Detroit gets a lot of press and it’s mostly bad. It’s usually about how the city’s going broke, how the crime rates are scary and how the politicians are literally, turning off the lights. But then, you see flashy car ads that remind you that this is a city with a lot of fight. In Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography, he reminds Detroit that it’s going to need more than fight.
I thought Detroit: A Biography started off a little boring. I’m not a history buff so all the humdrum about the founding members of the city didn’t really interest me. But this is not a historical textbook about a city. Martelle weaves citizen stories and anecdotes into the book making it a true biography.
What I found really interesting was auto industry boom in Detroit. We hear so much about the failings of the auto industry today, it’s easy to forget that cars were the lifeblood of so many North American cities. In Detroit, it created jobs, opportunities and brought in workers from all over the United States and around the world.
Cars also allowed for the creation of suburbs – which were the places where whites moved to stay clear of black neighbourhoods. But Martelle shows that blacks moved to the suburbs too when they did well. The result is that lots of people moved out of Detroit. In 2009, a mayoral candidate attributed the city’s lower murder rate to the low population:
“I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.” (Stanley Christmas, Detroit mayoral candidate 2009)
It’s interesting that Detroit’s relationship with the auto industry was never perfect. Massive lay-offs, union disputes and racial segregation were common in the factories. Martelle repeatedly states that the auto industry never really gave back to the city of Detroit.
The book offers hope for Detroit in the citizens that have stayed or are willing to move back into the city. But he also shows the difficulties a lot of these people are facing.
While Martelle acknowledges that Detroit citizens are tough, it will take brains to get this city going again.
Photo credits: 500px.com