This is the first part of a series of posts I’ll be writing about a city with a unique story to tell.
If you’ve seen the Eminem film 8 Mile, you’ve seen the reality of Detroit. Despite being a mainstream film, it’s gritty depiction of present-day motor city isn’t taking an awful lot of artistic license. That is actually how it is, or how it was when 8-Mile was made in 2002. Things have possibly got worse since then. The history of Detroit is a roller-coaster ride starting with a small settlement in the 1700’s and by no means ending with it’s present day incarnation as a bewildering example of de-industrialisation.
A long time ago, came a man on a track…
Detroit was born as a French military outpost founded in the early 1700’s, chosen for it’s favourable location on the Detroit river – part of the Great Lakes system. By the late 1800’s it was quickly becoming a hub for pharmaceutical, tobacco and other industries who set up large scale production and manufacturing facilities.
Coal from the south, iron ore from the north and water from the great lakes made Detroit the perfect place for production of iron and steel goods.
In 1910, Henry Ford’s Highland Park car production plant opened which marked the start of a decades long heyday of automobile manufacturing in the Detroit area. Fisher, General Motors and Chrysler soon followed Ford in setting up production. This massive increase in industrial output had huge manpower requirements and the population of the city increased from 265,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million by 1930.
To represent the huge numbers of manual labourers working in the city, the Union Auto Workers was founded in 1935 and in it’s early years bitter disputes opened up between the union and the car companies. The legendary sit-down strikes in nearby Flint nearly ended in military intervention but succeeded in forcing Ford, Chrysler and General Motors to officially recognise the unions.
During the Second World War, Detroit became known as the “Arsenal of democracy”, with car production was suspended in favour of building tanks, jeeps and aircraft for the war effort. The union made a no-strike-action pledge to ensure that industrial action could not jeopardise the manufacturing capability of the USA while the country was at war.
War is over
At the end of the Second World War in 1946, Detroit returned to car production, and a new UAW president called Walter Reuther was appointed who presided over the longest and most prosperous period in the history of American auto workers, which lasted until his death in 1970.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s Detroit flourished and the auto workers benefited in turn, receiving generous pay rises and excellent healthcare and pension provisions. The car companies could afford this because they were making excellent profits from the loyal American car-buying public, and it seemed like it would last forever. The era produced some stunning examples of car design, featuring large tail fins, lashings of chrome and prominent grills. Models like the Ford Mustang and Thunderbird, Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger defined the muscle car category that is still ultra-cool today.
Along with it’s status as the car production capital of the world, Detroit became a major cultural force – legendary in the music scene for the Motown record labels, which produced 110 top ten hits in the decade 1960-1970 from artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5.
Detroit is also home to one of my personal favourite bands – The Stooges. After they disbanded, their front man Iggy Pop recorded a spectacular tribute to the city’s industrial complex with a song called Mass Production on his classic 1977 album The Idiot.
It’s a spectacular success story – but in the next post in this series I’ll cover how simmering racial tensions and the multiple oil crises of the 1970’s inflicted damage on the city that it could never recover from.