Master's Thesis Written by Matthew Roderick for Master's Degree in Photography at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

URBAN BLIGHT – DETROIT, CITY IN CRISIS

ABSTRACT

Detroit, Michigan has much of a history still affecting its growth and performance today. An unusual city to say the least, it has stamped Model T automobiles out of steel, refined the skills of assembly line automation, and acted as a model worldwide for the setup of major production and manufacturing facilities. As this city grew due to its wonderful resources of trees, minerals, land, water, and labor, the population soon topped the charts by becoming the fourth largest city in the United States.

Many southerners once tobacco farmers, and cotton pickers migrated north for stability in jobs, a 40 hour week of work and a guaranteed daily wage. This was unprecedented for the time, and stood as one of many developments propagated by Henry Ford to equip the city to become a prosperous machine of production. Detroit continued its growth throughout the industrial revolution finally leading up to the realities of today, a far cry from the prosperous cities of yesteryear.

After the second World War, the production of machines for the global effort including tanks, armory, airplanes and other intelligence vehicles have fallen off, leaving Detroit to again pick up the pieces and go back to their monopolized and singular fate of survival. The auto industry boomed for many years, but eventually met its match with some fierce competition for the foreign market in the late 70s and early 80s that would change the face of the automobile industry for better or for worse.

Much of the downtown area never revived itself after the Detroit Riots and still faces hard economic times daily. The amount of homeless and people in poverty is on the rise, and with companies leaving Detroit at record setting speeds such as Comerica, and Pfizer, there seems to be no end in sight. What is in sight are the remains of a once booming economy responsible for the livelihoods of a large percentage of Detroiters.

INTRODUCTION

page1-pic1Detroit, Michigan is the home of the Motor City and is famous the world over for starting the automotive revolution. Founded by Antoine de le Mothe Cadillac as a fort and trading post, the land was in turmoil from the beginning. Initially seized by the British in 1760, it was finally ceded to the US in 1784. Detroit prospered throughout the nineteenth century due to its strategic location near the water, easy access routes were quickly assembled via the continental railroad. The city produced steel for the fabrication of ships and structures and inevitably saw the rise of the auto industry. Henry Ford’s groundbreaking technological innovations paved the way for assembly line production at several Detroit automotive plants. By 1960, Detroit had grown to be one of the largest cities in the US, attracting millions of immigrants seeking jobs and fortune.

Detroit became known as the “Paris of the Midwest” as an influx of French immigrants came to its shores seeking lucrative fur trading, farming and mining for fossil fuels. Extraction of minerals aided in growing settlements throughout the surrounding areas as city streets made way for paved roads resulting in congestion and inner-city turmoil. After a major fire in the 1850’s reduced the city to ashes, city streets and avenues were drafted by Thomas Jefferson, Charles L’Enfant and Augustus Woodward. The uniqueness claimed by the streets included broader avenues which worked to establish transportation routes for the shipping of raw goods and materials throughout the Midwest.

Lewis Cass was responsible for the purchase of large amounts of land from the Indians. The completion of the Erie Canal excelled the population boom due to the reduction of travel time from a two-month trip, to four or five days of passage by water. The fur trade began to wind down around the end of the 1820’s, making room for new types of exploits including the iron industry and the building of railroads. By the time Michigan joined the Union in 1837, the railroads replaced the waterways as the main shipping route. By the end of the century, the industries of lumber, mining, and railroad gave Detroit the economic capital it needed to propel itself into the automobile industry.

Detroit provided work to generations of immigrants through employment in auto factories, local commerce, machining parts, and building construction. The German and the Irish were the earliest immigrants, followed by Polish, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, and Greeks. In a small span of 20 years between 1910 and 1930, the number of African-Americans increased from 5000 to 120000 as a result of migration from the South for jobs and better social conditions.

