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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Detroit - The Renaissance City

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Robb has been collecting and posting Elmore non-fiction work.  Here is the introduction Elmore did for his friend, famed architectural photographer, Balthazar Korab’s book, Detroit - The Renaissance City.  Go to Balthazar’s site, here.

Elmore Leonard’s Introduction
to
Detroit: The Renaissance City
By Baltazar Korab

It’s strange, I sit and wonder what I think of this city I’ve lived in or near for 50 years, while characters I’ve made up have no trouble expressing a view. In a novel called City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit a character by the name of Clement Mansell looks out at the city from a high vantage and offers his opinion.
“The Detroit River looked like any big-city river with worn-out industrial works and ware-houses lining the frontage, ore boats and ocean freighters passing by a view of Windsor across the way that looked about as much fun as Moline, Illinois, except for the giant illuminated Canadian Club sign over the distillery.
“But then all of a sudden-as Clement edged his gaze to the right a little-there were the massive dark-glass tubes of the Renaissance Center, five towers, the tallest one 700-feet high, standing like a Buck Rogers monument over downtown. From here on the riverfront was being purified with plain lines in clean cement, modern structures that reminded Clement a little of Kansas City or Cincinnati-everybody putting their new convention centers and sports arenas out where you could see them.”

 

Elmore Leonard’s Introduction
to
Detroit: The Renaissance City
By Baltazar Korab


It’s strange, I sit and wonder what I think of this city I’ve lived in or near for 50 years, while characters I’ve made up have no trouble expressing a view. In a novel called City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit a character by the name of Clement Mansell looks out at the city from a high vantage and offers his opinion.
“The Detroit River looked like any big-city river with worn-out industrial works and ware-houses lining the frontage, ore boats and ocean freighters passing by a view of Windsor across the way that looked about as much fun as Moline, Illinois, except for the giant illuminated Canadian Club sign over the distillery.
“But then all of a sudden-as Clement edged his gaze to the right a little-there were the massive dark-glass tubes of the Renaissance Center, five towers, the tallest one 700-feet high, standing like a Buck Rogers monument over downtown. From here on the riverfront was being purified with plain lines in clean cement, modern structures that reminded Clement a little of Kansas City or Cincinnati-everybody putting their new convention centers and sports arenas out where you could see them.”
In an earlier novel called The Switch Louis Cara and Ordell Robbie were the first of my characters to react to the Renaissance Center
Louis said, “Wow.” He said, “It’s big”
Ordell squinted at him. “That’s all you can say? It’s big?”
“It’s really big,” Louis said. “If it fell over you could walk across it to Canada:’
“Take you farther than that,” Ordell said. What he saw, looking up at the hotel tower and the outside elevator tubes, the sun hitting on it hot and shiny, it looked like a gigantic spaceship that could take you to the moon for about a buck seventy-five.
Later on, driving up Woodward Avenue, “past the same bars, the same storefronts with grill-work over their show windows, a few more boarded up,” Ordell says to Louis, “They build all the glass and convention centers and domes along the river? That’s for the postcard pictures-hey, look at Detroit, man-if you never seen it before. Then you drive out this big wide street, what do you see? What does anybody want to come here for? Pick up some ribs and leave the motor running.”
What’s happening here seems typical of so many American cities. They spread out about as far as they can go, developers build shopping malls and office plazas in the suburbs, then double back for a little urban renewal. Before you know it you’ve got the beginnings of a downtown made of glass, buildings that reflect a new facade, a postcard image.
There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs. Detroit has its natural attractions: lakes all over the place, an abundance of trees and four distinct seasons for those who like variety in their weather, everything but hurricanes and earth-quakes. But it’s never been the kind of city people visit and fall in love with because of its charm or think, gee, wouldn’t this be a nice place to live.
At least not lately. Coming from a village in eastern Europe a hundred years ago was a different story. My family came up from the South in the mid-30s when I was in the fifth grade I’ve lived at six different addresses in Detroit, three in the suburbs. I’m still here. I’ve asked dif-ferent people I know why they live in Detroit-those who have a choice-and they have to stop and think. A friend says, “It’s not a bad place to live!’ Some endorsement. Another says, “At least I can afford to live here!’ You don’t expect people to say they’re crazy about the place, though there are positive responses. “What do you want, music? We have every kind there is, including a symphony orchestra. Sports? We have Tigers, Lions, Pistons, and Red Wings. Theater? Lots of it Whatever you want, it’s here, somewhere.” A new arrival reports, “Great bars, nice people!” But then out-of-town friends come to visit and you wonder what to show them.
Belle Isle?... Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum?... Greektown?... That’s it, start with Greektown and the Detroit Institute of Arts, and if you know where to look there are works you can show by some impressive names in architecture as well as art. Albert Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Minoru Yamasaki, Alexander Calder, Carl Milles, Eero Sarinaan, William Kessler, Isanm Noguchi, Giacomo Manzu, Diego Rivera…
The French settled here originally because it was a good place for a fort, on the narrow strait between two of the Great Lakes, Erie and Huron, in the heart of the fur country. Cadillac stepped ashore about where the Veterans’ Memorial Building stands today and paced off Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit in 1701. His idea was to develop a colony, get settlers to come way out here to the western reaches of France’s empire in the New World. The plan worked for more than 50 years, until Detroit fell into the hands of the British, then became an American settlement following the Revolutionary War.
You can go to France and visit the church where Cadillac was baptized; but here not a trace of the man or his time remains-except for streets that mark the boundaries of land grants and bear the names of the original owners: Beaubien, Riopelle, Chene, St. Aubin, Livernois. Detroit was destroyed by fire in 1805, burned to the ground. It became the only major American city ever to be occupied by foreign troops when the British marched in during the War of 1812. The red-coats were run off, but Detroit still had a problem attracting settlers. One reason, Detroit was somewhat off the beaten track of westward expansion. The other reason was that government surveyors passed the word back east that Michigan tended to be swampy Who knows why. It might have been Detroit’s first put-down. By 1819 there were 1,100 people in town. Ten years passed. Now there were maybe 2,000…
And along came the Industrial Revolution.
What Detroit had been waiting for all along. By 1850 the population was 21,000 and one out of every seven Detroiters was from Ireland. A German community was already developing along Gratiot Avenue. The Poles began to arrive in the mid-1870s and the population edged up to over 80,000. Detroit was now a center of heavy industry, milling copper and iron ore shipped down from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, manufacturing railroad cars and equipment, stoves and kitchen ranges. By 1880 the population was 116,000, the black community accounting for about two and a half percent. By 1890, with over 200,000 people, Detroit was ready to come out in the role that would make it world famous as the Motor City.

