Detroit has served as one of the great manufacturing hubs of the United States. Detroit's location on a narrow straight on the Great Lakes allowed the Michigan megalith to flourish as a center of shipping—serving as a gateway to America's interior—and facilitated a tremendous amount of industrial growth ensuring that its fate would be inexorably linked to that of American manufacturing.
A Small Fort in the Great American Wilderness
On July 24, 1701 Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, with his company landed on the banks of Le Détroit Du Lac Erie (The Strait of Lake Erie) and established Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (today the old Fort Pontchartrain is now the Hotel Pontchartrain). For the next 59 years the fort served as an effective trading post between the French and the Native Americans in the area. In 1760, during the French and Indian War, the fort was lost to the British who, in turn, retained it officially until their defeat in the American War of Independence in 1783.
Last Stop on the Underground Railroad
Detroit's geographic proximity to the Canadian border made it a critical tie in the Underground Railway, the system of safe houses which ferried black slaves out of the south and eventually, following the passage of the fugitive slave act in 1850, out of the country. Detroit's place on this system ensured that a thriving black community developed within the Detroit—a community that exists to this day and has bestowed one of Detroit's defining cultural characteristics.
Detroit is often used as a synonym for the American Automotive Industry that was nurtured into maturity on the banks of the Detroit River. Prior to 1903 Detroit was a thriving carriage production center. Since the first horseless carriages were originally, as their name suggests, based on alterations to traditional carriage designs, it was no coincidence that Henry Ford decided to locate his first automobile factory in the fledgling city where resources for his trade were already widely available as were workers skilled in the trade most associated with his new business. Soon after the Ford Model T began rolling off assembly lines and onto the streets of Detroit, the Dodge Brothers, Walter Chrysler and others began to set up shop, solidifying Detroit's role as the automotive production capital of the world for decades to come.
The "Arsenal of Democracy": Detroit and Wartime Manufacturing
In addition to churning out consumer goods effectively, the assembly line production scheme implemented by Ford served to meet the growing production demands of modern warfare.
Beginning during World War I and continuing through its more horrific sequel, Detroit served as one of the primary wartime manufacturing centers in the United States since automotive assembly lines proved useful in wartime production schemes. Detroit was such an important wartime manufacturing center during the Second World War, accounting for nearly 35% of the nation's total war production, that Franklin Roosevelt nicknamed it the "Arsenal of Democracy."
The increased scale of wartime manufacturing brought in billions of dollars transforming the relatively small city into a megalopolis. In just 3 years, from 1940 to 1943 over 200,000 migrant workers made there way to the city on the straight.
This sudden influx stretched housing capacity in the city to its limits and engendered one of Detroit's first riots when federal segregationist policies created problems in the assignments of rapidly constructed, but limited, federal housing. While the war brought prosperity, it also brought in thousands of southern migrants and exacerbated already tense race relations within the city sewing the seeds of population decline.
After the Fight, Suburban Flight
In the years following the conclusion of the Second World War, the civic leaders of Detroit began to float plans for the city's modernization. As a result of federal incentives and in deference to the automobile industry's presence within the city, Detroit, like so many other American cities, built limited access highways instead of improving public transit systems, which provided the arterial structure for the growth of modern suburbia.
Between 1950 and 1980 Detroit lost one million residents in one of the most damaging suburban migrations in history. As a result, property values within the city tumbled which, in turn, caused increased emigration. The automobile, which had made Detroit so prosperous in the first half of the 20th century, destroyed its civic center in the second.
History of Motown Detroit
What Detroit lost in economic affluence in the flight to suburbia, it made up in cultural enrichment. Beginning in the 1950s with the founding of Motown Records, Detroit became the independent music capital of the country.
In the early years it produced Soul and Rhythm and Blues stars like Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and others whose talent and style ensured that a brand new beat swept around the globe. By the 1970s Motown had added to its repertoire by nurturing young Rock artists like Bob Seger, Glenn Frey, Ted Nugent. In recent decades Detroit has maintained its position as one of the preeminent influences in music culture spawning techno and other modern musical movements.
The Oil Crisis and Continued Decline
While the postwar flight to suburbia was devastating to Detroit's population, the biggest blow came in the 1970s. The endemic oil crises of the decade devastated the American automotive industry as more fuel-efficient Japanese rivals appeared in the American market. As a result, Detroit saw one of the largest declines in its population, losing nearly 20 percent in the course of the decade, as major American auto manufacturers were forced to layoff thousands of their employees. As unemployment levels increased in Motor City, so did crime, with homicide becoming a defining feature of Detroit's evening news.
Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus: Detroit's Rebirth
We Hope for Better. It Will Rise from the Ashes. Detroit's two mottos say a lot about the city and what it thinks of itself. While Detroit has had a difficult 50 years, there are signs everywhere that the city is undergoing a renaissance. Property values are increasing, businesses are returning to a newly revitalized waterfront district and crime is declining. While Motown records relocated in the 1970s to Los Angeles, a move symbolic of how endemic the flight from Motor City was, the company has since returned showing a renewed confidence and commitment to its home.
It seems certain that better things are certainly rising from the ashes.