The following is an essay written by Jacob Kaplan in late 2014 that was included in printed takeaways for my exhibition of Auto Endeavor at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts in January 2015.
American society is often a study in contrasts. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the industrial Midwest or rust belt. The region that put America on wheels and created the middle-class society that was able to afford mass produced automobiles has suffered a precipitous decline and faces an uncertain future. This is especially true in the historic centers of rust belt metropolises. Where there were once plentiful jobs that drew immigrants from around the world, there are now often abandoned hulks of former factories – sometimes the very factories that helped manufacture the modern way of American life; the automobile. The way that the automobile has created, nurtured, and altered cities and towns across the industrial Midwest provides a look into the stark contrasts and contradictions of modern American life.
Cities of the industrial Midwest – Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago – grew rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th century. New immigrants flocked to the cities and the smaller towns of the area, resulting in a population boom of epic proportions. At the heart of this growth was the American auto industry. Jobs were abundant. The 1910 opening of Ford’s massive Highland Park plant, credited as the first modern assembly line, was a touchstone moment in the history of modern America. Production of new automobiles could be ramped up to numbers once thought impossible. Mass production reduced costs and made cars cheaper and more accessible to the masses. More and more workers continued to flock to Midwestern industrial cities.
It wasn’t just the production of automobiles themselves that resulted in this growth. There were many ancillary industries that were integral to the auto industry and contributed to job growth as well. Steel is the obvious example. Since cars used large amounts of steel, demand for it grew quickly. Cities like Pittsburgh, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Gary, Indiana, and others were focused around this most important metal. They grew and attracted new immigrants as well. The work was tough, grueling and dangerous – but, especially in later years, it paid well, and helped the middle class in these cities prosper (and afford automobiles).
Other Midwestern industrial cities had their specialties as well. Akron, Ohio, made tires for cars. Dayton, Ohio, made electronics for cars. Toledo, Ohio, made glass for cars. Other cities made other car parts or the tools that were necessary to make car parts. It seemed as though almost everything was based around cars. This continued to remain true after the Great Depression and World War II, when the auto industry began yet another period of tremendous growth and expansion.
And who was buying all these new cars? Americans of all types, but particularly the burgeoning middle class made possible by industrial growth and union organizing. Around the turn of the 20th century, during the infancy of the automobile, it was mostly the rich who could afford them. But now, automobiles were getting cheaper and certain models were marketed towards the middle class that could afford them. Of course the steelworker in Pittsburgh wanted a car – it would make it easier to get to work, do errands, or go for a drive on the weekends. And of course the autoworker in Detroit wanted a car – after all, he/she was already making the things, so it was only natural to want to own the product. Cars were seen as convenient, affordable, and ultimately modern forms of transportation that had widespread appeal.
The exponential growth that had occurred in most industrial Midwestern cities early in the 20th century (partially due to the growth of the auto industry) created its own problems. The business elite of many of these cities decried the fact that much of this growth had occurred without a semblance of planning. Mixed uses, a lack of zoning, and other “follies” were lambasted by elites and the press. There was a big push towards more planning, and particularly by the mid-20th century, there was also a push towards a clean slate – wiping away the old parts of the city through urban renewal projects and redesigning/rearranging the city with a “modern” auto-oriented focus.
The trials and travails of urban renewal have been covered extensively in academic and popular literature alike, so they will not be rehashed here. But one point that needs to be made is that the reorganization or reorientation of American metropolises towards auto-oriented uses was not exclusively a product of mid-20th century postwar America. Some of this reorganization happened much earlier. The parkways of New York, the Davison Freeway in Detroit, Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and other examples demonstrate that there was a clear emphasis towards making cities friendlier to automobiles years before the interstate highways and urban freeway systems of the mid-20th century.
How did the automobile impact the cities of the rust belt directly? Streets across cities like Detroit and Chicago were widened. Freeways were constructed right through neighborhoods, especially in the postwar era. One persistent problem was parking, especially in the central business districts. Buildings were torn down to make way for parking lots or garages. Some office buildings in cities like Chicago were even converted directly into parking garages. New parking solutions popped up everywhere. The proliferation of parking accelerated even further during the mid-20th century era.