Even before the automobile, Detroit was a major shipping hub for the importing and exporting of raw materials. This port was used in the settling of the western US aiding in the delivery of food products, much needed steel, and timber. Fort Detroit, as it was known then, continued as a diverse area catering to French Canadians, Indians and the British. During the French and Indian war, many French fought alongside the Indians in hopes of defeating the British Royal Empire. Unfortunately, the British would prove too clever for the alliance as Indians were paid to fight against each other as a divide and conquer strategy.

page1-pic1The first paved road was established in Detroit as part of the major transit system that adopted for the use of shipping cargo, workers, and the almighty automobile. Workers from the south who once picked cotton for slim wages looked north for better economic opportunity in hopes of a better life. Houses went up fast and became commodities to large developers which quickly tore down trees and excavated land for the swelling population. Downtown Detroit was a thriving city with a public transit system and soon encountered problems with pollution, working conditions and economic standards.

During the 2nd World War, the auto industry played a crucial role in the production of planes, army vehicles and weapons associating another nickname with Detroit, “The Arsenal of Democracy.” Henry Ford and the Willow Run plant were responsible for the manufacturing of the B24 bomber. Women began to enter the workforce and take on similar roles of men. “Rosie the Riveter” was coined at this time and became a common icon for female workers of the time. Intensities of economic distress hit home as men were shipped overseas to fight in the war, leaving women, mothers and children behind.1

Henry Ford broke plans for the Highland Park automobile plant in 1909. Seen as a model for factories in the 20th century, the immense complex gained the nickname “Crystal Palace.” The four-story factory was 865 feet long and topped by five enormous smokestacks belching chemical exhaust into the air. Demand for auto production quickly increased and surpassed maximum capacity. Henry Ford turned to the concentrations of his next venture, constructing a major complex known as the River Rouge plant. The Detroit area served as an international model for production and manufacturing techniques lead to the optimizing of profit through industrialized production. Modern obsessions of the time included a tendency toward the exploitation of surplus labor, natural resources, and venture capital.

Henry Ford found value in the modes of production itself, but the construction of concrete factories proved to be too inflexible as the demand for the creation of new styles and model offerings of automobiles increased. Frequent changeovers of entire setups were required as a result of these options, resulting in the adoption of factories to enable the easy transformation of line operations. Henry Ford’s setup became “an industry for the world, an industry that consumes the world.”2 Nature became a commodity resource of production and Ford moved forward with plans of the River Rouge Plant becoming a single, integrated and organic process, a first of its kind.

Detroit’s reliance on a singular automobile economy kept the city transforming to accommodate the most recent methods of production patterns and industrial operation. This dysfunction virtually determined the city’s planned obsolescence, a result currently being experienced half a century later. The automobile industry gave individuals the availability of wealth, which assisted in families and individuals to seek new areas of residency. The consumer class began to buy into the fabrication of desire, creating demand for commodities which began to appear in transportation and communication arenas.3

page1-pic1Detroit met its challenges early on during the Industrial Revolution, building a city of strong blue collar workers with pride, respect and hearts of steel. Roadways, housing, sewer and other city infrastructure were put into place as public heating and electricity took precedence. After the fall of the industrial revolution, large areas of land were left unfit and unfertile for farming due to contaminants in the soil. Throughout the last half of the 20th Century, political struggles over oil, the international exchange rate, and an intense recession have fallen hard on Detroit. The strategy of decentralization was adopted by Ford leading to a reduction of top heavy production making way for independent businesses to spring up all around the City and the country. “Downsizing and outsourcing labor became the norm, replacing regular employment.”4

Tens of thousands of Detroiters throughout the middle of the 20th Century began a migration out of the city and into the suburbs, shrinking the city’s tax base and leading to a decline in overall living conditions and quality of education. Racial lines were drawn along the 8 Mile boarder as people lucky enough to gain the means of an education and finance moved northward away from the poverty and chaos of the city. “From 1900 to 1950 the population of Detroit grew from under 285,700 to over 1.8 million. From 1950 to 2000 the population of Detroit decreased from over 1.8 million to 951,270. In 1998, 79% of the population in Detroit was African American. In 1998, 78% of the population in the surrounding suburbs was White.”5 A major eruption in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, sparked riots and fires all over the city lasting for more than five days.