Most people I know grew up thinking Henry Ford invented the automobile. No; what he invented was a Ford. A couple of German carmakers, Benz and Daimler, pre-date Ford by ten years. In fact there were others, locally, who beat him to it. A young man named Charles King drove his auto through downtown Detroit several months before Henry Ford got his started and had to tear down a wail to get it out on the street. This was in the summer of 1896. Ransom Olds was already in business in Lansing. By 1899 he was turning out Oldsmobiles, but with their $2,382 price tag very few could afford to buy one.

What’s most interesting about the birth of the car business is that it happened all at once. The year, 1903.

The Ford Motor Company was formed with $28,000 in working capital. A bookkeeper named James Couzens bought in for $2,000. Fifteen years later he was bought out for $30 million. (I learned to drive on James Couzens Highway in a’39 Buick.) David Buick built his first car in 1903, the same year David Leland came out with his first Cadillac, and the first Packard was produced in Warren, Ohio, before moving to Detroit. Ransom Olds also came to Detroit, but returned to Lansing when his factory burned down. A wagonmaker from Flint named William Crapo Durant bought out Buick, Cadillac, and Olds and began putting together General Motors, which in ten years would become the fifth largest industrial corporation in the world. David Leland couldn’t stay out of the business; he began manufacturing a car called a Lincoln. Walter Chrysler, originally a railroad master mechanic, left Buick to take over Maxwell. The Dodge brothers, major Ford stockholders and parts suppliers, left to build their own car. The Maxwell became a Chrysler and pretty soon Dodge was part of the Chrysler Corporation.

That was how the car business began, suddenly exploding into a major industry. Ford sold 1,708 cars his first year. In 1908 he began producing that all-time favorite the Model ‘I got the price down as low as $275, set up a nation-wide dealer organization to handle sales and service, and put America on wheels. Ford revolutionized the industry in 1913 with the first automobile assembly line. The next year he did something to put Detroit on the map that was as significant as any event in the city’s history.

