One person's thoughts may change the world
When ever I blog about Detroit’s demise, I always end it with the title of this blog. “The late great Detroit, the arsenal of Democracy”. That famous quote was by President Truman, on a visit he made to Detroit. By now you have probably heard about it, Detroit, once land of the plenty, is now bankrupt. You may be of an era that remembers a different Detroit, and you might say, wow, what happened? Or, you may be of recent era and you might say, “wow, so the rat hole is finally bankrupt, so what”. Well if you’re not from Detroit, and have only heard about it in the news, or you have a fabled story of parking your car and come back to find it on bricks with the wheels off, you don’t know Detroit. And guess what, I’m from Hamtramck, which is entirely surrounded by Detroit. So I’ve got to watch this Detroit thing decay for a while not, and it’s been a very interesting observation.
First, my observation has been tainted. Tainted by the fact that it started with the 1967 riots. But actually it should start in the post industrial world of 1945, when World war II ended. What amazes me is that many of our economic era’s always follow wars. And when that happened at that time, Detroit was king of the mountain top, in the industrialized world that is.
Detroit was riding high after , flush with the pride of helping end a great war. Producing war machines a a maddening pace, with factories converted for the war effort. This infrastructure already existed, built in the early 20th century, using a stacking method to create car with plants rising up to almost eight floors. Designers were only beginning the process of building plants on even larger swaths of land, using only one floor, and spreading the production of equipment across it, instead of building it level by level. And that’s what I want to focus on, what these plants use to look like.
60 minutes just did a Detroit story, all 13 minutes of it about what the city is facing. 18 billion dollars of debt ( Now mind you, all of that is not debt that cannot be paid back, but a lot of it is ). Currently under emergency management, with Kevin Orr leading the way. Union and city entitlements hang in the balance. And, even the Institute of Arts, one of the most foremost art institutes in the world, hangs in the balance of selling off some of its prized possession in order to pay back some of its debt. Now mind you, Hitler was responsible for stealing 20% of the art in Europe during his short reign. That’s all I could think of when I heard that, “We are not down to plundering art?”. Of course there are better ways of doing it, perhaps creating traveling art exhibit, and leasing it out for a year or two to different art institutes around the country. They have so much art that is not even displayed that it would not be missed to do that. Loan the art out and make money off of it to pay some of the debt off. Now that’s a grand idea.
To the under funded pensioners, selling the art comes first. “Forget the art, I worked hard for my pension”, is the battle cry. But remember, dumping art on the market will probably not get its perceived value. Many people who have donated the art to museum gave it so that it cannot be sold anyway. So much for the art yard sale. Kevin Orr, who is the emergency manager, has been given 18 months to clean up 50 years of mismanagement. Good luck with that timetable Kevin, cities who have come under bankruptcy usually take a seven year process to complete, and this is the largest municipality to fall under such misfortune.
But I’ve gotten of track, lets look at some of these magnificent plants and what they use to look like:
This view is an arial picture of the Packard Plant, which is always depicted as one of the great many derelicts of this city. It was designed by Albert Kahn, all 3.5 million square feet of it in 1903 and completed in 1911. That was a long time ago, and plant design was very different that today’s model. Completely surrounded by a neighborhood, it was constructed at a time where workers needed to live near the factory. A whole neighborhood of factories sprung up around it, feeding the great monster all the parts and supplies it needed to produce a great automobile. By the time I was born in the ’60s, this plant was closed but we passed by it frequently while doing our Sunday drive to Belle Isle after church. It was still a magnificent looking structure, sitting there waiting for someone to claim it, and produce something out of it once again. It’s time had past and finally fell on its industrial face and into symbolism of another time and era.
The next great plant, which was not far away from the Packard Plant, was Dodge Main. Now, that was a plant. Huge, tall, a monstrosity that Albert Kahn designed as well, starting in 1910. The Dodge Brothers set up shop in the area, of northern Detroit, and really helped put the city of Hamtramck on the map with their plant. The Dodge Brothers where parts suppliers to the Ford Motor company but decided they could build a better car. This facility was even bigger than Packard’s. Some building were 6 to 8 stories tall. When people were let off of work there, it caused a traffic jam. In 1920 it employed 22,000 people and during the war years, swelled to over 40,000. That is a small city.
