THE BLOG
03/05/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

A Lament for Detroit

You have to see Detroit to believe it. You look around and ask what could have happened.

It is impossible to imagine that in the most advanced nation on the face of the globe in human history, there could be a place of decay so severe and despair so evident. It is New Orleans without natural disaster as a cause; Newark made worse for lacking a prosperous neighbor; South Central Los Angeles exploded on a vast scale and enveloped by a dreary climate.

This magnificent wreck was once among the most important cities in America, economically, politically, and culturally. It represented industrial progress the world over.

Yet the scene invites wonder. A single abandoned factory can span the length of several blocks. Residential streets are lined with homes that have collapsed into themselves alongside lots that appear never to have been developed because arson long ago destroyed the structures and left the wild grass to reclaim the land.

Tax incentives lure movie producers who want to present a science fiction dystopia. The old central train station, a formerly imposing Beaux Arts building that has become a forlorn shell, eighteen stories tall with its windows blown out, offers the pastime of urban spelunking to entertain drunken teenagers.

I grew up in the metropolitan area and then lived in the city proper as recently as five years ago. I actually bought -- and later was lucky to sell -- a residence in a development designated a national landmark, for a fraction of what it would have commanded in Chicago or even Cleveland. The median home price at that time was $6,000; and, yes, that's the right number of zeros.

All around us were the mansions that had been stripped by vandals of their copper and other valuable pieces despite the razor wire around the perimeters and the laser security systems. A friend of mine had her front porch literally ripped off by thieves.

I remember a different Detroit. It is worth recollecting for a moment what was wrought in the Motor City.

Detroit mattered. In the late 1950s, peaking at just shy of 2 million residents, it ranked as the fourth most populous city in the United States. It is the only American city to have exceeded a million people, only then to have fallen to less than that number.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) was the most progressive and politically powerful union. The Democratic nominee for president always came on Labor Day to march in the downtown parade that celebrated working men and women.

Motown became the soundtrack of an era, as the recording studio released more than 100 top 10 hits in a decade. Its roster included stars Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. The Detroit Symphony, under the baton of Paul Paray, was a leading interpreter of classical music, especially by French composers.

The Detroit Tigers baseball team won the 1968 World Series, on the strength of a pitching rotation that includes Denny McClain, winner of 31 games that season. The Hudson's Department Store, with elevator operators in its downtown location, was among the largest in the world, sponsoring "America's Thanksgiving Parade," broadcast on television coast-to-coast.

Everything in Detroit depended on the automobile. That's why my family was there. My father was employed as an engineer at Ford Motor Company, or, as locals called it, "Ford's." Whole municipalities could be identified by loyalty to a brand. If you didn't have a job at General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, or the now-defunct AMC, or a supplier, your next-door neighbor did.

Henry Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line, but he perfected both. The tinkerer had founded other failed enterprises before starting his eponymous car company.

His innovations extended beyond technology. He offered the wages of $5 per day for jobs that required sweat and perseverance rather than high levels of education. The act was revolutionary, the amount irresistible. The very same individual who had driven a rivet into the body of an automobile, formerly a rich man's toy, could afford to buy the finished product -- and much more. The working class became middle class.

As Ford's rivals set up shop nearby, the city came to boast a concentration of engineering talent and entrepreneurial spirit that could not be matched anywhere else. Between the world wars, it was the equivalent of today's Silicon Valley. People wanted to move there, whether from Europe, the Middle East, or as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South. During World War II, the region was transformed into the "Arsenal of Democracy." In peacetime, recovering sales of automobiles signified normalcy.

When the CEO of General Motors, Charles Erwin Wilson, was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the Secretary of Defense in 1953, he was asked about a potential conflict of interest because of his stock holdings in the automaker. He was reported to have said he saw no issue, because "what was good for GM was good for America." He didn't quite say that, but the misquotation that passed into history captured the sentiment that was communicated.

When I was a kid, the around-the-clock shifts at the massive plants lit the night sky downriver in fluorescent pink, iridescent green, and bright gold, plumes of emission that drifted off into clouds. I understood a city to be by definition the sum total of the sights, sounds, and smells of manufacturing.

