Saturday, November 28, 2009

A snap shot of Detroit in the 1930s

“It is not at all unusual for extreme statements to be made about Detroit as a center of radical thought, or for the city to appear at times to justify them.”

No, that quote wasn’t from the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine or The New York Times, all of which have shown up from time to time to chronicle the downward spiral of the city; it’s from the WPA guide to Michigan published in 1941 as part of a depression –era federal program to put writers to work.
As the writer of travel guides, I’ve long wanted a copy of the book, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, and found one recently in an Ann Arbor book store. I didn’t know what to expect. Chamber of Commerce stuff, a smiley face placed on the Depression. What I found was an honest assessment of Detroit in the 1930s. The writers at the time observed the growing seeds of what would become the city’s demise, the one-industry town where life revolved around an auto plant.
The word picture drawn by these writers 70 years ago are for the most part still true. Here’s how they described us: “Detroiters work hard. The bulk of them have little time for culture, for the theater, the night club, or the erudite lecture. They find their recreation in going on Sunday drives with the family or cheering for their favorites at the baseball park. The Detroit Tigers enjoy the most loyal following of any baseball team in the major leagues – whether they win or lose.”
Apparently following losing teams like the Lions has been ingrained in our DNA for several generations.
The book points out that Detroit was a “respectable size (285,000 in 1900) before the automobile appeared,” and had a diversified economy. That changed as auto production became the main job of Detroiters, and the factories became focal points of the city.
The WPA writers in the 30s saw it this way: “Where, then, are all the people? A vantage point near one of the large factories at the end of a working shift will provide the answer. Here is the most exciting spectacle in all Detroit. The exodus of the crowd from a big football game is as nothing compared with it. Shrieking whistles signal the end of the work period, and the factory disgorges a veritable flood that fills the streets almost from curb to curb. It is a flood, not of men, solely, but of automobiles, and on the steering wheel of each are the calloused hands of a workingman.”
As for glitz, Detroit never had much, the WPA writers noted. “…it lacks something of the bloom and glitter of such cities as New York or Chicago. ‘Doing the night spots’ consists mainly of making the rounds of beer gardens, burlesque shows, and all-night movie houses.”
If you substituted the words “top-less bars” and around the clock “cable TV”, it would still be an accurate look at Detroit.
If we’re to diversify our state’s economy, we have a lot of work to do, and a nearly century old factory culture to change.

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