Happy Birthday, Detroit
The Motor City turns 311 today, doesn’t look a day over 1,000.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: July 24th, 2012
Detroit has been known for transportation since shortly after its incorporation.
o city better represents the rise and fall of the American Dream, the highs and lows of capitalism and industrialism, and the life and death of the great American city, than Detroit. The city whose motto translates as “It will rise from the ashes; we hope for better things” grew from a small French settlement to one of the most important cities in the world before succumbing to the economic dissolution and racial tensions of the post-World-War-II era. Today Detroit celebrates the 311th anniversary of its founding.
Founded in 1701 by French settlers and named for the river on which it sits (le détroit du Lac Érié, the straights of Lake Erie), Detroit has been known for transportation since shortly after its incorporation. Being located along the Great Lakes waterway (which connects to the St. Lawrence seaway) made it ideal for shipping, which was key to the success of industries such as coal, steel, and cement. This made Detroit the perfect location for heavy industry, as Henry Ford proved in the early 1900s when he singlehandedly transformed Detroit from the Paris of the West to the Motor City.
But before Henry Ford revolutionized mass production and transformed the horseless carriage from luxurious indulgence to practical necessity, Detroit had a rich history. It was a key location in the French and Indian War of 1760, the site of an Ottawa Indian rebellion in 1763, and the capital city of Michigan from 1805 to 1847.
Its location across the river from Canada made it an important stop along the Underground Railroad, and during prohibition it was a key distribution point for bootleg spirits.
Henry Ford’s innovations gave Detroit a position of great prominence during the Industrial Revolution, but in many ways the rise of the automobile led directly to the city’s decline. Ford encouraged the migration of many Southern blacks to the city to help man his factories, which led to heightened racial tensions. Ford, along with the other major automakers, fought the development of a subway system, which made Detroit particularly vulnerable to economic flight as the suburbs were developed.
The increased racial tenion and continued white flight came to a head in the late 1960s when the race riot of 1967 drove many whites out of the city, further polarizing a population that had already begun migrating to the suburbs.
Since then, the city has experienced further flight, in combination with tremendous corruption, leading to a drop-off in the city’s population and the abandonment of neighborhoods and downtown districts that is without precedent.
Currently the city is attempting to rebuild slowly, while also dealing with the challenges presented by huge swaths of land that have literally gone to seed, having been abandoned decades ago. The mayor has proposed cutting off city services to large uninhabited parts of the city, and the urban decay is so prevalent that some are suggesting building a “zombie apocalypse theme park” in the city to capitalize on the city’s ruined neighborhoods.
It’s a sad story, and one that has acted as a cautionary tale for cities around the world. But Detroit has been down before and has, as its motto says, risen from the ashes.