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Detroit: A Biography

Detroit was established as a French settlement three-quarters of a century before the founding of this nation. A remote outpost built to protect trapping interests, it grew as agriculture expanded on the new frontier. Its industry took a great leap forward with the completion of the Erie Canal, which opened up the Great Lakes to the East Coast.


Surrounded by untapped natural resources, Detroit turned iron from the Mesabi Range into stoves and railcars, and eventually into cars by the tens of millions. This vibrant commercial hub attracted businessmen and labor organizers, European immigrants and African Americans from the rural South. At its mid-20th-century heyday, one in six American jobs were connected to the auto industry, its epicenter in Detroit. And then the bottom fell out.


I spent nearly a decade as a journalist in Detroit, and became infatuated with the city as a story. I left for the Los Angeles Times in 1997 (while on strike against The Detroit News) but never really left the city behind. As I traveled around the country covering presidential campaigns for the Times, I realized that few people knew much about the city beyond Motown, tailfins on Cadillacs, riots, and crime. So I envisioned the book as a sort of survey history for the uninitiated. It's not intended to be a complete biography, as it were, but rather an introduction to what the city had been, and how it has come to be today.


As such, Detroit: A Biography takes a long, unflinching look at the evolution of one of America's great cities, and one of the nation's greatest urban failures. It tells how the city grew to become the heart of American industry and how its utter collapse—from 1.8 million residents in 1950 to 714,000 only six decades later—resulted from a confluence of public policies, private industry decisions, and deep, thick seams of racism.


And it raises the question: when we look at modern-day Detroit, are we looking at the ghost of America's industrial past or its future?

A brief excerpt:

In 1890s Detroit, the chorus of city life—the din of horses and carriages, and the occasional clattering streetcar or railroad whistle—began picking up a new and sporadic sound: the rattling and barking of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. The machines, and earlier incarnations using steam, had been around for a while. But tinkerers were beginning to find new uses for them. The desire was to marry engine to wheel, and create a cart that would propel itself.

Similar experiments were going on in Germany and France, but the Americans were well-represented. Ransom E. Olds of Lansing, Michigan, had built two steam-powered horseless carriages. William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, had already developed and driven an electric-powered cart through the streets of Chicago. He sent one to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where attendees could thrill as they rode it for short distances. At least two other electric carts were also on display, including one shipped in from London. And German mechanical engineer Karl Benz had sent along a new cart propelled by a noisy and smoky gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine.

In Detroit, the lead tinkerers were Henry Ford, who had been experimenting with designing a horseless carriage while working as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company, a commercial electric production company, and Charles B. King, who was an engineer helping to make railroad cars for Detroit’s Russel Wheel and Foundry Company. King was a half-step ahead of Ford, and on March 6, 1896, he rolled his first working model out of the shop, a wooden wagon propelled by a four-cylinder engine. Ford followed three months later, using an ax to widen the door of the work shed behind his house on Bagley Avenue to get the machine out. He and an assistant, James W. Bishop, took the machine in a circuit around Detroit in the early morning darkness, Bishop leading the way on a bicycle to warn anybody else who might be out and about at that hour that a machine was chugging its way through town. The vehicle died—an errant spring was to blame—and Ford and Bishop pushed it a few blocks to the Detroit Edison shop where Ford replaced the broken spring, and then fired the car back up for the return drive to Ford’s house and workshop. “It was considered something of a nuisance,” Ford wrote later, “for it made a racket and it scared horses.”

While King had the lead in trying to devise a marketable motor vehicle, he soon ran into trouble raising investment cash. He eventually turned his design and marketing ideas to engines for boats, a booming business in the Great Lakes. Others kept at it, though, as Detroit joined what historian Alan Trachtenberg described as “the incorporation of America.” The American dream shifted from one of freedom to one of riches, and acquisition. The self-made millionaire became the hero, the iconic role model. Workers—from the assembly line to the sales office—became members of bureaucratic organizations.

The creative and entrepreneurial vibe in Detroit was contagious, and a magnet. In 1899, Olds, seeing the future in Detroit, had moved his family down from Lansing and built a factory on East Jefferson, near Belle Isle, where he started producing one or two cars a day. David Buick, who had built a solid business making farm machinery, turned to automobiles. And the Packard brothers moved their young luxury-car company from Ohio to Detroit in 1902.

Other tinkerers and investors, emboldened by the early successes, also began playing with the new devices to see what riches they might be able to wring out of them. Some 270 miles of Detroit’s mud roads were paved with cedar planks and then, increasingly, stones, helping cement Detroit’s image as the cradle of the new automobile industry. Electric rail service competed with the new machines for space as they shuttled Detroiters around the growing city.

In an amazingly short amount of time, what had been a noisy oddity was taking root as both major technological leap and a new industry, destined to make already wealthy local investors even richer. It was a precursor of sorts to Silicon Valley, where only a few generations later modern tinkerers would find risk-taking investors to finance their experiments in computer and software design, which—much like the automobile—transformed the way individuals engage the world. And it marked Detroit’s maturation from its gawky adolescence as a regional economic center building railroad cars, stoves, and furniture, to its future as a full-grown global industrial center.