Ford set the pay scale for production workers at an unbelievable five dollars a day

it was twice the daily rate for most unskilled or semi-skilled jobs; five times what they were making up in the lumber camps. The company hired 5,000 more workers and had to turn another

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10,000 away. From 1910 to 1920 Detroit’s population jumped from 465,000 to one million. Five years later there were a million and a quarter people living here. Detroit had become the fourth largest city in the United States, and nearly half of its population was foreign-born.

German, Irish, and Poles made up the first wave of immigration in the mid-1800s. Now they were coming from all over to work in the auto plants: Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Belgians, Ukrainians, Finns, Uthuanians, Serbs, Rumanians. The Irish were in Corktown, the Hungarians in Delray. A black community developed along the near east side. Hamtramck, the largest Polish community outside Poland, grew up around Dodge Main, a plant that employed 36,000 during its peak years, the late 1940s.

In the 1930s we rode the Woodward Avenue streetcar downtown for seven cents, down to the Vernors plant where a paper cup of the world’s best ginger ale cost a nickel, and so did a ride on the Detroit-Windsor ferry, across the river to a Canadian city that is somehow south of ours. We swam in the river off Belle isle while the UAW was signing its first union contracts with GM and Chrysler but getting its nose bloodied at Ford. The public wondered about union organizers-were they Communists?-until an incident took place at Ford Rouge and public support went to the union. On May 26, 1937, Ford “Service Department” personnel beat up several union organizers entering the plant to distribute leaflets. There was nothing unusual about a clash between company muscle and union reps, except this time news photographers were on hand. “The Baffle of the overpass” was featured, with pictures, in newspapers across the country.

In the 1950s Detroit’s population peaked at close to two million. Then, during the next couple of decades, we built freeways and 700,000 people left town, moved to the suburbs. (We bought ranch homes, like people all over the country, and began cooking out in the backyard.) The ethnic make-up of the city changed and is now about two-thirds black. We have the largest Arabic-speaking population outside the Middle East, the largest concentration in the United States of Chaldeans, Maltese, Belgians, the second largest Polish population.

 

Detroit has developed an image: a blue-collar big city, a workingman’s shot-and-a-beer kind of town, known for its two-fisted trade unions and rowdy sports fans; a metropolitan area made up of ethnic communities, neighborhoods with old-country identities, traditions, accordians playing polkas in Dom Polski Hall. While down the street you hear another beat that’s part of Detroit’s image, a unique blend of soul and street hip, black rhythm and blues, called the Motown sound. Detroit was the home of the Purple Gang during Prohibition, when Detroit was port-of-entry for nearly all the illegal liquor smuggled in from Canada. It came to be that in gangster movies when someone needed a hit man from out of town, they sent to Detroit.

That rough, blue-collar, two-fisted image is what people have conic to expect when they think of Detroit. It is a reputation that started over 200 years ago when an Ottawa chief named Pontiac ambushed and nearly annihilated a detachment of British light-armed soldiers at a place that came to be called Bloody Run (near what is now East Jefferson Avenue). While the tales
you hear of crime are greatly exaggerated (no, everyone does not go about heavily armed), it is true we named a car after an Indian that blew away 200 British soldiers. Maybe cities that start out as forts are like that. Maybe they retain something of their frontier spirit.

In Split Images a character of mine by the name of Walter Kouza will tell you what it’s like to come back, after having been away for a dozen years.

“The house’s gone. Hamtramck High School, where I went? Gone. Not a trace of it. Dodge Main? Gone. Kowalski’s still there. St. Florian’s still there. St. Florian’s you’d have to shoot the priests and blow it up .... Everything’s changed. I mean everything.”

Today, General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center occupies what used to be the old Dodge Main neighborhood. GM calls it one of the ten most modern car assembly plants in the world. Waiter Kouza says, “Everything’s changed:’ And Walter doesn’t know the half of it. A city that celebrates manpower is gradually surrendering to change. But that’s the way it’s going to be in our new industrial revolution, applying electronics to manufacturing, automating the assembly line.

Perhaps a character in a future book of mine will look around the new Detroit and offer an opinion. I’ll be interested to learn what he sees.

 

Elmore Leonard


Detroit, Michigan

November 1985

 

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