page1-pic1Entire blocks went up in smoke, while looting in the downtown area was so extensive that several streets were lined with old furniture and televisions as residents made room for the newly acquired products.6

The automobile titans of the time included General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, employing an immense amount of the surrounding workforce and accountable for a large percentage of the country’s Gross National Product. As harsher realities became clear for companies nationwide in the loss of market share and the face of rising costs of raw materials and labor, layoffs soon became the mainstay. Many people left out in the cold after years of dedication to the production of millions of cars and billions in revenue for the companies. A continuing trend in Detroit has been the reduction of costs through the minimization of labor and outsourcing.

BODY

A significant downward spiral has continued since the 1970’s with Detroit shouldering most of the major economic catastrophe. As companies size down their workforce in hopes of becoming profitable, more customers are at a loss to affording luxuries such as automobiles. GM reduced its manufacturing expenses by shunning their once dependable US producers to capitalize on the global market. In a global economy, manufactured parts are shipped from overseas making the American auto manufactures dependent on foreign labor. Manufacturers that once realized a large profit have been forced to close their doors as competitive edge in the international market is lost.

page1-pic1At one time, Detroit’s industry grew so fast that over 2 million people immigrated for work at the automobile plants. Guaranteed a 40 hour work week with the help of labor unions, an assembly line process coined by Henry Ford produced cars on a scale never seen before. Detroit became a city of transportation as cars commuted for work and at the end of the day pursued lifestyles that reached out into the suburbs. Many fled the downtown area in pursuit of better living, superior education, and steady employment.

The 21st Century brings many challenges to the forefront of the automobile industry. General Motors recently announced a loss of $8.6 billion as it began restructuring efforts meant to soften a pattern of yearly losses from relentless industry competition. Chrysler is another automaker that inevitably became a victim of restructuring efforts to correct major financial losses. Between both American companies 140,000 jobs have been cut since 2000.

The companies have found themselves squeezed by two powerful competitive forces from foreign companies like Toyota, having to face the realities of rising costs for both labor and materials such as steel and petroleum.7

Detroit’s government and school system has run into a fiscal nightmare, resulting in the slashing of staff and services. The city is currently facing its largest deficit to date, totaling a $389 million shortfall over the past three years. Mayor Kwame Kilpartrick announced previously that Detroit in recent years has announced layoffs for nearly 700 people and eliminate almost 300 vacant jobs, cut employee pay by 10 percent, and end overnight bus transportation. Detroit has been seeking a renaissance for more than a generation, but it appears the wait will continue. This horrible epidemic has led some people to the realization of a “cataclysmic, debilitating, monumental, dire and grave” scenario.8

Michigan has taken the brunt of the hardships in the economy due to the decline of manufacturing jobs. “Detroit is the nation’s poorest big city, with about one in three residents living below the federal poverty level -- $19,157 in household income for a family of four.” Many people with means are emigrating due to an immense unemployment rate hovering somewhere around 15% for much of the year. As poverty becomes a way of life for many in Detroit, life choices are severely limited for better education, health, and well-being.

Vast areas of Detroit are being transformed through demolition and vacancy, leaving houses vulnerable to drugs, arson and theft. The removal of old factories and dilapidated buildings has become a significant industry in the city with demolition contractors bidding to clear lots. Several cities in the Midwest rust belt have succumbed to the same result of carnage ranging from vacant business buildings and warehouses, iron leftovers and processing containers. As opportunities for employment expand in other territories, a mass exodus begins to take skilled workers to other areas of the US, creating a vacuum effect. Companies span the globe in search of areas to conduct business to expand opportunity, market share and overall productivity.9

page1-pic1“The burned-out facades and shattered windows, caving porches and crumbling rooftops that mar the landscape from the crux of downtown to the city’s outskirts. Year after Year, dangerous vacant houses have been turned into desolate vacant lots, creating an oddly sparse urban patchwork. More than 28000 houses have been demolished since 1989-90; the city spends $800000 a year maintaining its empty lots.” A block away is a dilapidated apartment building with plywood in its windows, a red-brick number with broken windows and, in the distance, and eight-story building with no windows at all. Blight is like a cancer; our theory has been we can eliminate it before it spreads. There are dozens of homes in our community that if we could have gotten the titles from the city quickly, we could have families in there and have them back on the tax rolls, when the city demolishes a house, they don’t plant grass, they don’t plant trees, it’s just a big scar."10

