Article — From the July 2007 issue

Detroit Arcadia

Exploring the post-American landscape

( 4 of 7 )

When I came back, a year after my first tour, I stopped at the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Diego Rivera mural commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. The museum is a vast Beaux-Arts warehouse—“the fifth-largest fine arts museum in the United States,” according to its promotional literature—and the fresco covered all four walls of the museum’s central courtyard. Rivera is said to have considered it his finest work.

It’s an odd masterpiece, a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, which had succeeded the Highland Park factory as Ford’s industrial headquarters, painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world. The north and south walls are devoted to nearly life-size scenes in which the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.

Rivera created this vision when the city was reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories, but Detroit had already reached its apex. Indeed, the River Rouge plant—then the largest factory complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 workers on a site two and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park—was itself built in suburban Dearborn. In 1932, though, capitalists and Communists alike shared a belief that the most desirable form of human organization—indeed, the inevitable form—was not just industrial but this kind of industrial: a Fordist system of “rational” labor, of centralized production in blue-collar cities, of eternal prosperity in a stern gray land. Even the young Soviet Union looked up to Henry Ford.

But Detroit was building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent. Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel in the lower right corner of the south wall, a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part-time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.

Detroit was always a rough town. When Rivera painted his fresco, the Depression had hit Detroit as hard as or harder than anywhere, and the unemployed were famished and desperate, desperate enough to march on the Ford Motor Company in the spring of 1932. It’s hard to say whether ferocity or desperation made the marchers fight their way through police with tear-gas guns and firemen with hoses going full bore the last stretch of the way to the River Rouge plant. Harry Bennett, the thug who ran Ford more or less the way Stalin was running the Soviet Union, arrived, and though he was immediately knocked out by a flying rock, the police began firing on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing five. The battle of the Hunger March or the huge public funeral afterward would’ve made a good mural.

No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post–World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways—the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway—could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.

All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.

Then came the renaissance, but only for those cities reborn into more dematerialized economies. Vacant lots were filled in, old warehouses were turned into lofts or offices or replaced, downtowns became upscale chain outlets, janitors and cops became people who commuted in from downscale suburbs, and the children of that white flight came back to cities that were not exactly cities in the old sense. The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. Even the souvenirs in these new economies often come from a sweatshop in China. The United States can be mapped as two zones now, a high-pressure zone of economic boom times and escalating real estate prices, and a low-pressure zone, where housing might be the only thing that’s easy to come by.

This pattern will change, though. The forces that produced Detroit—the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure—are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces—San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan—but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced to become altogether something else.

lives in San Francisco and is the author of several books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost and, most recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Uses of Disaster,” appeared in the October 2005 issue.

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  • Alison

    My god. This is the best piece on Detroit I’ve read yet. Thank you.

  • hkrieger

    The houses in Detroit, in which I lived, are all gone. They have either been razed or covered over by a highway.

    http://www.efn.org/~hkrieger/detroit.htm

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