Detroit: A Biography

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Detroit was established as a French settlement three-quarters of a century before the founding of this nation. A remote outpost built to protect trapping interests, it grew as agriculture expanded on the new frontier. Its industry took a great leap forward with the completion of the Erie Canal, which opened up the Great Lakes to the East Coast. Surrounded by untapped natural resources, Detroit turned iron from the Mesabi Range into stoves and railcars, and eventually cars by the millions. This vibrant commercial hub attracted businessmen and labor organizers, European immigrants and African Americans from the rural South. At its mid-20th-century heyday, one in six American jobs were connected to the auto industry, its epicenter in Detroit. And then the bottom fell out.

            Detroit: A Biography takes a long, unflinching look at the evolution of one of America’s great cities, and one of the nation’s greatest urban failures. It tells how the city grew to become the heart of American industry and how its utter collapse—from 1.8 million residents in 1950 to 714,000 only six decades later—resulted from a confluence of public policies, private industry decisions, and deep, thick seams of racism. And it raises the question: when we look at modern-day Detroit, are we looking at the ghost of America’s industrial past or its future?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” Founded by a French naval officer named Cadillac, the city became a vibrant river town with the Erie Canal’s opening, exporting both to the east and westward to Chicago. The 1855 opening of Lake Superior later expanded its postbellum shipping capacity and brought heavy industry. By 1929, about 10% of the city’s population of 1.6 million (the nation’s fourth largest) worked in automobile manufacturing. But a series of downturns ravaged the city: the 1973 OPEC oil embargo helped destroy the city’s auto-industry dominance, and drug-dealing gangs caused a murder rate that far outstripped New York’s. Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self. Illus.; 10 b&w photos. Agent: Dystel and Goderich. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

"Scott Martelle has the rare ability to bring alive a patch of history from several hundred years ago as skillfully as he does a present-day Detroiter in his living room. This is an extraordinary riches-to-rags story that raises big questions for national policy."  —Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

“The world can learn much from this bittersweet history of urban grit and strength that has now become a 21st-century symbol for industry, loss, and renewal.” —M. L. Liebler, award-winning Detroit poet and editor of Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams


“Detroit has played a crucial role in American urban, industrial, and ethnic history, today it is central to any discussion of the future of the nation's cities.  Scott Martelle has done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Detroit from its early history on the Western Frontier to "Motor City" to today's urban crisis.” —Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Chicago: A Biography

"[Detroit] offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self."—Publishers Weekly

"[Martelle's] unsentimental assessment is rich with cold, hard facts about those responsible for what Detroit became and what it is today." —Booklist

"A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country." —Kirkus

"While the book focuses on Detroit, readers everywhere will find his analysis useful in understanding what many cities are experiencing."  —Solidarity

"[Detroit] offers an engaging, provocative introduction."  —Los Angeles Times

Kirkus Reviews
Former Detroit News journalist Martelle (The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial, 2011, etc.) explores the troubled city where he once worked. The author shows how "no other American city has been gutted so deeply." From its peak in 1950, Detroit has lost 60 percent of its population and many of its employment opportunities, a situation caused in part by auto-industry decline, racism and anti-unionism. The industry decentralized across the country before globalizing, and most of Detroit's population, where it could, left for the suburbs. Now Mayor Dave Bing wants to raze abandoned neighborhoods and seal them off from the rest of the city. Martelle's case study combines history, economic evaluation and firsthand accounts from individual Detroiters. The city was settled by the French about 75 years before the United States was founded and was a center of diversified industry before it became the heart of the auto economy between 1910 and 1929. It was also a center of industrial unionism during the New Deal and was synonymous with the "arsenal of democracy" in World War II. The city's death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569765265
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/1/2012
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 339,751
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Martelle, the author of The Fear Within and Blood Passion, is a veteran journalist and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit News, whose work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Sierra magazine, and other outlets.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2012 Scott Martelle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56976-526-5

Chapter One


Detroit is, in many ways, the result of a planned birth. The details of the day, July 24, 1701, a Thursday, are lost to time, but it was the peak of summer, so it may well have been one of those sultry afternoons on the Great Lakes when the sky washes white with haze. Or maybe mugginess had settled in, with thunderheads billowing majestically on the updrafts. What is certain is that given the personal drive of Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, not even a drenching summer downpour would have kept him from beaching his canoe on the north bank of the Detroit River that day, the culmination of more than two years of lobbying and preparations.

