No Town Like Motown

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 12th, 2009

In many ways, the city of Detroit, Michigan, embodies the American dream – and its failings.  In the Twentieth Century, Detroit was a center of industry – and not just any industry.   The American romance with the automobile is centrdetroit-skyline.jpgal to the American dream, and for much of the Twentieth Century, most of our cars were made in or around Detroit.  Automobile enthusiasts looked forward to the Detroit auto show every year, and one need only scan the titles of popular songs to understand how much we loved cars made in Detroit – Mustangs, Cadillacs, Mercuries, the list goes on and on.  Of course, the cars made in Detroit were not just important in popular culture – they also provided thousands of people with well-paying jobs.  As a result, immigrants flocked to Detroit from other countries and  African Americans migrated from the south of this country, fleeing Jim Crow and seeking a new prosperous life.  Detroit became the center of the union movement, and automobile workers prospered.  Until the mid-1960s, Detroit really was a city in which the American dream came to life for thousands of people.

The decline of Detroit is an all-too-familiar story.  The race riots in the 1960s, the white migration to the suburbs, the arrival of Japanese cars, and the decline of the American automobile industry.  GM was once the number one employer in this country, but GM, and its well-paying union jobs, has now been replaced in that role by Walmart and its low-paying no-benefits positions.  To look at how the American dream has failed so many workers in this country, one need only look at Detroit.  In these dark days of economic recession, no place is darker than Detroit.  GM and Chrysler are on the brink of economic disaster, and the third of the Big Three, Ford, is struggling as well.  The rate of unemployment in Detroit is over 10%, and it is one of the cities worst hit by the housing crisis.  I have heard reports of houses selling for as little as $100 in Detroit.

Ironically, the low cost of housing in Detroit is also cause for a strange sort of optimism.  Artists have started buying houses in Detroit, moving from more prosperous cities like Chicago to find a place they can afford to live.  The sheer economic devastation in that city thus leaves open the possibility of a new urban colony with renovated housing, green energy, community gardens, and artistic renewal.  Sound crazy?  Maybe, but there is that spirit about Detroit, that spirit of hope and optimism that reflects the remnants of the American dream.  The 1960s were a decade of turmoil and racial strife in Detroit, arguably the beginning of the downward spiral that is culminating today.  But they were also the decade of Motown music.  Could artists alone save Detroit?  Of course not, but we also can’t expect the automobile industry alone to do the job.  Cities like Detroit need imagination and vision, small businesses and “knowledge jobs.”  For that reason, this new migration of artists to Detroit may be what’s needed to start the city moving in a new direction.

1 Comment

Comment by Joel_
2009-04-09 03:12:55

“To look at how the American dream has failed so many workers in this country, one need only look at Detroit.”

Professor, the “American Dream” didn’t fail because it can’t fail. It is not a system or a process one can analyze and critique; a process on can comb for errors. On the contrary, it is simply an ideal, a realized state. Isn’t that right (or do you mean something different?)

Now, UNIONS might have failed workers (after all, Wall Mart is still providing jobs to people, GM, not so much), Government regulation (i.e. CAFE standards that cut heavily into GM’s profitability) might have hurt workers, a competitive global economy might have hurt workers, high oil prices might have hurt workers, Decades of Democratic leadership in Michigan might have hurt GM’s workers… sure.

But the “American Dream”??? Of all the things that have brought trouble for the auto industry, this vague, amorphous concept is certainly not one of them.

Finally, do you really think there is a chance left for Detroit? I certainly HOPE so, I have family there… and the thought of an abandoned city of that size is certainly not one I’d like to consider… but I sometimes wonder if it would be worth the trouble. Perhaps you are more optimistic than I.

Anyway, if you haven’t already seen, here is a very interesting photo documentary of sorts cataloguing the current state of the city.,29307,1882089,00.html


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