What Role Did The Auto Industry Play In Detroit's Decline?

Illustration for article titled What Role Did The Auto Industry Play In Detroit's Decline?

Last month, the Detroit Free Press offered a superb explanation of how exactly Detroit went bankrupt. Today, The Detroit News is up to bat, and although their analysis is sadly lacking in .GIFs, it does share more insight on how the industry that drove the Motor City to success also drove it to failure.


When we look at old, rotting facilities like the Packard Plant and the Model T Plant, both designed by Albert Kahn, we wonder why car companies could let such beautiful buildings go. It's because, as the News explains, the industry trended toward larger, one-story facilities rather than multi-story ones. Picture a modern assembly line moving and you'll see why.

Detroit was already bursting at the seams with residents and housing when the industry began to move to one-story plants, so companies looked to the suburbs, which still had swaths of vacant land, for development. And there's partly the reason why so many Detroit residents decamped to the suburbs.

From 1945 to 1960, car companies built 33 plants in Metro Detroit. None was in Detroit. The city had no space because of the population explosion and was landlocked since its last annexation in 1926.

“(There was) no room to rejuvenate the manufacturing base on a single-story platform,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who studies land use and ran for mayor in 1977.


Detroit still had some automotive plants, but the industry as a whole began to suffer. While residents moved away as jobs moved further from the city, the Big Three faced two unforeseen crises.

Detroit was hammered by the 1973 oil crisis and competition from smaller, foreign cars. The federal government undercut profits by mandating fuel economy standards in 1975. The Big Three responded with flops — the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.


It wasn't just Ford and GM that had major missteps, though. Chrysler was on a rebound after a bailout in the early 1980s, but the News notably points out that its biggest success of that decade — the minivan — came largely at the hands of Canadian workers who built the vans in Windsor, just across the river from Detroit.

There are obviously several other non-auto factors that led to the fall of Detroit (and the News piece is a must-read if you haven't taken a crack at it already — it's focused on socioeconomic factors and Detroit's relationship with the state of Michigan as well), but I think it's important that we don't forget about the Motor in Motor City, even if the story has been repeated several times over.


For what it's worth, some of the Big Three have tried to re-populate Detroit in recent years, including Chrysler's hires at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant and GM's workforce downtown at the Renaissance Center. The gap there is whether those employees, like the generations before them, actually live in the city.

[Photo via AP]



I'm one of those people enticed to work at the Ren Cen and decided to buy a house in Detroit. I'm amazed at how many people I work work either think it's awesome or plan on doing the same thing. There's certainly a generation gap, where younger people are far more interested than older, but it's encouraging. There's still structural issued with the government and services that concern people, but if November goes well, that could be taken care of.

This article also got me thinking about the potential for Detroit's open space. Why not build cars on it? The city and state should entice the big 3 to build new plants (when they decide to) within the city limits on some of the vacant land (and possibly soon to be much more if Gilbert gets his way). There's an abundance of labor, space, and heritage. Seems like it could be a win/win and could really put the motor back in motor city.