The Death Of The Automobile — Part 1


Our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, alerted us to the presence of this book written by John Jerome way back in 1972. Jerome had been an advertising copywriter working on car ads as well as a journalist, writing for such pro-automotive magazines as Sports Car Digest and Car and Driver.

I’m only halfway through The Death Of The Automobile, so don’t know if Jerome was being overly-optimistic with the title or if there’s something else at work. Certainly, more than 40 years on, such a predicted demise must be considered greatly exaggerated. His take on the city of Detroit, on the other hand, comes across as grimly prescient.

This particular passage caught my attention for its portrayal of the destructive, divisive force the car industry has played both economically and societally. In what I guess might be considered some sad, sad irony, Woodward Avenue, the street at the centre of the following excerpt, has been the site of a pitched battled between entrenched interests, fighting over the proposed building of rapid transit right through the heart of the Motor City.


Or maybe more, read `em and weep.



*  *  *


To say that Detroit is the most American of cities is to be both mordantly accurate and balefully pessimistic about the future of cities in this country. Detroit is where the awful ugliness of urban life first began to be visible. From labor strife to racial disaster to polluted unlivability, Detroit has been the honor guard, the advance men, setting up the territory, for the urban crisis.

Detroit is buried in a flat sump of American midlands, just above the grossly polluted Lake Erie (polluted primarily by Detroit, with a little help from Toledo, Cleveland, and Akron). It sprawls for uncounted miles and yet is almost impossibly congested. It is ringed, gouged, sectioned by freeways, most of them sunken in greasy, claustrophobia-inducing moats – freeways which despite frantic construction programs seem to hang ten years behind the mass of traffic volume. The city’s murder rate has zoomed off-scale in recent years, its drug problems rival New York’s, its police still maintain that car theft – in the Motor City – is the most significant crime. Two of the most severe and destructive racial uprisings in the U.S. in the twentieth century took place in Detroit, and racial ghettos – black impaction – now absorb most of the city proper. To the south the city is bordered by the Detroit River and somnolent Canada. On the east is Lake St. Clair and the enclave of the Old Money, the foundation fortunes in the Detroit industrial empire, Grosse Point. On the west is Ford’s-town, Dearborn, symbol to the rest of the unreconstructed U.S. of militant antiblack bigotry, best personified by its colour perennial mayor, Orville Hubbard.

It is to the north – “out Woodward” – that Detroit limns the shape of the American sixties. Woodward Avenue begins at the river, downtown Detroit, amidst broad plazas and shiny office buildings constructed two decades ago in a downtown urban renewal scheme. If the downtown area seems airy and well ordered, it is closely ringed by ghetto and crumbling freeway; if it seems limited, somehow too small for a city of nearly two million, it is because little of Detroit’s reason for being – GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors – is located there.

Woodward Avenue points…out. String-straight to the northwest, it penetrates the ring of urban renewal within a few blocks of the deepest heart of the city, and immediately enters territory still marred by the warlike ruins of the 1967 racial rebellion. Woodward splits the campus of Wayne State University, which, like so many urban universities, is also tightly surrounded by ghetto. The Avenue connects downtown Detroit with the General Motors Building and its ancillary office complex, a strange collection of 1930’s-style buildings more than three miles from Detroit’s “city”. The GM complex is also encircled by ghetto, very close to the center of the 1967 riot’s white-hot violence. Three of four miles of ghetto-strip line the broad expanse of Woodward beyond the GM complex; with meat-cleaver abruptness, the American Dream begins.

Parks. Golf courses. Churches. Eighteen miles of intermittent commercial strip, interspersed with woodsy suburb and public parks. The architecture, the décor of the commercial strip, rapidly escalate in both expense and garishness to the north, from filling station to fast-food franchise house to sporting-goods store. Carpet shops and tire-recappers, soft-ice-cream stands and pizza parlors. Used-car lot after used-car lot. And to the sides, beyond the borders of the thundering commuter traffic of Woodward, lies suburban Detroit, in rapidly rising economic brackets. The flatland countryside was early divided, in the Midwest tradition, into neat squares; thus Eight Mile Road, Twelve Mile Road – numerical demarcation lines of the class of the neighborhood – butt up against the northwest arrow that is Woodward. The suburbs line up: Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods, Berkley, Royal Oak, and finally, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Management country.

(Woodward goes on. As U.S. Route 10 it splits Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, up the lower peninsula, toward the big Hemingway woods. Another Country. Big trout, clear streams, lakes, misty coniferous forest, half-breeds and subsistence loggers. A long way from Detroit, physically as well as psychically. There is aching symbolism in the way Woodward points toward all that, another kind of life.)

Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Grosse Point – in rising order of exclusiveness – are the suburbs where automobile industry management resides. Birmingham is an imitation New England village, spotless white wood facades on expensive small shops, a couple substantial modern department stores. Surrounding the village are concentric rings of progressively more expensive suburban homes, three-car garages and carefully protected maple trees, winding streets. The contours of the terrain have been religiously preserved, to relieve the rigid block-organization of more citied suburbs. It is affluent, snobbish, resolutely white. As Birmingham melts into Bloomfield Hills to the north, all pretense of town or village disappears, along with any democratic notions about inconspicuousness in the act of consumption: Bloomfield Hills is rich. It is countryside, one hundred-acre estates, the horsy set, country clubs and finishing schools. Tone. Memberships in upstate gun clubs, ski trips to Europe. Very carefully constructed to be as un-Detroitish as physically possible, a soft, rich antidote to the pain of the city.

Grosse Point is richer. The automobile industry rewards its captains very well. (The position of chairman of General Motors is carefully maintained as the highest-paid salaried job in the U.S. In a normal golden-era year, with bonuses, its occupant would gross over half a million dollars. In 1969 James Roche received $655,000.) Grosse Point is where the supercaptains live, men who no longer run automobile companies but who run the economy instead, whose principal occupation could perhaps best be described as moving their money about, in order that it might grow. Women here, too – mostly widows of men who formed, founded, managed, inflated and deflated, and often simply sold out the car companies. A musty rich town of stone mansions and walled estates, fortunes seventy-five and one hundred years old – as compared with fifteen and twenty-five years in the other two managerial suburbs. Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills are relatively new, and thus are substantially buffered by other, cheaper middle-class white suburbs which have grown out from Detroit. Grosse Point is old enough that the city has grown around it with the squalor of the explosive urban Detroit ghetto.

The females who reside at this level of purest capitalistic entrepreneurship are exceptions rather than rules, attaining their positions through longevity rather than business careers. Below that level the society of the auto-makers is exclusively male. (The closest a woman ever got to a position in industry management was when Mary Wells’s advertising agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, took over the American Motors account.) The males of the administrative-managerial class inhabit these three suburbs, their wives and children live their lives there, but the men inhabit. They put in legendarily long hours, choosing to compete not just with other corporations, not just within the palace intrigues of their own corporate politics, but even over such minutiae as who will be first at his desk in the morning, last to leave. It is an industry custom freighted with significance. (Might as well come early and leave late; the traffic jams made possible by the bounty of their production make standard commuting hours impossible for industry leaders anyway.)

Come early, go late, whisk through the city as quickly as possible. Duck home with relief to the splendidly affluent, total insulation of the suburbs. These men often fight their way into the industry from external purviews – the industry record for tight-family, father-son successions is not good, Semon Knudsens and Henry Fords to the contrary – but once inside, it is the industry life. They work, play, lunch, vacation in the industry. They belong to the same country clubs, hunt clubs, garden clubs, luncheon clubs. They attend Detroit’s society affairs in each other’s company, frequently sharing automobiles (which are often chauffeur driven). They meet in sterile but plush executive dining rooms for lunch, in the various administrative office buildings of the major manufacturers – or, if they want alcohol in a strangely puritan industry, they meet at the Detroit Club, the Athletic Club, the London Chop House. (To eat with the same faces, in the same places, year after year…) When they travel, they fly – and are met at airports by regional managers delivering the most carefully prepared, sparkling new examples of their own product. They tunnel through the masses on the freeways, to work and home, insulated. Spinning up broad Woodward Avenue, they traverse a serial representation of the American angst: squalid ghetto, tawdry commercial-strip jungle, splintered campus, fire-bombed whitey furniture stores and glittering drive-in teen-age hangouts in the same eighteen-mile stretch. What must these men think about America while they pass through it? Soot-blackened, smoke-billowing public-transit buses competing for commuting space with chrome-plated supercars, art nouveau hot rods, sports cars, motorcycles, hitchhiking hippies, as well as executive limousines. The whole arteriosclerotic urban sprawl and its commuter tangle, twice a day, and the men who make it insulated from it, air-conditioned out of contact, dreaming of sales campaigns for ever quieter, ever more insulative dreamboats, at whatever cost.

The public stance of the industry becomes automatic, built in. It comes with the territory. It sees Vietnam as defense contracts for its distant corporate divisions, as draft cells that squelch the Youth Market. It sees racial unrest as a demarcating force that cordons off sections of the city no longer safe to travel, as a vague terror that somehow enervates governance of the city, as irritating pressure from do-gooders such as the Fair Employment Practices Commission to force expensive, wasteful, risky new hiring policies. It sees the crisis of the cities as short-sighted failure on the part of government to build enough new streets and roads. It sees ecological disaster first as a scare campaign to play on the fears of the weakhearted; later as another uncomfortable pressure from the federal government intended to crimp free enterprise; still later, finally, as a whole new bonanza market, endless profitability to be gained, albeit at the distasteful cost of learning new technologies. (Profit on the waste-making, and then profit on the waste-removal; and the government is even doing the selling!) It sees automobile safety as the exclusive responsibility of its customers – and the police. It sees poverty as laziness, youth rebellion as slack discipline, the erosion of institutions as encroaching communism. It looks at these eruptions on the fair epidermis of society only in search of places to insert the lance of profit. Prick them just right, and they might somehow yield up another fraction of a percentage point of market share.

cut and pastely submitted by Cityslikr

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