The rise and fall of the auto industry in Detriot, MI (USA)
There is no city in the whole world which was so powerfully influential to the automobile world than Detroit, Michigan. Detroit was a city without a specialization till the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900, Detroit’s population was 285000 and was only the thirteenth largest city of the US. It was something like a Jack-of-all-trades city at the end of the 19th century, with its people being engaged in industries as diverse as tobacco products, food manufacture, drugs and chemicals, stove manufacture, ore processing and food production. There has never been another city to command the world of automobiles as Detroit did around the middle of the 20th century.
The inverse is true as well, the automobile industry utterly changed the face of Detroit from a medium-large river-side town to the capital of the Automobile World in about 30 years time. With the automobile industry surging to new-found heights, Detroit suddenly became a destination for immigrants, with more than a million new people, not only from other parts of the United States but also from many other countries of the world, looking for better jobs and easier lives, resulting in the city being absolutely and permanently remodeled.
It was in 1899 that Henry Ford set up his first motor factory in Highland Park, an independent town, now within the city limits of Detroit. Ford was from an Irish family which settled in the United States in 1847. It was his dream to build a ‘horseless carriage’. Ford found a few machine enthusiasts who started working for him for meager wages. Their work was based on the ‘steam car’ an 1860 American invention, and the electric car, another predecessor of the modern car that was powered by rechargeable batteries.
With the sudden emergence of gasoline as a cheap and readily available fuel, everything seemed to be set for the motor car to become the newly preferred mode of transport. In Europe, cars were the vehicle of the wealthy, but Ford was determined to make it affordable for larger populations. His Model T was an instant success and sold thousand cars in just the opening week. With this the company started making almost a hundred cars a day.
This was the start of the Industrialization of the City of Detroit. Though many people would have loved to drive the cars even around 1910 when the cars had started to become popular, they could not do so because of the condition of the roads. Many a motorist ran in trouble driving into a muddy road and not being able to get out, also getting lost in the unplanned roads of the city. This problem was not home to just Detroit, people all over the United States suffered the same, and this led to the cities having to build better roads to cater to the needs of the new popular means of road transport.
In 1913, Henry Ford discovered that many of his workers were not satisfied with their wages, the standard wage was about $2.30 and there were workers getting as little as $1 a day. Ford decided to increase the daily minimum salary to $5 a day. He also decreased the workday from 9 ½ hours to 8 hours, and set up three shifts of 8 hours each. This was possibly the most revolutionary change in the history of employment. “In a single week, Henry Ford became a world figure. Ford thought this was an effective way to advertize for his company, so that he could get more people for work on his Model T.
The effect was sensational. There were about 10000 workers at the factory gates the very next day morning wanting to be employed, after a riot broke out and police had to be called to disperse the people gathered, Ford declared that the new workers had to be residents of Dearborn for at least 6 months to be employed. (“The Effect of the Car on a City”, 1)
In 1920, Dodge built the huge Main Plant nearby, in Hamtramck. In 1927, Ford responded by building the River Rouge project, the largest and arguably the most ambitious automobile projects in the history of the world. It consisted of 19 different gigantic buildings in almost two square miles of land. The most important thing about the plant was that it was self-sufficient . It contained a deep sea harbor, a gigantic steel foundry, ninety-four miles of interior railroad, electricity plant and industries like glass stamping, glass making, and ore processing. There was a time when over 90000 people worked at the plant. The plant not only added to the increasing population of workers in the city of Detroit but also attracted a very large number of visitors in the form of tourists, many of them international, and students, while becoming the theme of movies celebrating the strength of the American Industry.
The immigrants who rushed to Detroit were not just from the neighboring areas of the state, or just from the different states of the US. There were Mexicans who had originally come to the States to work in the farms, but were drawn to the openings they saw in the field of automobiles. There were skilled German laborers who saw opportunities in the machine shops of the city. There were also less-skilled and unskilled laborers rushing in from many European countries predominantly Poland, Ireland, Finland and Hungary many of them who had initially come to work in the farm, the saw mills of Michigan or the metal factories up North. There were Greeks who, after a while stopped working in the factories so that they could start restaurants and coffee shops. Most of these people had come to the United States because of famine or political troubles in their own countries. It was the First World War and the Immigration Restriction Act that prompted Ford to look for African-American workers. Although this was supposed to be a landmark in the upliftment of the community, African-Americans were initially given only the very dangerous jobs in the factory.
With the population of the city seeming to grow exponentially, Ford had to take measures to provide accommodation for his employees. In 1920, he built houses in Southwest Dearborn. There were also separate colonies, people formed neighborhoods depending on their respective languages and ethnicities. It was the African-Americans who suffered here again , because they got the poorer and less developed places and they had to go through racial discrimination and even occasional violence if they were found in areas dominated by other ethnicities.