Detroit ranks near the top for unemployment and poverty, and is slowly following a trend of extinction. The manufacturing economies brought on by Midwestern cities such as Flint, Akron, Cleveland, and Indianapolis have become a thing of the past. For most people, it is necessary to follow opportunities for work to aid in the creation of family’s and neighborhoods. A lack of opportunity for education and employment leaves crime and drugs as common methods of compensation for a way of life. Child poverty is a growing problem in Michigan. Since 2000, child poverty rates have increased from 14 to 17 percent, and there are approximately 26000 more poor children in the state.

As it stands today, Detroit has less than 1 million people, half the population has left in a mass emigration from the state following more job opportunities in other areas of the US. The Big 3 automakers that once relied heavily on their workforce to be the biggest purchasers of automobiles now have circumvented those very workers from affording a car. As hundreds of thousands of layoffs continue to be felt around the country, more and more citizens are out of work. At any one time in Detroit, the unemployment rate stands at 15%. Nearly double the Nation’s unemployment rate.

page1-pic1Of course, these major job cuts aren’t only plaguing the auto industry, but the manufactures involved with the creation of auto parts through mining of minerals, processing of metals, machining and repair shops. This domino effect has escalated the chance for unemployment and poverty in areas. Companies have now moved their headquarters to other areas of the US offering a wider selection from skilled workforces, and tax incentives for incoming developers. Jennifer Grandholm, and many others are working to bring economic opportunity back to Michigan using attractive incentives. The changeover from manufacturing jobs to more of a high-tech economy will take many years to replace the thriving local economy of the past.

Many attempts have been made to clean up the city and repair the dismal outlook for new economic opportunity. Recent developments including sport stadiums and casinos have been constructed in the downtown area to regain some of the lost financial opportunities. The city persists in a continuous renovation, effectively erasing the history as its population continues to recede at an alarming rate. Rather than demonstrating social progress, Detroit has become a post-Fordist urbanism through its shaping by the continuous change in the environments of economics, social class, and working conditions.11

The Michigan Theater has been renovated into a parking lot to make room for business offices. Established in 1925, this great theater had the capability of holding 5000 people and was packed with luxurious ornamentation including marble staircases and oil paintings. The Central Railroad Station opened for operation in 1913 and once routed as many as forty-three trains daily, now stands empty with a barrage of broken windows. The Hudson’s Building also fell victim to progress as the largest retail store in America standing a block long was demolished to make room for incoming business. At one time, the building had been renovated to cover an entire block of Woodward and Grand River, becoming a beacon for the downtown area.12

Detroit is looked upon as post-industrial by Europeans and stands as an example of what is to come for other manufacturing cities around the world as old technologies become obsolete. The chaos of Detroit has led it to earn the names of “Murder Capital” due to violence over intense inequities of social class and opportunity.

The suburbs act as a perfect example that exacerbates this problem. While schools in the suburbs have a disposable amount of money for technology including computers and athletic equipment, inner-city Detroit schools have a hard time obtaining textbooks for each and every student.

The ability for opportunity is always enhanced with education. Detroit school children are facing an enormous inequity when it comes to the access of educational tools. This has created a domino effect as less education leads to larger gaps for wages and affordable lifestyles. Many youth are faced with limited choices of schooling, living in poverty stricken areas where crime is a fact of life. Drugs, murder, and stealing are everyday topics on the news as the public watchers pass judgment on the “lower class” forever labeling them as criminals with no likelihood of rehabilitation.