Unlike the Packard Plant, I remember Dodge Main. Passing by it at night was like passing by a city in lights, especially from a street by the name of Mt. Elliot. It was an amazing site to see all the trucks, that fed this great monster of a plant. An even greater site was when they finally tore it down, it was as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped and all the rubble was there but the plant was gone. An amazing place, and a iconic American Factory that helped fuel the middle class. Neighborhoods grew up around these plants. They were so new at the time they were built freeways did not exist yet. When I was growing up, Dodge main was nearing its end of productivity. It still employed alot of people, but freeway, polarization, newly built suburban home, and shopping was taking people away from these area. The salaries these plants paid the women and men that worked in them carried them further and further away, and with it, the tax bases to support the areas the plant was built in.
And then there was Ford. Henry Ford, the great innovator of the production line, was the king of manufacturing. Ford was so powerful that he could move mountains, or more importantly, help convince the city of Detroit to build the first freeway in the United State, The Davision Freeway, to be built so travel time for workers could but cut so they could get to the plant. The freeway also helped workers get from the west side to the east side, for other plants that were there so it was an extra benefit. Ford first grew his behemoth company in Highland Park, and then expanded it to the River Rouge facility.
Ford is an interesting study. He basically built the Detroit area middle class with what he paid his workers. Then when he out grew the Highland park facility, he went even bigger, the Ford Rouge facility. It was an all in one marvel, the largest on the planet at that time, and he was able to make his own steel, auto parts and assemble them all in one area. It was and still is a fantastic facility. Seeing it from the freeway ( The Edsel Ford Freeway by the way ) only gave you small glimps of what the smokes represented. In grade school we would take yearly trips to the plant, and tour the whole place from the hot furnaces pouring liquid metal, to the assembly line driving cars off of it. It was a whole day tour and was riveted in my mind forever.
Ford was an innovator, and a driver of the production industry. Its plants and its example of how to run a automotive dynasty is just as strong as every in today’s world. They innovated, and changed, but not with out a few faults and missteps.
Cadillac Fleetwood assemby was the next plant that was iconic for Detroit. The name alone spoke of its grandeur, and it was also seen from the Edsel Ford expressway. This plant came online in 1921, and was a mainstay of employment until 1987. It too employed several floors of assembly line, 2.5 million square feet of floorspace and over 12,000 people worked there in its mainstay. It was also used as a wartime plant as well.
I could continue listing iconic plants that I’ve seen while growing up in the Detroit area. But you may see a trend of these plants like I have. That trend is, they became obsolete. The were built in an era where space was limited, human labor needed to be near the facility, and production of cars and parts were still in it’s evolutionary stages. There was a lot to learn about how to mass produce a vehicle, fast, quick, and reliable. That effort, that size, that achievement was completed below, at an airport just outside of Detroit, where land was cheap, and was large enough to build B-24 liberators. That place was The Willow Run production facility.
Willow Run was the forerunner the Lean Manufacturing, or the “Just in Time” production model. The Japanese used this production model later on to make cars to sell to us Americans and around the world. This plant was so good it produced 1 Liberator and hour. Once again, Albert Kahn was the principle designer of this facility. It was one mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. Largest of its type in the world at the time. It employed over 34,000 people.
The development of the Willow Run facility cast the die as to how plants of the future were going to be built. One floor only, just in time technology, large areas of land, cheap land and away from the high taxes of the urban environment. It didn’t help that the previous owners of these factories just left them there, similar to how corporations began to leave downtown for greener pastures. Packard went out of business, and at the time, many probably thought that someone else would eventually purchase and buy the plant. Chrysler almost went out of business, but when they made their turnaround, Highland Park sued them and made them tear down there old headquarters, instead of leaving it their to rot. Detroit began income taxation in the early 60’s to stem the tide of the start of a shrinking tax base. So when people want to look at Detroit and say, “what happened?”, well this was ONE of the many factors that destroyed the tax base, left derelict and outdated factories to wither, and almost destroy a once great city which reached its zenith in the early 50’s and has come crashing down. 1.8 million people in 1952, the 5th largest city in the United States, now down to a withering 700,000. The late Great Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy….
Oh I forgot, the Chrysler headquarter in Highland Park Michigan… Gone, torn down, and forgotten…