Cadillac, a magistrate's son from southwest France's mid-Pyrenees region, had been in the Americas since 1683. An officer in the French navy with strong connections in the court of Louis XIV, Cadillac had made himself something of an expert on the geography of present-day New England and the Great Lakes. His knowledge won him an appointment in 1694 as commandant of the frontier fort at Michillimackinac, which gave him military authority over the trading post and lands surrounding the Straits of Mackinac—where Lakes Michigan and Huron come together at the five-mile gap between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Cadillac's mission there was to provide security for French fur traders, roust English interlopers, and try to bring the local tribes—mostly Chippewa—under French rule while maintaining peace with the ferocious Iroquois confederacy to the east.

The best way to win the loyalty of the local tribes, Cadillac thought, was to establish tribal villages near the fort where they would be easier to monitor and trade with, and where they could be offered medical treatment, "for there is nothing more urgent for gaining their friendship than the care taken of them in their illnesses." And Cadillac believed—he was French, after all—that love might be part of the answer. "It would be absolutely necessary also to allow the soldiers and Canadians to marry the savage maidens when they have been instructed in religion and know the French language, which they will learn all the more eagerly (provided we labor carefully to that end) because they always prefer a Frenchman for a husband to any savage whatever." The shape of the idea was drawn from history. "Marriages of this kind will strengthen the friendship of these tribes, as the alliances of the Romans perpetuated peace with the Sabines through the intervention of the women."

Cadillac's plan appalled the Jesuit missionaries in Quebec and at Fort Michillimackinac, as did his advocacy of trading furs for alcohol with the natives. But he was sure about his strategy. He also realized that the thin, rocky soil around the post at Michillimackinac was poor for farming, which made it harder to persuade the native tribes to settle into villages. And given how far west into the Great Lakes the post was established, it was ineffective at monitoring who was moving along the main travel routes.

Cadillac rolled the problem around in his mind and reasoned that the French would have better luck if they abandoned the post at Mackinac and moved the garrison south to the much narrower and more easily defended river that drained the upper lakes into Lake Erie. And he knew just the spot, a bend in the narrows where the river flowed temporarily from east to west, making the northern bank a perfect place to monitor traffic, control passage, and keep the British from moving in on French trade with the native tribes.

In 1699, Cadillac asked to be relieved of his command so he could return to Quebec, then sail for Paris to make his proposal to his patron—Louis Phélypeaux, le comte de Pontchartrain, and chancellor of France—and, through him, to King Louis XIV. Both men saw the logic in Cadillac's plan and, over the bitter objections of the Jesuits, Louis XIV approved the new settlement.

Cadillac made the return trip across the Atlantic, stopped in Montreal to put his expedition together, and on June 7, 1701, struck out with twenty-five large canoes bearing fifty blue-coated French soldiers, another fifty settlers (assorted artisans), two priests (one a Jesuit missionary, the other a Franciscan Recollet chaplain), and enough supplies to last two months. They paddled up the Rivière des Outaouais—Ottawa River, which separates the present Quebec and Ontario provinces—nearly to its source, then portaged westward to Lake Nipissing, then down the pine-shrouded Rivière des Français—French River—to Georgian Bay, the northeastern lobe of Lake Huron. It was a long, dif- ficult route, but necessary to avoid the escarpment at Niagara, which created the massive waterfalls and gorge on the river that drained Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. (Cadillac, in fact, dreamed of a day when French engineers would build a canal around the falls, something businessman William Hamilton Merritt finally did in 1824.) As difficult as the trek was, the route through Lake Nipissing was something of an early explorers' highway, which the bulk of the French fur traders, soldiers, and priests followed to get to the northern reaches of the Great Lakes.