The perspective on Detroit from suburbanites ranges from positive to negative due to the presence of crime and the economic state. But, it is crucial to realize that the problem has its origin from powerful conglomerates that have reaped tremendous rewards by running a capitalist economy with no concern for human rights. Detroit is the result of a larger problem associated with capitalism as cheaper products are sought through the use of available labor and materials.

page1-pic1“Detroit stands devastated, overburdened by the infrastructural, architectural, and human sediment of its Fordist past. Central parts of Detroit are empty, large buildings stand as ruins, offices, schools, and vast urban territories have been abandoned. Ford made social advance tangible through high, universal wages while allowing for an eight-hour day and a forty-hour work-week decades before these norms were legislated. The scales of mass production turned luxury goods into achievable commodities for every worker.”13

Detroit’s prominence on such an amazing scale is a demonstration of the fighting spirit behind the people who chose to stay the course. Even though racial tensions still exist in the area, many people are proud to call Detroit home. With the development of the new Tiger Stadium, Ford Field, and Motor City Casino, efforts are underway to improve the perception and appeal of the once thriving city. These businesses have offered some minor relief in the current economic quandary, but to replace a couple hundred positions in the midst of thousands of jobs being lost proves to only be a drop in the bucket. In the wake of emigration out of Detroit, many houses are up for sale, commercial buildings lay vacant, shopping malls and factories are demolished. Homeless rates in Detroit are extremely high with some forced to live in abandoned houses and standing facades for protection from the elements.

“These are dire times for Detroit’s automakers, and even bleaker ones for thousands of largely invisible companies that make steering wheels, transmissions and other components for the vehicles that roll off the assembly lines. Business has evaporated in Detroit due to GM and Ford greatly reducing the number of suppliers used in the U.S.”14

This tragic outcome does offer up much needed knowledge in considering the best way to approach future demands with the best interest of people first and the businesses that use their labor second. The Midwest now lacks any focus for economic resurrection, as the remaining leftovers of yesteryear rust and slowly deteriorate into the soil below. The landscape is now dotted with rusted artifacts and the remains of abandoned factories at one time holding thousands.

In recent years, Detroit has made efforts to bring activities into the downtown area in opening up commerce opportunities. But, an absence of reinvested funds has led to a lack of available resources for proper employee education. Nearly 1/3 of the population is living below the poverty line in conditions that lead to health conditions, poor education and a dismal existence. Slowly but surely, historical landmarks are being torn down with the idea of replacement and improvement. The old Hudson’s Building was reduced to rubble in order to make room for new development of commerce in the downtown area. The Michigan Theatre was renovated from hosting thousands at special events to being a stow shed for cars of daily incoming commuters for business.

CONCLUSION

A crisis of epidemic proportions in Detroit is taking place, major companies are withdrawing from the entire state of Michigan in the pursuit of lucrative business opportunities elsewhere around North America and the world. Urban blight has sent the wrong message to possible investors as large companies such as Home Depot withdraw from the area prematurely, plans for development never realized. This has significantly reduced the opportunity for much needed jobs in the area to provide economic relief in the area. Toyota is an example of a foreign competitor challenging the market share of American automobile manufacturers. The South has become the new frontier as companies seek out large areas of cheap land to develop assembly plants supported by a large labor force. The present housing, social and environmental conditions have left foreclosure rates at an all time high, and banks have been gathering up real estate territory faster than they can sell.

page1-pic1“Apparent across the surface of Detroit’s landscape is a scattering of vacant fields and abandoned buildings, evidence of the progressive erasure of the urban fabric and the consequent radicalization of its urban space. The act of erasure or voiding is not and can never be complete; there is always the residue of something that is no longer there and the expectation of something that could be there. The dissolution and imminent obsolescence of the modern, industrial city and its inevitable dispersal into an evolving nomadic, post-urban landscape.”15

