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Driving Detroit

Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City

George Galster
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Driving Detroit
    Book Description:

    For most of the twentieth century, Detroit was a symbol of American industrial might, a place of entrepreneurial and technical ingenuity where the latest consumer inventions were made available to everyone through the genius of mass production. Today, Detroit is better known for its dwindling population, moribund automobile industry, and alarmingly high murder rate. In Driving Detroit, author George Galster, a fifth-generation Detroiter and internationally known urbanist, sets out to understand how the city has come to represent both the best and worst of what cities can be, all within the span of a half century. Galster invites the reader to travel with him along the streets and into the soul of this place to grasp fully what drives the Motor City. With a scholar's rigor and a local's perspective, Galster uncovers why metropolitan Detroit's cultural, commercial, and built landscape has been so radically transformed. He shows how geography, local government structure, and social forces created a housing development system that produced sprawl at the fringe and abandonment at the core. Galster argues that this system, in tandem with the region's automotive economic base, has chronically frustrated the population's quest for basic physical, social, and psychological resources. These frustrations, in turn, generated numerous adaptations-distrust, scapegoating, identity politics, segregation, unionization, and jurisdictional fragmentation-that collectively leave Detroit in an uncompetitive and unsustainable position. Partly a self-portrait, in which Detroiters paint their own stories through songs, poems, and oral histories, Driving Detroit offers an intimate, insightful, and perhaps controversial explanation for the stunning contrasts-poverty and plenty, decay and splendor, despair and resilience-that characterize the once mighty city.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0646-3
    Subjects: Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue. Two Daughters of Detroit
    (pp. 1-2)

    Detroit’s story is, of course, an amalgam of millions of stories of men, women, and children who have loved, toiled, played, and made lives in this place since 1701 when the city was founded. But the essence of what this city represents, both to itself and to larger social concerns about the role of cities, can be distilled in the lives of two daughters of Detroit: Marguerite (nicknamed lva) and Helen.

    In the summer of 1925, these two preschool girls were about to become neighbors. Marguerite’s father, a prosperous physician, had just bought a substantial home in the east side...

  5. Chapter 1 Riding on the Freeway: A Riff on the Place Called Motown
    (pp. 3-44)

    “Made in Detroit.” This seems quaint, now that the label “Made in China” screams at us from virtually every product we pick up, belying the proud industrial heritage that once was America’s. This heritage was forged and stamped and pressed and cut and molded in the long-abandoned temples of production that defined Detroit. To understand Detroit, you must understand one thing: in its soul, it is a place makes things—metal things. Ever since it grew to be a metropolis in the late nineteenth century, its dominant businesses were about shaping metal into useful objects. Railway cars, stoves, marine engines,...

  6. Chapter 2 Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology
    (pp. 45-68)

    If you cut away the hyperbole and cut him some slack for exaggerating (OK, lying) to make a political point to his boss, you must admit that the founder of the City of Detroit got to the heart of its rationale. Detroit started because of its living natural amenities and strategic location. It was set here for the beasts, trees, dirt, and the width of a river. Once established, however, the morphology of Greater Detroit would be sculpted more by politics and the economics of industry than by geology.

    Detroit’s founding was rooted in the geopolitical shenanigans of late seventeenth-century...

  7. Chapter 3 From Fort to Ford to . . .?
    (pp. 69-91)

    Though popular consciousness permanently welds the auto industry onto the economic frame of Detroit, for two-thirds of its history the city did something else for a living. The region has had three distinct economic bases. From its inception until the close of the War of 1812, Detroit served an important geopolitical function. While supporting a substantial military garrison proved a vital economic engine, it was clear from the outset that Detroit was more about making money than protecting royal empires or, later, a fragile new nation’s frontier. By single-mindedly pursuing profit, Detroit evolved from a trading post and exploiter of...

  8. Chapter 4 From Old World to Old South and Old Testament
    (pp. 92-108)

    Although written out of the experience of blacks, the sentiments expressed in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” equally apply to generations of other ethnic groups who came to Detroit seeking a better life. Despite common motivations, peopling this region tapped three distinct geographic sources. Immigration into Greater Detroit shifted from a predominantly “Old World,” European stock, to an “Old South,” black stock, and an “Old Testament” stock from the biblical lands of the Middle East. Only recently have substantial sources of immigration begun to diversify.

    The first recorded visit of a European to this region occurred in 1669, when French...

  9. Chapter 5 Who Will Feast on the Fruits of Labor?
    (pp. 109-135)

    The stage that is Greater Detroit’s featureless plain has now been set. The antagonists have taken their places: the capitalists and the laborers of different racial backgrounds. How will the plot play out? In Greater Detroit, the story line developed historically through two closely intertwined subplots of conflict, one involving organized labor versus capital, the other black versus white.

