The Browning of Detroit

The Browning of Detroit

Designed by Albert Kahn and once a mar­vel of archi­tec­ture, the old Packard plant is a hulk we were told that the city can’t afford to dismantle.

Detroit, 2013— A cor­re­spon­dent sends “25 Facts about the Fall of Detroit That Will Leave You Shak­ing Your Head,” by Michael Sny­der of the Eco­nom­ic Col­lapse Blog:

Once upon a time, the city of Detroit was a teem­ing metrop­o­lis of 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple and it had the high­est per capi­ta income in the Unit­ed States.  Now it is a rot­ting, decay­ing hell­hole of about 700,000 peo­ple that the rest of the world makes jokes about.

When in July 2013 Detroit announced that it would  file for Chap­ter 9 bank­rupt­cy, the move was stopped at least tem­porar­i­ly by an Ing­ham Coun­ty judge:

She ruled that Detroit’s bank­rupt­cy fil­ing vio­lates the Michi­gan Con­sti­tu­tion because it would result in reduced pen­sion pay­ments for retired work­ers [and that] bank­rupt­cy fil­ing was “also not hon­or­ing the pres­i­dent, who took [Detroit’s auto com­pa­nies] out of bankruptcy”….How “hon­or­ing the pres­i­dent” has any­thing to do with the bank­rupt­cy of Detroit is a bit of a mystery….

My cor­re­spon­dent writes: “We can be pret­ty sure this judge is not a Constitutionalist—one of those awful peo­ple who believe in Aristotle’s view that ‘the law is rea­son free from passion.’”

Detroit Then

I knew it when. In the ear­ly 1970s, as an edi­tor with Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly, I fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed Detroit for research, test dri­ves and inter­views. I remem­ber the spin­ning num­bers on the Goodyear signs head­ing in and out of town from the air­port, tot­ing up car pro­duc­tion for the year; the great and thriv­ing GM Design Cen­ter; the Ford Rotun­da in Dear­born and the vast Rouge Plant; the Chrysler His­tor­i­cal Col­lec­tion at High­land Park; strug­gling lit­tle Amer­i­can Motors on the edge of town, all hum­ming along with vary­ing degrees of pros­per­i­ty. Grad­u­al­ly the rolling num­bers on the sign became per­cep­tive­ly slow­er, and in 2002 the signs dis­ap­peared altogether.

Detroit Now

My last vis­it was in 2012. We cruised around the derelict Packard plant with our car win­dows up and the doors locked—past the once fine hous­es along East Grand Boule­vard, one a burned-out shell, the next one inhab­it­ed and try­ing to stay alive. A police car warned us not to stop because it wasn’t safe and they won’t come to your aid if you get into trou­ble. Fre­quent­ly fires break out amid the old brick build­ings. The D.F.D. nev­er answers a call there because it’s a risk to firemen’s lives even to enter the area.

In 1972 Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly ran a piece on the British car indus­try enti­tled, “What’s the Mat­ter with Eng­land? Fine engi­neers muz­zled by incom­pe­tent exec­u­tives and a dis­mal labor force, among some oth­er things.” One of the oth­er things was gov­ern­ment, devot­ed to the Pur­chase Tax, which reg­u­la­tors both Labour and Tory would con­stant­ly raise and low­er to “con­trol” the econ­o­my. They would do this two or three times a year, and you nev­er knew whether it was going up or down.

At the time we were called Cas­san­dras. British Ley­land Motors even orga­nized a press tour to show how wrong we were and how pros­per­ous they were. But ten years lat­er, the British indus­try was bust. Today it large­ly com­pris­es assem­bly lines for for­eign manufacturers.

Michael Sny­der writes a good piece, but it’s not about Coven­try or Dagen­ham. It’s about what was once the might­i­est indus­tri­al city in the world—and a har­bin­ger of things to come.

“Detroit is only the begin­ning,” Sny­der warns. “When the next major finan­cial cri­sis strikes, we are going to see a wave of munic­i­pal bank­rupt­cies unlike any­thing we have ever seen before.”

You can call him a Cas­san­dra, too. But before you do, you might want to pay a vis­it to Detroit.

The famous art deco “Packard Bridge” over once-grand East Grand Boule­vard, a remind­ed of days long gone.

2 thoughts on “The Browning of Detroit

  1. Richard: Thanks for the kind words, but no thanks on the exten­sion. Why depress our­selves? In fact, I left the post-1980 Gen­er­al Motors sto­ry to the edi­tors of Con­sumer Guide because I didn’t want to relive it. Each decade-long chap­ter begins with a quote. For 1970-79, I chose one by my old friend the late Tony Hogg, one­time edi­tor of Road & Track: “GM is so big that if you start­ed man­ag­ing it very bad­ly right now, you wouldn’t see the dif­fer­ence for ten years.” (Tony said that in 1973. Hmm.)

  2. Hel­lo Mr. Langworth,
    I have almost all of your Auto books. are you going to con­tin­ue the his­to­ry of Ford 1988 untill present? Chrysler 1986 untill present? and Gen­er­al Motors 1987-Present?
    Regards Richard

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