Thousands of citizens in Michigan have lost stable jobs in manufacturing, left to the course alone, often times locating substandard work and lower-paying wages, or coming up empty unable to find any work at all. The hardships that come with poverty and homelessness now reach across the stratosphere of age, race and ethnicity. As a result of mass layoffs, Michigan has the second highest unemployment rate in the country. The only hope is that Detroit will once again reinvent itself as it has exhibited in the past. The Metro Detroit area has the infrastructure already transfixed into the landscape, crisscrossing roads and once fertile farm land enabling easy access for transporting goods throughout the Midwest including Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. The dependence on the land and its minerals has sustained the city and its population for many centuries, only time will tell if the natural resources in the local area will become depleted to the point of abandonment or if something positive will come out of such turmoil.

page1-pic1A continuing problem for the plight of Detroit includes keeping schools open in order to educate the youth currently facing one of the worst employment potentials in history. Lack of government funding, standards setup to aid families in the choice of private schools over public schools, and of course the surrender of companies to high wage corporate payoffs have significantly contributed to the ailments facing the Motor Capitol. Much of the Detroit area is a landscape littered with burnt out buildings and factories, liquor stores on every corner, repair shops galore, and a segregated population to boot. Detroit logged 374 homicides in 2004 consistently ranks at or near the top of an annual list of the most dangerous cities.16

The cycle seems to have no end, and the feeding frenzy by corporations on local resources including people will continue to be the unfortunate norm for quite some time. Major businesses embrace internationalism for the bottom line result of less cost. For the transporting of goods in the past century across global trade routes, a major reliance on oil has become necessary. As the environment and landscape changes, a reversal back to the days of local commerce, plants and factories may be realized once again, a definite positive for the Detroit area.

For the city of Detroit, hope is still alive amongst the banal landscape and iron carnage. The skeletons are a reminder providing insight into a history of place and the industrial cataclysm that evolved. Similar circumstances have taken place in cities such as Flint, Indianapolis, Akron, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh just to name a few. Ancient civilizations such as the Incas made their homes at Machu Picchu and suddenly vacated the territory for unknown reasons. The current evidence stands as possible reasons for vacating the premises.

FOOTNOTES

1 Cheri Gay, Detroit Then and Now. (China: PRC Publishing, 2001) 5.

2 Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim and Jason Young. Stalking Detroit (Barcelona: Actar, 2001) 44-46.

3 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 10-11.

4 Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim and Jason Young. Stalking Detroit (Barcelona: Actar, 2001) 54.

5 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 14-15.

6 Robyn Meredith, “5 days in 1967 still shake Detroit,” New York Times. 23 July 1997: NA.

7 Micheline Maynard and Vikes Bajaj,“ More bad news” International Herald Tribune. 26 Jan, 2006: NA.

8 Jodi Wilgoren, “Shrinking, Detroit faces fiscal nightmare,” The New York Times; 2 Feb 2005: 12.

9 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 101.

10 Jodi Wilgoren , “Detroit urban renewal with the renewal; derelict houses razed but not replaced,” The New York Times; 7 July 2002: 9.

11 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 12-13.

12 Gay, Detroit Then and Now. 5.

13 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 48-50.

14 Nick Bunkley, “Big Investors Breathing New Life Into Gasping Auto Parts Suppliers,” The New York Times 31 Jan, 2007: C4.

15 Daskalis, Waldheim and Young, Stalking Detroit 82-83.

16 Sarah Karush, “Super Bowl Host Is U.S.’s Poorest Big City ,” Associated Press. 30 Jan 2005: 10.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bunkley, Nick. 2007. Big Investors Breathing New Life Into Gasping Auto Parts Suppliers. New York Times. 1/31:C4.
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  • Karush, Sarah. 2005. Super Bowl Host Is U.S.’s Poorest City. Associated Press. 1/30:NA.
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  • Maynard, Michelle. 2006. Ford Posts Loss of $5.8 Billion, Worst Since 1992. New York Times. 10/24:A1.
  • Meredith, Robyn. 1997. 5 Days in 1967 Still Shake Detroit. New York Times. 7/23:NA.
  • Walsh, David. “One-third of Detroit’s Population Lives Below Poverty Line.” World Socialist, February 2, 2005 http://www.wsws.org (March 24, 2007).
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