Instead of continuing west from Georgian Bay along the established trade route, Cadillac and his party paddled southwest until they reached the Saint Clair River, then followed the shore of Lake Saint Clair into the straits. They maneuvered past a large island, about two and a half miles long (eventually named Belle Isle, it is the largest island park in the nation) then, a few hundred yards downstream, drifted to the north, where they beached the canoes. Cadillac, in letters to his superiors, described his landing site as a meadow rimmed by fruit trees leading into a dense forest of walnut, white and red oak, ash, and cottonwoods, all entwined with thick vines that provided cover for turkey, pheasant, and quail. Deer grazed at the edges and nibbled on fallen apples, plums, and other fruits, the streams and the river itself teemed with fish, and the reeds along the bank hid flocks of swans, geese, and ducks. But it was the open space that drew Cadillac's closest interest. "There the hand of the pitiless mower has never shorn the juicy grass on which bisons of enormous height and size fatten." Cadillac likely was overselling a bit in his reports back to his patrons, but not by much—his group killed both a deer and a bear the first day.

With the harsh winter only a few months away, Cadillac wasted no time turning the meadow into a frontier outpost. He ordered the band of soldiers and settlers to craft a storage building, then a stockade around it, on the first rise of land. It was a modest but effective enclosure of sharpened fifteen-foot-high oak trunks driven four to five feet into the ground. Within those walls, beneath present-day Hart Plaza and nearby buildings roughly at the feet of Griswold and Shelby streets, the settlers built grass-roofed log houses and barracks. Over time, more buildings were added outside the stockade, and more settlers arrived—including Cadillac's wife, who would give birth to the first child in the settlement.

Cadillac named the place Fort Pontchartrain, after his boss, but it didn't have the immediate effect of pacification that Cadillac had hoped. Two groups from regional tribes—the Ottawas and the Miamis—did settle near the fort. But it was an uneasy existence, marked by petty jealousies, including the belief by the Ottawas that the Miamis were getting better treatment and trading terms from the French.

In 1703, a disgruntled Ottawa set one of the external storage buildings on fire. The flames spread to the adjacent fort, heavily damaging part of the wall, the church, the homes of Cadillac (burning many of his papers) and one of his top lieutenants, and the House of the Recollets (home of the Franciscan priests).

To assuage the angry French, other Ottawas helped them rebuild, but the peace was short-lived. In 1706, while Cadillac was away, the dog of the officer he left in charge, a man named Bourgmont, bit an Ottawa tribesman, who in response beat the dog, which led Bourgmont to beat the tribesman, killing him. The Ottawas took their revenge by ambushing a group of six Miamis, killing five, and also taking hostage Father Nicholas Constantine del Halle while he was walking in his garden outside the fort. The Recollet priest was released a short time later, but just as he reached the gate, a musket-toting Ottawa fired a single shot and killed him. Bourgmont ordered the fort sealed, aligned his soldiers in the battlements, and told them to open fire. Some thirty Ottawas fell dead. The French settlers knew they could not live by hunting and trading alone and began establishing private farms outside the stockade on long, narrow plots—three hundred to nine hundred feet wide—stretching northward from the river. Those early farms form the skeleton for present-day Detroit. Saint Antoine Street marks the edge of the original Saint Antoine family land grant and farm, as do Beaubien, Rivard, Chene, Moran, and other streets that begin at or near the river and run perpendicular, at a cant slightly west of north. Other, smaller farms similarly stretched back from the Rivière Parent, a large stream flowing southward into the Detroit River near the west end of Belle Isle, a stream long since buried by urban development.

In a sense, three hundred years ago the rivers and navigable streams were the roads joining the farms, and the Detroit River was the major thoroughfare. The houses were built close to the water's edge, and behind them invariably stood an orchard, after which came the cleared fields for corn, wheat, and other staples. It was an inefficient design; the layout was adopted for safety. Each farmer would have plenty of land to tend to, and space to grow crops. But their houses would be close enough together that they could easily reach each other in the event of emergency, from health troubles to raids by the natives.