The "Big Four" companies and the labor movement flourished together. The violence of private police who set upon union organizers had culminated in the 1937 "Battle of the Overpass" at the Ford River Rouge complex. Documented by news photographers, it turned public sentiment against management and in favor of the workers. The so-called Treaty of Detroit a generation later ushered in unprecedented profits and benefits. UAW President Walter Reuther negotiated long-term contracts with all of the automakers, giving up the strike in exchange for annual cost-of-living wage adjustments, health care, and pensions.

Neither side anticipated the energy crisis and foreign competition. The year 1967 is conventionally cited as the beginning of the end for Detroit, because of the riots that saw armored personnel carriers roll down Woodward Avenue as the city burned, but it was 1973 that was the real turning point, with 1979 added as an exclamation mark. These were the years of the oil shocks. Although "white flight" was underway well before 1967, changing the composition of neighborhoods, the subsequent increase in gasoline prices precipitated the permanent decline in the fortunes of the city, for all its inhabitants regardless of race.

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) exercised its newfound economic power by calling an embargo, the price of filling up a gas tank went up by 350 percent. Gas came to be rationed based on whether a vehicle's license plate ended in an odd or even digit. People waited in lines that snaked around service stations which sometimes ran out of the valuable commodity.

It is hard to recollect, but before then virtually nobody drove an imported car. The automobile was iconic, as was the automotive industry itself. The buy American movement associated patriotism with products. The wealthy had Mercedes (neither BMW nor Audi had high-end status then); hippies had the original Volkswagen Beetle (the "Bug"). But American nameplates dominated the market with collectively better than a 99 percent share. Overseas as well, the acquisition of a Cadillac or Lincoln symbolized not only that the individual who owned it had achieved success but also that the entire nation had arrived.

Suddenly, however, the mighty V-8 powered land yacht that achieved miles per gallon (MPG) in the single digits did not look quite as luxurious, as the term MPG, hitherto never mentioned in marketing, became a crucial measure of quality. Those small, ugly alternatives from the Land of the Rising Sun, with funny names such as Honda, Datsun, and Subaru, which previously would have been embarrassing to park in the driveway, seemed much more appealing.

The Motor City never recovered. American compact cars were models of perfect incompetence, whether by design or production. The rolling object lessons included: the Ford Pinto, with its infamous exploding gas tank; the Chevy Vega, reputed to begin rusting before it pulled off the showroom floor; and the AMC Pacer, a "wide" car with so much glass the greenhouse effect broiled occupants, even as they enjoyed the special Levi's denim decor. Chrysler finally gave up. It turned to rebadging cars made by its Japanese partner, giving one the legendary name "Challenger" as the other revealed its origins through its moniker "Sapporo;" they were advertised with the ridiculous tagline, "Now it's their imports against ours!"

In the end, the city of Detroit symbolizes all that was great and terrible about the 20th century -- a time that can be talked about as history now.

Detroit was made and unmade by the very same forces. The prominence of the automobile encouraged suburban sprawl and discouraged mass transit. Industrialization begat deindustrialization.

Racism in its egregious and polite forms always lurked in the background. Prejudice animated the campaign to "keep Dearborn clean," meaning keep African Americans out; the Northern form of massive resistance to school integration through "forced busing"; and even political machinations about the water supply. The city became statistically the most segregated in the country, the boundary of Eight Mile Road an inviolable partition between black and white.

My hometown serves as an example. Cities, like people, are born. They grow up. And they die.

A postscript. I'm rooting for Detroit. The Motor CIty might still have a fighting chance. The odds favor not a revival of what once was but a revolution toward what has not yet become. It won't be through the return of manufacturing. Even if the advanced research and development operations at a car company perfected a revolutionary product -- say, a teleportation pod -- it almost certainly would be built overseas or primarily by robots; it wouldn't result in the recall of thousands of workers who were laid off before the internet was invented. It also will require regional cooperation. The animosity between the suburbs and the city, whatever its origins, has altogether prevented progress. Perhaps the revolution will come through a combination of developing the area as an intermodal commercial transportation hub, with its proximity to trading partner Canada and its excellent airport, and the influx of creative types who want to take up next generation homesteading.