The once beautiful United Artists Theater in Detroit.
If any city is symbolic of the American economy, it is Detroit. Here was both the iconic and literal engine of the nation.
There was a time when Detroit was one of America’s great cities. The Detroit I knew had a gritty, raw energy: The Motor City. Detroit was never a pretty city, didn’t want to be. There was also a time when ‘what was good for General Motors was good for America.’ Fueled by the auto industry and with Motown music for a soundtrack, the city roared. Detroit was not sophisticated, but it was special.
Though I was born here, I never really lived in Detroit proper, but the suburbs of Rochester and Bloomfield kept me near enough to feel the pulse of the city. And then there was Tiger Stadium, Christmas at Hudson's and cruising Woodward Avenue in my red Maverick while listening to the Big 8 and later WRIF. A radio career was launching and I knew guys at a lot of stations, these were high voltage days.
Going to college for four years in Mt. Pleasant, I was insulated from Detroit as things were going horribly wrong; Race relations were never good, but when the Motor City became the Murder City, the stage was set for tragedy of Greek proportions. Race riots, white flight and the end of The Big Three were a perfect and deadly storm.
Detroit failed to see the slippery slope that the car industry was on and the genius of their Japanese peers. Big Three Automakers, in complicit conspiracy with the UAW, pilfered profits, while city leaders ignored the obvious need for cultivating alternative industry.
Detroit in my day was the fourth largest metro in the nation. With the exodus of nearly half the population, it has slipped out of the top 10.
And those that are left? Largely unemployed, thirty percent! That is devastating.
A friend recently visited Detroit after a long absence and wept as he drove around this war zone. For decades, Mayor Coleman Young practiced politics of revenge and retribution. It was suicide to amputate Detroit from the suburbs and any kind of tax base.
After college I left the lousy weather of Michigan and relational trauma at CMU for Colorado and points west, trading in the rust belt for the sun belt. But my heart does hurt for what has happened to the Motor City.
Not to over spiritualize Detroit’s death spiral, but it seems prophetically that America as a mega-power must decline to make way for Super Europe. So maybe we can grimly change the slogan to: ‘What happens to GM, eventually happens to America.’