plays out in San Diego and Chicago and dozens of other cities in which economic upswings are disproportionately ignoring the throngs of poor, often minority residents with the same incredible efficiency that the downturns seemed to almost exclusively locate them.

In Detroit I saw urban gardens everywhere.  But I also burnt out buildings and vacant lots everywhere, too.  We experienced Detroit in a way that may have romanticized it a little.  But not too much.  There are minority owned businesses springing up in parts of town that had been almost abandoned.  There are people trying hard to exhale some of their own oxygen into Detroit to help it get sound footing again.  Detroit won’t be what it once was.  It can’t be.  But more importantly, it shouldn’t be.  The country doesn’t need Detroit to be a national economic engine that changes the course of the future.  You know who needs Detroit?  The people IN Detroit.  Just as it was once poised to become – and did become – a city capable of altering the economic future of the nation, so too it now must become a leader of a different sort.  Detroit can show the way to inclusive growth, to embracing “shop local” or “produce local” or “live local” not as marketing gimmicks but as America’s new normal.  Thanks to Silicon Valley, our cities are connected by signals that don’t need highways.  What they need now, and what Detroit can pave the way for, is a blueprint for broad economic inclusion centered around an economy that leverages Information Technology to bring in resources while growing locally enough vitality to sustain the lives of the people who call Detroit home. ALL of the people who call Detroit home.


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