Where land ownership is involved, squabbles soon follow, and the early years of Detroit were no different. For half a century claims and counterclaims were made over property rights, and even Cadillac's initial land grant from Louis XIV came under challenge in a legal battle that lasted long after his death in 1730. (He left Detroit in 1710 to govern the new Louisiana territories, but returned to France in 1717 under a cloud concerning his management of the colony, which included violent showdowns with Natchez tribesmen. A rather intemperate man, upon his arrival in France, Cadillac was thrown into the Bastille for five months for harsh comments about his overlords in letters and official reports.) And, of course, the native tribes, who were there first, were given no say.

The early houses were drawn from the rough-hewn frontier, walled with oak or cedar logs beneath roofs of thatch or grass. Until 1750 or so, when the first brick kilns were built in Detroit, stones for the chimneys were brought in from Stony and Monguagon Islands, barren outcroppings downriver near Lake Erie. Over time the stockade itself was enlarged to incorporate the new houses, numbering around one hundred by mid-century.

During the first couple of decades, Detroit remained a mixed, though strictly segregated, settlement (a legacy that continues, though in decidedly less formal arrangements). The French had their safe houses within the stockade. Their farms and orchards were outside, where the local natives also settled. In 1705, several hundred Native Americans inhabited encampments on both sides of the river, all invited by Cadillac—and all seeking some protection from the Iroquois tribes to the east. Thirty Hurons lived in wigwams just outside the stockade, and a Potawatomi village arose farther to the west. Ottawas and Hurons also settled across the river, in what became present-day Windsor.

Still, Detroit remained a frontier outpost, and by mid-century had only grown to around twenty-five hundred settlers. The population began dwindling after silk hats replaced beaver hats as the high fashion in Paris and London, cutting demand and prices for beaver pelts and collapsing the fur trade, in what would become a familiar pattern for Detroit.

War between the royal houses of England and France was something of a national pastime for each, and the rivalry extended to the New World. The Seven Years' War began in 1754 in Europe and quickly spread across the Atlantic, pitting the French and their tribal allies against the British and their tribal allies in what became known as the French and Indian War—in essence, America's first involvement in a world war. And it was a war of marked atrocities: the targeting of settlers, the paying of bounties by both the French and English to scalp-bearing Native Americans, and a "scorched-earth" policy toward overrun settlements, leaving nothing in their wakes but ashes.

Detroit, as a distant settlement, remained outside most of the fray. In fact, displaced French fighters from captured forts eventually made their way to Detroit, which became the base for eastward sorties. Still, there was some fighting in the area, and one notable attack planned by Iroquois warriors was thwarted when a tipster let the French garrison at Detroit know what was coming.

But the British were winning more of those fights than the French, and in 1763 the fighting ended with the Treaty of Paris, which assigned to England all of France's claims east of the Mississippi. By then Detroit had long been in British hands, with the first British troops displacing the French garrison on November 29, 1760, granting the vanquished safe passage to Philadelphia, and on to France. As they left, the French promised their allies among the native tribes that they would return. But it was a hollow—and unfulfilled—promise, something to which Detroiters would become accustomed.


Excerpted from DETROIT by SCOTT MARTELLE Copyright © 2012 by Scott Martelle. Excerpted by permission of CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 A Difficult Childhood 1

2 The British Decades 9

Detroiters I The Morans 19

3 Detroit and the Canal of Riches 25

4 The Civil War and Racial Flashpoints 35

5 Detroit Turns Industrial 53

Detroiters II Michael Farrell 63

6 The Auto Era 69

7 A Great Migration 85

8 The Roaring Twenties 95

9 Great Depression 113

10 The Black Legion 127

11 Housing and the Racial Divide 133

12 The War Years 139

13 The 1943 Riot 147

14 The Postwar Boom 159

15 Race in the Fifties 171

Detroiters III Henry Russell Jr. 181

16 Death of the Covenants 187

Detroiters IV The Baloks 199

17 The Oil Embargo 205

Detroiters V John Thompson 215

18 When the Jobs Go Away 225

Detroiters VI Shelley 237

19 Pittsburgh, a Different Case 243

20 An Epilogue 251

Acknowledgments 259

Selected Bibliography 261

Notes 267

Index 281

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2012


    Good read

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