‘Proved at Detroit’s Proving Grounds’. It was a virtual quality mark. An automobile made at the car capital of the world: Detroit, Michigan.
Post-WWII it became a boomtown. General Motors seized a monopoly on the American car industry, technological expansion and education making Detroit the preeminent industrial zone in the country. People flocked in from the countryside and other cities, fuelling suburban growth.
In 1959 Motown records was founded. Detroit had soul; racial integration became more than a dream. Blacks and whites worked next to each other on the production line and danced together in the clubs.
Motown records left Detroit in 1972. Los Angeles beckoned; did its owners see something that the others did not?
Living standards and wages grew commensurately until the profit margins at the automobile companies no longer looked so attractive. The oil shocks showed the vulnerability of the American manufacturing base. Reliance on imported energy resources dissuaded further investment in ‘working’ industries.
Then came Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism (Reaganomics). Mass privatisation, an insistence on outsourcing to cheaper labour markets. For a company president the choice was an obvious one. Outsource to Asia and cut American jobs.
Foreign competition grew from Japan, whose car industry had benefited from generous technology transfer from the US. Not only were the cars smaller and more fuel-efficient but they were cheaper. Demand for American cars declined. Another reason to scale back domestic production.
As the car industry and its supporting supply chain began to crumble, the federal and state government stood idly by. At their disposal was a massive, highly-skilled native work force. The opportunity to invest in new industrial enterprises emerged at a time when foreign credit and global economic expansion enabled such commitments. Instead, corruption and mismanagement proliferated.
Besides, Detroit is Motown; people were born to work in the motor industry. At least that was the theory. An apathy to change course, a failure to realise the impending economic reality, an understandable denial took hold.
Poor advice, poor forethought, poor decisions. Detroit was allowed to go the dogs. Before anyone knew what was happening and a bailout of General Motors was on the horizon, the city was emptying. A population decrease of almost 60% since 1950. Urban blight could have no better representative than Detroit. Houses abandoned, shops looted of what little stock could not be sold, suburbs decaying from the map.
Rather than being a statement of American ingenuity and national pride, Detroit has become a national embarrassment. A collective failure from top to bottom. The capitalist model cannot be blamed, nor the economic decisions of the 1980s. Other cities have lost industry and survived. Detroit allowed itself to drift into malaise.
Plans for urban regeneration beckon after the formality of the bankruptcy. A new sheen will gloss over the endemic failures of a place where nobody flocks to anymore.
It has become the reverse of the American dream. RIP Detroit.