Published on Sustainable Cities

Detroit: A Biography

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ImageDetroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle provides a unique glimpse into the life and history of one of America’s used-to-be, and maybe-again, great cities. From the outset you can tell that Mr. Martelle is more than an observant journalist; he’s a native. He’s got skin in the game.

Providing a biography of Detroit is a clever way to help the reader understand the nuances of what brought the city to where it is today. But the book reads more as an obituary than a city-in-progress biography. The closing Epilogue claims, “There is no real answer to the troubles afflicting places like Detroit”.

The book was obviously written before last February’s Super bowl with the Half Time ad by Chrysler. But even Clint Eastwood and the roar of more gas guzzling engines don’t seem to be enough to get Detroit off the mat after reading this depressing book.

Today’s travails of Detroit are amazing: high school class sizes of sixty-two; three out of four students not graduating; half of the city’s children live below the poverty line (Detroit is America’s poorest big city); Detroit has lost a staggering 60% of its peak population – jobs have declined by 62% in a generation. It is cheaper to buy a home in Detroit than a new car.

Detroit: A Biography shows very well the power of place. How a city must first and foremost be a community, able to provide security and opportunity. And when those jobs evaporate, so too will most of the residents. The story of Detroit is a warning of what can happen to almost any city when fractures and decay are left unchecked. When prejudices flame passions to the point of no return; where governance enters the dark side of governing for, or against, groups, rather than for the community.

Marcus Aurelius’ sage advice, “That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees,” seems to have been ignored by a lot of people living in Detroit for the last 80 years. The first strikes of the United Auto Workers in 1935; the massive 1943 riot that was only quashed after calling in the US Army – leaving 34 people dead; Orsel and Minnie McGhee moving to 4626 Seebaldt Street, a deeded “white only” neighborhood – and with Thurgood Marshal (and the US Solicitor General) arguing the case against the incensed community in front of the Supreme Court – and winning; the 1967 riots that raged for five days, killing 43 mostly young blacks. Angry bees indeed.

On a cheerier note, the symbiosis that only vibrant cities can provide is well illustrated in the book. Around 1910 the Wayne County Road Commission decided to experiment in road building and laid down a one-mile stretch of concrete over the existing Woodward Avenue near Ford’s Highland Park factory. The rest, as they say, is history. The dirt and timber roads were successfully converted and made passable even in heavy weather. Road engineers from around the country flocked to Detroit to check out the innovation. Leading to many more roads, many more cars, and many more jobs for Detroit.

This same culture of innovation and creativity led to Detroit’s milieu of R&B, soul, hip hop, jazz, and pop. In addition to providing a powerful outlet for many new musicians, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, incorporated in April 1960, helped spur two decades of better racial harmony. “I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music,” Smokey Robinson reflected.

The book provides an excellent glimpse of the importance of infrastructure in building vibrant cities. Many urbanists know about the Erie Canal and its impact on a growing New York City, and to a lesser extent, Buffalo. Detroit was one of the big beneficiaries of the Erie Canal, helping the City to establish itself as a critical trade center between the rich agricultural American hinterland and the Great Lakes shipping routes.

This is a study of Detroit City proper, not the suburbs. This is understandable from the biography of place perspective, but this limits the lessons any urban planner might find instructive. For example the book concludes with the observation “Detroit’s top elected official argued that the city’s survival would require turning large swaths of the city that ‘helped build America’ back into uninhabited meadows.” True, Detroit’s retrenchment is painful, but urban practitioners looking at Detroit today, like a doctor looking at a seriously injured patient, likely have no choice but to prescribe serious remedies. Detroit remains a cautionary tale to America and the world.

Detroit: A Biography seems epitomized through the City’s iconic ‘The Fist’ statue commemorating Joe Lois, the larger-than-life boxer who came of age, along with the City, in Black Bottom slum. The ungloved fist designed by sculptor Robert Graham was a gift from Sports Illustrated. A city, a race, a community, ready to fight for a better second half.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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