Friday, November 02, 2012

Detroit: A Biography -- Take Two

Scott Martelle's Detroit: A Biography (Chicago Review Press, 2012) inspires its readers to think about changes in Detroit specifically, in cities and towns in general, and in the passage of time universally. Subsequently, lately I've been thinking a lot about comparative historical trends. To borrow from Joyce Carol Oates, where are we going, where have we been?

One thing Martelle asks is: how would Detroit be different if the University of Michigan had remained in the city rather than relocating to Ann Arbor in the 1800s? If you take Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, there are so many more people attached to colleges and universities helping to support their adjacent locations that it makes all the difference in the world. Wayne State University, community colleges and smaller private institutions cannot do it alone.

How would be Detroit be different if it had a more diversified economy, not dominated by the automobile industry throughout most of the 20th century?

Martelle charts how the development of suburban sprawl began "emptying out" Detroit as early as the mid-1950s (see page 233 in particular). Cars, roads and distant development unspooled the city's core. Highway construction in the city demolished and disrupted vibrant cultural hubs such as Hastings Street. Conflicts of race and class punctuated the overall trends with bloodletting, and not just in 1943 and 1967.

Detroit: A Biography contains twenty chapters. It begins with sections on the French and Indian and then British periods. It considers the impact of canal-building on economic development. The Underground Railroad and proximity to the Canadian border. Racial troubles during the American Civil War. The raising of the 1st Michigan Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment (102nd Regiment United States Colored Troops). Industrialization. "The Auto Era." Great Migration for jobs. Roaring 1920s, Great Depression. The Black Legion -- a subset of the KKK. Housing shortages and conflict. Arsenal for Democracy. 1943 riot. Postwar Boom. Integration and resistance. 1967 riot. Oil embargo. Coleman Young. Great Recession. Pittsburgh as an alternative case. Interspersed throughout the text are personal stories of individuals and their family arcs.

Today's Rune: Wholeness.

(Photo source: cropped version of Tony Spina photograph, 1956. Walter P. Reuther Library:


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