Although I recoil from the up-to-the-minute cliched jargon of it, my wife and I (along with the kids) just enjoyed a small "Stay-cation"; We ventured forth from our cozy nest here in Northern Michigan, and went south... to Detroit. Yeah, yeah, I know: Who the heck vacations in Detroit?
People with relatives there, and who just spent a boat-load of money building a new drain field, that's who. And what was supposed to be Grand Tour of the West this spring devolved into visiting the in-laws. Thankfully, said in-laws reside in the commodious climes north of Nine Mile out near Livingston County, in the still somewhat habitable northwest-suburbs of Detroit.
But, we thought it might be a nice little trip to take the kids to see the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
Before I go on, let me first say this: The Henry Ford Museum is a fine institution. Along with Greenfield Village, it straddles some five or six hundred acres in the very heart of Ford's Dearborn. At the moment, of course, Greenfield Village is closed for the winter (think of it as an ersatz Colonial Williamsburg), but the Ford Museum remains open year 'round.
Therein you will find the very first horseless carriage that Ford himself built. You can also see the very limo in which JFK was murdered, the chair in which Lincoln met the same fate, and the entire panoply of the American historical symphony, from a replica of a 1820's kitchen, to the only Dymaxion House that Buckminster Fuller built. There is one of the largest steam locomotives ever constructed (-in Lima, Ohio, of all places): an "Allegheny" class engine that plied the rails of the C&O, starting in 1940, and is easily two stories tall, and a hundred feet long.
You can find the original power generator that Edison used to first illuminate New York City, the fastest car ever to move on land (the "Thunderbolt", which traveled in excess of 410 miles per hour). There is block after block of all manner of road-side Americana, from a fully functioning McDonald's "Golden Arch" Speedee sign, to a 1930's-era railroad diner-car. There is an actual light-bulb manufacturing machine that Edison himself designed and operated.
Visiting the Henry Ford Museum is a splash of cold water in the face in this, our Obama-era of American Mediocrity: There was a time when America in general --and Detroit in specific-- had enormous shoulders, gigantic dreams, monumental accomplishments, and exceptional culture. Sadly, it is all housed now in museums, for a glum and ennui-ridden public to shuffle past and gaze upon:
"Back when we were Great... "
Nothing has escaped being trapped in this cultural amber from the bygone era of American Grandiosity and Power in the Henry Ford Museum. The Henry Ford Museum (which some marketing genius foreshortened stump-like to "The Henry Ford" a couple of years back) is truly an awe-inspiring modern anachronism, sadly singing the praises of the once-great City of Detroit, a place with dirt under its fingernails, but its eyes on the heavens.
A city that no longer exists.
The 2010 census notches the population of Detroit at 710,000. Notwithstanding Mayor Dave Bing's obligatory (and pathetic) whimpers for a recount, Detroit is now barely the 20th largest city in the nation, behind Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis. As late as 1970, there were 1,750,000 people living in Detroit city proper, with equally massive cities such as Warren and Southfield and Troy ringing it.
Dreaming of riches earned in low-skill jobs, Detroit was a town people fled TO, rather than FROM. Bobby Bare had a huge country cross-over pop hit in the early 1960's called "Detroit City", the lament of a poor southern farm boy who left the family stompin' grounds for the bright lights of Detroit:
Home folks think I'm big in Detroit city,
From the letters that I write they think I'm fine,
But by day I make the cars,
by night I make the bars,
If only they could read between the lines,
I want to go home, I want to go home,
Oh Lord, I want to go home,
The drive TO the museum is as educational as VISITING the museum. Reading today's headlines might lead the casual observer to conclude that only Detroit itself is a bombed-out crater; But the truth is that the collateral damage of sixty years of untrammeled union cronyism, liberal utopianism and statist political violence has raged out beyond the City Limits, and has engulfed the belt-cities. Driving down Evergreen Avenue through the heart of Dearborn looks in large measure these days like a Middle-eastern third-world squat. Literally. A quick view to the left as you approach downtown Dearborn (which is still in relatively good shape) reveals the one glittering new jewel in town: the creamy and luxuriant Islamic Center for America . It takes up an entire block.
It is the one confident marker in a town so supinely cowering in the immense shadow of its great past. Except for the Islamic Center and the downtown, much of the rest is boarded up, bombed out, abandoned, or falling into threadbare disrepute. The cancer of Detroit has metastasized into the surrounding tissue.
Why WAS Detroit Detroit ? Why was it there? What, in God's Name, happened? Why is all that was glorious about Detroit, and to a certain extent, America, only found today behind museum glass? And what is Barack Obama's role in the Death of Detroit?
The easiest part of this is to divine why Detroit was Detroit, and why it was there.
Post Civil War Michigan was a hotbed of nearly invisible state Government, ultra-dynamic entrepreneurism and cheap land. Official policy of the State of Michigan, right through the beginning of World War Two was to keep the functions of governance as tiny and cheap as possible, primarily because it was still paying off some paper it floated in the 1840's to finance some ill-advised public railroads. The State Of Michigan was stung once, and it didn't want to expose itself that way again. Government stayed in the background.
