Right now no other city is as emblematic of the economic struggles in the United States as Detroit, Michigan. Once the heart of American auto manufacturing and the great booming metal heart of the Midwest, Detroit is a city much reduced, both in population and in cultural standing. Scott Martelle’s new book, Detroit, A Biography is a love letter to the land and its former inhabitants. The city is a rich subject for biography, having as many tragedies and triumphs as any great historical figure.
In recent years many of the stories coming out of Detroit have focused on the ridiculously inexpensive housing, once-grand buildings falling into ruin, and stories of abandoned neighborhoods turned into urban meadows, a bit of a full circle since it was the rich land and wildlife that originally attracted Antoine Laumet de la Mothe sieur de Cadillac to choose the area. The first French settlers tangled with local tribes including the Ottawa before leaving the settlement in the hands of the British. The British were harsh with the local tribes, driving up the exchange rates for fur pelts and treating them with disdain. The Revolutionary War brought Detroit under United States control but it was nearly obliterated by fire in 1805. The city, then part of the Michigan territory was rebuilt along a plan similar to L’Enfant’s spoke and hub design for the District of Columbia. The city was briefly under British control during the War of 1812 but by 1825 with the opening if the Erie Canal, Detroit was poised for greatness. Positioned with access to Lake Erie and the Erie canal but also within striking distance of Chicago, the gateway to the West, Detroit grew rapidly and, by 1860 become the country’s nineteenth largest city.
The book chronicles the city’s early racial conflicts culminating in a race riot in 1863, the first of several in a city where different racial groups have often lived in an uneasy truce. In the post Civil War era, the city grew rapidly with the pace of manufacturing as Michigan produced steel, iron ore, and timber. The Paris of the West was born but it wasn’t until the rise of car production in the area that Detroit really took off in the early 1900s. The prospect of good jobs with high pay lured workers from around the nation. Managing workers with varying backgrounds and ethnicities was no small challenge for the burgeoning city and its leading industrialists. In the 1920s, Detroit reached full flower. Many of the buildings built during that time are the ones that are part of Detroit’s current export of “ruin porn”– photos and videos of buildings in a state of poignant decay.
The question of real estate in Detroit has always been a particularly heated one and neighborhood divisions sit at the heart of many conflicts. The story of Detroit is defined by racial tension which erupted in 1943 and again in 1967. The author, a journalist who has written several other books, illuminates the various forces at work that lead to these cataclysmic events and chronicles their lasting impact on the city.
The statistics for Detroit’s current state of affairs are startling. Nearly 250,000 people left the city in the decade ending in 2010. In 2008, Detroit had over 100,000 vacant housing units. Many of Detroit’s problems seem insoluble but there is also hope in the city both from young, artsy people moving back into the area and from some companies willing to invest money and create jobs. Martelle intersperses stories of modern Detroiters who are related to some of the city’s older families among the chapters of the mostly chronological narrative. These stories add richness and character to what is a thorough look at the changing tides of an American city.
Deidre Woollard has been writing both fiction and nonfiction for years. She has a Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University and her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. She served as the lead editor on Luxist.com for six years writing about real estate, auctions, jewelry and luxury goods and currently writes for Pursuitist.com and JustLuxe.com.