    Many axes of tension have undoubtedly characterized Greater Detroit during its history. Examples include national origin, religion, and income. Yet I would argue that the dual dialectics of the capital-labor struggle and the black-white struggle shaped what Greater Detroit has become,...

  10. Chapter 6 Turf Wars
    (pp. 136-166)

    Immediately on pulling his canoe ashore at the narrowest point of the Detroit River, Monsieur Cadillac established a precedent that would define this place for centuries to come: grab some land and then defend it to the death. The log stockade called Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit was not only a deterrent aimed at the British. It was a symbol of security seeking: others coveted the space a person occupied, so it needed protecting. Detroiters have been walling themselves off, literally and figuratively, from the feared “other” for three centuries since.

    Intense competition over turf has been Detroit’s hallmark from its...

  11. Chapter 7 Wrestling for Pieces of the Proletarian Pie
    (pp. 167-196)

    Workers in Greater Detroit not only battled over turf but engaged in a fierce, sustained, and often violent economic competition delineated by ethnic or, more powerfully and perpetually, racial categorizations. This competition was naked, and groups organized to win it. As illustration, during World War I, Detroit’s black leadership widely circulated a poem among blacks who for the first time had higher-paying industrial jobs opened to them as the white foreign labor pool dried up:

    He watched the clock,

    He was always behind hand.

    He asked too many questions.

    His stock excuse was “I forgot.”

    He was not ready for...

  12. Chapter 8 Feasting on Fear
    (pp. 197-214)

    Greater Detroit is gripped by deep-seated fears. It is a place where everyone has a gut feeling, “They want what I have, and will stop at nothing to take it.” This is understandable, given the never-ending, no-holds-barred competition between its ethnic and, especially, racial groups.

    Three distinct elements of Greater Detroit feast on this fear. They secure money or power by maintaining a climate of personal insecurity: the politicians, the media, and the police.

    Black and white politicians over the last century have consistently played on—and often intentionally exaggerated for political gain—their constituencies’ fears and mistrust of the...

  13. Chapter 9 The Dynamics of Decay, Abandonment, and Bankruptcy
    (pp. 215-240)

    Perhaps the Detroit car culture’s fetish about the “latest model” and “planned obsolescence” carried over into its housing market. Perhaps the subliminal message drilled into the Detroit subconscious by the Big Three marketers that “you are what you drive” has extended to “you are where you live.” Whatever its origins, Detroiters place huge psychic importance on their residence’s status and security. This translates into a feverish desire to have one’s domicile surrounded by other homes of comparable (if not superior) price and vintage (the newer the better), so that personal status can be reified by neighborhood prestige. For security reasons,...

  14. Chapter 10 What Drives Detroiters?
    (pp. 241-269)

    People are people, and psychologists have observed some common behavioral and psychic characteristics that unite our species. What humans everywhere need are three basic sorts of resources: physical (like food, clothing, shelter, time, energy), social (like love, status, affirmation, community), and psychological (like identity, esteem, efficacy, and purpose). We all strive to obtain, retain, and expand resources of all three types, though the physical is more basic in terms of biological survival. When people have attained a sufficient amount of all three sorts of resources, they will have gained what I call in shorthand “respect.” Given the crucial importance of...

  15. Chapter 11 From Motown to Mortropolis
    (pp. 270-282)

    What happens when you drop a giant, oligopolistic, land-hungry auto industry on a featureless plain in a state that gives tiny local governments the power to control their own development patterns and to decide who lives in their communities? What happens when that industry’s degrading nature of work and exploitative excesses are countered by a union movement that eventually becomes equally gigantic, conservative and bureaucratized? What happens when that industry’s strongest labor demands must be met by importing hundreds of thousands of blacks and whites from the Deep South who brought along their cultural attributes but not the de jure...

  16. Epilogue. Two Daughters of Detroit Revisited
    (pp. 283-284)

    Greater Detroit’s struggles for respect between labor and capital, blacks and whites created a landscape of radically different opportunities. This landscape’s topography is shaped not only by things that people partly can control, such as their educational credentials and their work efforts, but even more by things beyond their control, such as their race. This is epitomized in the fates of our two emblematic daughters of Detroit, Marguerite and Helen.

    Marguerite never had a chance to prove herself by amassing educational credentials and working hard, despite the good fortune of being born into an extremely well-educated family headed by a...

  17. Selected References
    (pp. 285-288)
  18. Index
    (pp. 289-302)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 303-305)