Also, in contrast to the nascent and flourishing union movements in Chicago and Wisconsin (and even Upper Michigan), Detroit was very resistant to the early strains of unionism. In fact, at one point, one of Henry Ford's backers suggested moving his operation to either Chicago or Buffalo, but he pointedly rejected both because of New York's and Illinois recent friendliness with the unions. So, he, along with Billy Durant and Ransom Olds and Walter Chrysler and the Dodge Brothers, stayed in Detroit. In short, Michigan was the perfect confluence of original ideas waiting to ripen in the fullness of time and the free market.
The last farmhouse in Grosse Pointe fell to the bulldozer in 1950. By the early 1980's, though, the land was already feeling the pull to return to its agrarian roots. By the 1990's, the largest increase in the native pheasant populations in Michigan was in the grasslands of abandoned Detroit. The wilderness was returning. What was causing this regentrification?
The Riot of 1967 was a hinge-critical moment in the life of Detroit, and it sustained its first blow of authoritarian Obama-style political double-dealing. After the riot was kindled on the night of July 23rd, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh attempted to meet the insurrection with his own city police. By the second day, he asked Governor George Romney to intervene with the State Police. By the second night, Romney had asked President Johnson to provide army tanks and a federalization of the Michigan National Guard. At this point, Democrat Johnson was conspicuously incommunicado for twelve or so hours, in the hopes that a huge American city on fire would embarrass Republican Romney, who, pace his son Mitt some forty years later, was a presidential front-runner.
And so it did. Detroit burned, and 43 people died in the ensuing riot.
In these afteryears, we tend to think of Detroit as a hotbed of black-power activism, and yet, it was anything but . By early 1967, Detroit was certainly widely adjudged to be one of the least likely northern cities to seem contagious to racial strife-- Detroit had a very prosperous black middle class, it had decent levels of black representation in the state legislature, and on the Detroit Common Council. It had black uniformed policeman, some of whom were officers.
But, like most large cities in the north, beginning in the mid 1950's, Detroit had been laid waste by the good-government liberals in both parties, who had ordered vast swaths of teeming neighborhoods destroyed in the name of "urban renewal". Using the powers of eminent domain (and the public purse), functioning neighborhoods where there were vendors and markets that catered to the needs of their poor customers by selling a single shoe lace, or cigarette, the Government dislocated living, breathing humanity and began warehousing them in unlivable "projects". Freeborn citizens found themselves moved across a government checkerboard like chattel commodities, in the anti-American and statist aesthetic dream of dense cities that are pleasing to the eye.
When your ties to the land are arbitrarily cut, your roots pulled up by the shank, you naturally feel rootless and disposable. Tied to a liberal victimology that was embodied in the Cavanaugh City Hall that felt a certain remorsefulness in black community victim-think, the rioters originally were met with a resigned helplessness on the part of the Detroit Police: Their hands were loosely tied. When powerful law enforcement finally arrived, it was too late.
In walks Barack Obama. Not literally, of course, but in his kindred spirits. And so he remains to this day.
White liberal America, for reason best deigned by professionals, can never admonish itself of the guilt it feels for its inborn racism. Thus, it removed the few honest and humble abodes that the impoverished blacks actually owned , and destroyed what little equity they had: Poverty looks so very bleak when you drive by it in your Cadillac. African-Americans were moved off the land, as surely as the Indians were, but it was done for "humanitarian" purposes. And these purposes didn't end with free housing. An entire rainbow of goods and services were poured over inner-city Detroit, in the forlorn hope that one day, you could drive by in your Cadillac and see something pleasant. It was truly that simple, and that naive.
And ultimately that deadly.
Barack Obama is a product of this social engineering, and he sees nothing at all out of the ordinary in the Life, (and now Death), of Detroit. Big cities don't exist in the framework of a street agitator like Barry Obama to provide the basic social needs of a clustering of freeborn citizens: They exist to cynically parse and dole out the largess of an overlarded, stratified government. In Obama's mind, Cities are not the natural and organic outgrowth of dynamic humanity, rather, they are the filthy product of a racist and greedy power structure. If all that's left in the smoldering, ruinous hulk of Detroit is the bottom of the enthnic barrel, well, that only proves Obama's point, doesn't it?
It is interesting that, as time wears along, and the vast cultural movements in the United States have now blown past the exhibits at The Henry Ford, that the most recent and notorious is the "Rosa Parks Bus". A fully restored 1950's vintage city passenger bus now lies resplendent in the middle of an entire exhibit called "Liberty and Justice for All". It purports to be the very bus upon which Rosa Parks began her activist life, although there are very real challenges to its authenticity. Our new cultural touchstones don't point to the greatness of our discovery, but the size of our grievances.
There is no greater monument to this phenomenon than the election of Barack Obama. His presidency is the capstone of a sighing, apathetic culture which thinks that, not only are America's days of glory behind her, but that it's a good thing, and they weren't all that glorious, anyway.
But, something is fascinating in all of this: People still queue up every day to see --albeit behind glass-- when Detroit was Detroit, and America was America.
In this, I think, there is great hope.