Most downtowns began to decline, as more and more shoppers had automobiles and the ability to access new shopping centers on the fringes of the metropolis. Parking expansion downtown was a “stopgap” measure to stem the bleeding and make downtown more attractive to drivers. But the damage had already been done -- the middle class lifestyle that had arguably been created and made possible by the industrial growth resulting from the automobile was now killing the centers of the very Midwestern cities that made the growth possible. Such is a classic example of the irony and contrasts of modern American society.
Now that the middle class had access to easy transportation, it was easy to move to a new house on the fringes of a city like Detroit. Why bother going downtown to shop when an auto-oriented shopping center with convenient parking is close to home and has the same department stores and merchandise as the stores downtown? Industry followed suit as well. Old multi-story plants that were once considered modern were now considered outmoded, as single-story plants with assembly lines were the new state of the art designs for efficient manufacturing. Ironically, the Highland Park Ford plant that had invented the modern assembly line was now itself considered outmoded as the assembly line became more popular and evolved into a modern single story form.
And where were these new, modern assembly plants built? Many were built on the outskirts of cities, in new suburban areas where there was plenty of land – not just for the plant itself, but also for parking, as of course most everybody would drive to work and need a place to park. And, with people more mobile than ever, why even stay put in cold, industrial cities like Cleveland or Detroit? New auto and manufacturing plants were often constructed in the south and west, where the climate was considered more favorable, and where it was easy to get to by automobile. If a Detroit family was already driving to Florida every year for a warm weather vacation, the idea of permanently relocating to a warmer climate was the natural next step for many.
All the while, industrial Midwestern cities continued to decline. Of course, it wasn’t simply factors related to the automobile that affected this decline – trade policies, foreign imports, government policy, and a multitude of other factors were involved. But one thing is for certain – the automobile had helped the cities of the rust belt grow and prosper into some of the richest cities in the world, and also played a hand in creating the modern American middle class and mobility. But that same automobile now assisted in the abandonment of rust belt cities by the very people and industries that had built them.
What has been left behind in this abandonment? People, for one. Many poorer citizens couldn’t afford to leave cities like Detroit and Cleveland for the suburbs or elsewhere, so many industrial Midwestern cities have been struggling with high poverty rates for years. The good paying factory jobs that were once available to inner-city residents are mostly gone. Mobility is difficult for many inner-city residents, and any good jobs that might remain on the city’s outskirts are often out of reach.
The decline of manufacturing in America is most visible in the cities of the Midwest. Decaying factories are a common feature of the built environment, and have even been popularized with controversial “ruin porn.” Physical infrastructure remains as well. Often what has been left behind in rust belt city neighborhoods and downtowns includes massive infrastructure built for the automobile; easy parking, wide streets, and freeway access, but often little business or vibrancy on the street outside of select areas.
This is not to say that there are not some success stories in the cities of the industrial Midwest. Chicago continues to have a prosperous downtown and close-in neighborhoods. Detroit has seen some redevelopment downtown. Cleveland has a revitalized downtown and warehouse district. But the rebirth of portions of these cities hides the fact that most of the inner-city areas of these auto-oriented, auto-related cities continue to struggle with unemployment, poverty, and disinvestment of the once-modern infrastructure that remains.
The automobile directly and indirectly built the cities of the industrial Midwest through industrial growth. This growth allowed the burgeoning middle class to purchase automobiles. The popularity of the automobile subsequently resulted in the restructuring and rebuilding of these cities to accommodate the auto, which in turn accelerated the exodus from these same cities. What will the future bring to the cities of the rust belt? Will rebirth happen and will the auto-oriented infrastructure be used again? Will the purchase and operation of automobiles once again become too expensive for anybody but the elite to own? Through it all, will the cities of the industrial Midwest continue to decline (with some exceptions), or is rebirth just around the corner? The future is uncertain.