The Self-Demise of Motor City
In Thomas Sugrue’s article “ The Damming Mark of False Prosperities: The Deindustrialization of Detroit” he discusses the turmoil in Detroit and the implosion of the car making industry. Detroit is and has been known as “Motor City” for generations due to the fact that the “Big Three” of the car making industry, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, all had strongholds in the city and produced the vast majority of automobiles in the United States. During the 1940s, with WWII in full force, the automotive industry boomed. Jobs were readily available and production increased dramatically. This trend continued and the postwar economy was on a steady incline, but it all halted in the 1950s for Detroit. With the new trends of deindustrialization and delocalization, the national economy seemed to improve- while Detroit slowly crumbled in on itself.
Deindustrialization and decentralization, are terms used to describe the changes companies made during the 1940-1960s. They are the closing, downsizing, and relocation of plants and sometimes whole industries. This moved employees around to rural areas and lead to a large insecurity of jobs. These coupled with automation of jobs eventually lead to greater productivity, but a collapse in the job system. Human error could finally be taken care of, and the solution was to just remove the human. By automating jobs with machines, one could guarantee a cookie cutter exact product with no lapse of time, nor efficiency. Less people were needed to work now because machines were better, faster, and cheaper. This is a crucial change in the Detroit city economy as more and more people were laid off the slippery slope continued. Thus leading to the lesser known about Recession of 1958.
Smaller automobile manufacturers and automotive shops were being closed at a very rapid pace. They were forced to try to unite with other small businesses or close. This is directly correlated to the fact that The Big Three automotive companies were able to get a hold of new technology, and thus no longer relied on outside sources for parts or other services which they previously were bound by. This internalized virtually all the assembly into the Big Threes’ companies, and continued the decline in jobs by automating as much as possible. The tactic is the same today, cut costs wherever possible, and for the first time humans became the weakest link and were easily cut. They did not only look to cutting jobs to save costs though. These companies realized by not hiring new untrained laborers, and just allowing their skilled workers to work overtime, they saved money and improved efficiency yet again.
The young and up and coming workers from the 1940s and on, saw Detroit as a land of opportunity, where one did not have to be educated nor skilled to get a job. That was exactly how it worked during WWII and post war, but now as technology improved, jobs were no longer available. This especially affected African American workers and discrimination was still very prevalent. The African American population of Detroit had a harder time getting hired, less job security, and less connections. This resulted in the African American population being long-term unemployed members of society, and as white workers were transferred more and more to rural annexes, Detroit became blacker, and poorer. This discrimination was wrong and made Detroit worse as a whole.
The most ironic line from this article is that, “In the eyes of many at the time, and of most commentators since, the 1950s was a decade of prosperity. The decade was the era of the embourgeoised worker, the ‘golden age of capitalism’ the era of affluence.” While the nation felt empowerment and growth, Detroit suffered and laid off many, especially the African American people due to the unjust discrimination. An often clichéd quote “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” seems awfully applicable to today, as discrimination in the workforce has not been abolished and Detroit collapsed on itself yet again just three years ago with mass closing of automotive buildings.
Thomas J. Sugrue was born 1962 in Detroit. There sparked his interest of writing this article. His expertise is mainly in American urban history, American political history, and the history of race relations. This article is from the text, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.” This was actually his first novel. The book was clearly a successes as marked by winning awards including a Bancroft Prize.
If you are interested in another writers point of view, I skimmed the article “Detroit and Deindustrialization” written by Barry Bluestone, writer for DollarsandSense. He also has great photos that give you a sense of the history and hardships faced during this period.