DETROIT is the poster child for urban blight in the United States, despite many attempts to overcome this negative imagery, and in some cases, a rather stark reality. It is a city which boasts a billion-dollar downtown development, ultra-modern motor-manufacturing plants, some excellent museums and one of the nation’s biggest art galleries – but since the 1960s, media attention has dwelt instead on its huge tracts of urban wasteland, where for block after block there’s nothing but the occasional heavily fortified loan shop or unpleasant-looking grocery store. Crippled with debt, the city itself admitted defeat and in 2013 filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. And yet, there are signs that things are improving, with local business promoters pointing to the bustle around Greektown at night and the Detroit Historical Museum as signs of a renaissance of sorts.

As for orientation, it makes sense to think of Detroit as a region rather than a concentrated city – and, with some planning and wheels, it holds plenty to see and do. Futuristic glass-box office buildings and a tastefully revamped park in downtown overlook the glass-green Detroit River, but for the most part it’s rather empty, even in the middle of the day. Other interesting areas include the huge Cultural Center, freewheeling Royal Oak, posh Birmingham and the Ford-town of Dearborn.

Brief history

Founded in 1701 by Antoine de Mothe Cadillac, as a trading post for the French to do business with the Chippewa, Detroit was no more than a medium-sized port two hundred years later. Then Henry Ford, Ransom Eli Olds, the Chevrolets and the Dodge brothers began to build their automobile empires. Thanks to the introduction of the mass assembly line, Detroit boomed in the 1920s, but the auto barons sponsored the construction of segregated neighbourhoods and shed workers during times of low demand. Such policies created huge ghettos, resulting, in July 1967, in the bloodiest riot in the USA in fifty years. More than forty people died and thirteen hundred buildings were destroyed. The inner city was left to fend for itself, while the all-important motor industry was rocked by the oil crises and Japanese competition. Today, though scarred and bruised, Detroit is not the mess some would have it, and suburban residents have started to return to the city’s festivals, theatres, clubs and restaurants.

The Motown sound

The legend that is Tamla Motown started in 1959 when Ford worker and part-time songwriter Berry Gordy Jr borrowed $800 to set up a studio. From his first hit onward – the prophetic Money (That’s What I Want) – he set out to create a crossover style, targeting his records at white and black consumers alike.

Early Motown hits were pure formula. Gordy softened the blue notes of most contemporary black music in favour of a more danceable, poppy beat, with gospel-influenced singing and clapping. Prime examples of the early approach featured all-female groups such as the Marvelettes (Needle in a Haystack), the Supremes (Baby Love) and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (Nowhere to Run), as well as the all-male Miracles (Tracks of My Tears), featuring the sophisticated love lyrics of lead singer Smokey Robinson. Gordy’s “Quality Control Department” scrutinized every beat, playing all recordings through speakers modelled on cheap transistor radios before the final mix.

The Motown organization was an intense, close-knit community: Marvin Gaye married Gordy’s sister, while “Little” Stevie Wonder was the baby of the family. The label did, however, move with the times, utilizing such innovations as the wah-wah pedal and synthesizer. By the late 1960s its output had acquired a harder sound, crowned by the acid soul productions of Norman Whitfield with the versatile Temptations. In 1968 the organization outgrew its premises on Grand Avenue; four years later it abandoned Detroit altogether for LA. Befitting the middle-of-the-road tastes of the 1970s, the top sellers were then the high-society soul of Diana Ross and the ballads of the Commodores. This saw many top artists, dissatisfied with Gordy’s constant intervention, leave the label, although the crack songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for most of the Four Tops’ hits, stayed in Detroit to produce the seminal Chairmen of the Board (Gimme Just A Little More Time), along with Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. Today, Motown is owned by the giant Universal Music Group.

The Henry Ford Museum

The enormous Henry Ford Museum, ten miles from downtown in Dearborn, pays fulsome tribute to its founder as a brilliant industrialist and do-gooder. The former is certainly true. The inventor of the assembly line didn’t succeed by being a philanthropist, however, and was indeed dubbed “an industrial fascist – the Mussolini of Detroit” by the New York Times in 1928. He only grudgingly allowed the United Auto Workers (UAW) into his factories in 1943, and was less than welcoming to his black employees, banning them from the model communities he built for his white workers and forcing them instead into a separate town sardonically named “Inkster”.

Ford was an inveterate collector of Americana. In addition to the massive “The Automobile in American Life” exhibit, ranging from early Ford models and postal carriages to NASCAR vehicles and electric cars, the twelve-acre museum amounts to a giant curiosity shop, holding planes, trains and row upon row of domestic inventions. Real oddities include the chair Lincoln was sitting in and the car Kennedy was riding in when each was shot, the bus Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat, and even a test tube holding Edison’s last breath. One pertinent item not on view is the Iron Cross that Hitler presented to Ford (a notorious anti-Semite) in 1938.

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