In 1927, as Henry Ford’s Model A car rolled off the assembly lines, his River Rouge car plant in Detroit was the largest factory in the world, with 93 buildings, 16 million square feet of floor space and over 120 miles of conveyor belt. Detroit was the fourth largest city in the country and the population had doubled to almost a million in a decade as workers migrated for unprecedently high wages. Everything looked good.
Just over 80 years later, Mark Binelli, a Rolling Stone journalist who grew up on the edges of the city, returned. By then Detroit had the highest unemployment rate in the country and half of all children were living in poverty. The housing crisis meant in a street of 64 houses, 60 of them were abandoned or foreclosed on.
Detroit also had the highest murder rate in the nation and the population had shrunk from a high point of almost two million to just over 700,000.
Add on political corruption (the mayor had just been jailed), public sector cuts meaning that whole neighbourhoods don’t have an ambulance, or street lights, and one of the worst state school systems in the US, it’s easy to see how Detroit became shorthand for the effects of capitalist decline and recession.
Common themes in a city that has been the biggest majority-black city in the US since the 1970s are both the continuing extent of segregation, and references to the 1967 riot where, in a five-day period, 43 people were killed, over 7,000 arrested and 3,000 buildings burned down. The area where it started has never been rebuilt. 1967 was often quoted as the start of the decline, but Binelli points to signs over the previous decade when the post-war manufacturing boom began to shrink, indicating what was to come.
In one chapter, Binelli spends time with reps from Local 174 of the United Auto Workers union. In 2005, the Local had over 10,000 members, but when Binelli visited this had dropped to 4,200 mostly due to massive layoffs and closures. Anyone being hired now is on about half the hourly rate of even a couple of years ago, resulting in a massive impact both on living standards and the local economy. One local investment entrepreneur had even started trying to get IT companies to relocate in Detroit on the basis that labour costs are only five percent more than in Brazil.
Binelli also notes some recent growth areas for Detroit. Many of the “urban prairies” as he calls them have been turned into farms, allotments and food co-ops. This stands in contrast ti 2009 when, unbelievably, Detroit did not have a single grocery chain. But more noticeably, Detroit has become a site for “ruin porn”, artful pictures of the decayed factories and buildings that signified the city’s former glories that in turn have attracted artists and film-makers to the area looking for a “new Brooklyn”. This influx has been met with mixed reactions by the city’s residents, and although Binelli is clear that the regeneration of Detroit will take a lot more than this, he is unfailingly optimistic.
The Last Days Of Detroit doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and is far more anecdotal than analytical, but it gives a glimpse of life in blue-collar America. Along the way, there are some heart-warming stories that counter all the crime and corruption statistics and remind you of the potential in human beings.
The Last Days of Detroit is published by Bodley Head £20
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