But by the beginning of the 1930’s, Chrysler and General Motors had already become strong forces in the motor industry. This obviously led to more population of skilled and unskilled workers into Detroit and with them came the need for more houses and roads, and restaurants and bakeries and garment stores and places of entertainment. When the need for good houses went up, worker unions started to arrange loans for the workers to purchase houses with the help of Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Again, this was not available to the African-American workers, who in spite of the sensational development of the city, could only progress at a painfully slow pace.
The city soon had to start decentralizing, and many of the city dwellers gradually started moving farther and farther out of the city searching for less congested and more peaceful neighborhoods. Gradually this led to the building of new roads and the repairing and improvement of the older roads which could no way accommodate the flow of cars that by then was not a rich man’s toy anymore. Even with the engineers building new roads at high speeds, they had to struggle to keep up with the rate at which new cars seemed to arrive. There was also the new trend of people seeming to live in their vehicles altogether. The number of pedestrians went down, and drive-in restaurants, movie theatres and shops, and gas stations and garages were the new businesses on the block.
With automobiles being the very backbone of industrialization, not only in the Detroit and its neighboring towns, the state of Michigan or even the whole country of America, economists started to notice that the car was not an eternal commodity. Car companies seemed to release newer models every year claiming that the latest ones are improved versions of the older ones and boasted of advancements in technology and style. Even the new auto factories that came up were in complete contrast with the earlier ones, the River Rouge Plant for example is still considered one of the greatest architectural wonders of all time, but the newer ones seemed to be short-term establishments and the companies always preferred to throw away the old ones and start afresh as opposed to renovating their old plants.
Henry Ford found that the worker union at the River Rouge Plant was becoming stronger and more dangerous with time, so he started implementing moves to decentralize the plant to reduce the effect that strikes and boycott had on production. His new idea was to distribute the labor throughout the United States and it resulted in his setting up plants in places as widespread as New York, Ohio and California.
Now that many of the industries were going out of Detroit, most of the business seemed to decline. The residents who were predominantly workers for the industries moved with the factories, and the many of the others, the ones catering to the food, clothing and entertainment of these workers had to close. Even the ones that chose to stay had to travel long distances to reach their place of work, and they needed dependable cars for doing this. And the ones that lived in the city were less likely to own good cars than the ones that lived in the outskirts.
The end result was that Detroit gradually ended up losing its glory. At a time, Detroit was one of the largest cities in the country of the United States in terms of population. With the world advancing in technology, industries started employing more machines and less manpower and so many workers wound up seeking employment in the service sector which pays them nearly as well. While the headquarters of three of world’s largest automobile giants (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) are still located in Detroit, the number of people actually working for these are now at an all-time low. (“The urban experience economics, society and public policy”, 2)
The rapid rise of Detroit as a trade location can be attributed to its physical location. Situated on the Canada-United States border, Detroit was an important city for trade even before the auto factories transformed the city forever. It may have been a stroke of luck for Detroit that Henry Ford was from nearby Newborn and decided to start his work in Detroit, but we should understand that somehow Detroit was always ideally suited for being a city of trade.
The most important aspect could be that Detroit is located on the Canada-United States border. Canada and the United States have the world’s most extensive trade relation. From this, the state of Michigan always accounted for the lion’s share of the trade between the two countries. Also very important is the fact that Detroit always had what a city needed when it comes to being a trade capital. During the time when cities were based near rivers and other water sources like canals and lakes, for ease of trade and because steam was the most important source of energy, Detroit had just what the industries seemed to want. Then came the age of the railroads when all major factories were constructed by the railroad in order to bring the raw materials in and ship out the finished goods, and it was not difficult for an industrial city like Detroit to adapt to that change.
But this was just the reason why Detroit eventually fell out of being the biggest centre for business(except in the trade relations with Canada, because of its prime location.) By the middle of the twentieth century when highways and freeways became the primary system for transportation, there were enough trucks and cars in the country to free the industries from the rivers and the railroads. And this effectively ended Detroit’s reign at the top of the automobile world. (“Automobile in American Life and Society”, 3)
1. Lawera L, “The Effect of the Car on a City”. Web. 10 Dec 2011
2. Barry Bluestone, Mary Huff Stevenson & Russell Williams. “The urban experience economics, society and public policy”. Web. 1 Sep 2008
3. Surgrue. Th. “Automobile in American Life and Society”, From Motor City to Motor Metropolis: How the Automobile Industry Reshaped Urban America. Web. 28 Dec 2010