Expert View: Don't forget the motor city? Globalisation already has

Detroit - a place where 'civilisation surrounded the city and the Wild West was within'
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The Independent Online

If you are one of our hipper readers, I'm sure you won't be fazed by the term "8 Mile Road". Eminem chose this as the title of his rap movie due to the symbolic significance of the road that divides Detroit from its northern suburbs. Let's just say it's not prime real estate. Detroit today is a textbook case of industrial decline and its social consequences. A case worth studying.

Wednesday was the last day of summer, and I sweltered in Detroit as temperatures hit the 80s. It was also the day the "motor city" saw one of its more bizarre killings, even in this capital of gun crime. A taxi drove erratically for some distance along the freeway before veering off, the driver dead at the wheel. Speculation centred on a passing hit, perhaps another car the driver had cut up. It shocked the city for all of 24 hours, until the next day saw something worse.

Detroit 2005 is a tough place. UK commentators seeking local comparison have sometimes cited Coventry, but this is laughable, true only in the motor industry connection. The scale of Detroit is quite different, as is the nature of its decline. Arrive at the hi-tech airport, complete with monorail and bilingual signs (in English and Japanese), and you'll think you are at one of the frontiers of globalisation. Which of course you are, as the myriad successful businesses strewn around prosperous suburbs like Dearborn testify. Just don't go into the city.

For Detroit is the perfect example of what sociologists call the "doughnut effect": the depopulation and economic/ social decline of city centres to the benefit of their suburbs. Golf courses, swimming pools and shopping centres on the one hand, gun crime and mean streets on the other.

The population of the city of Detroit has declined from a post-war peak of two million to just 900,000 today. And yet greater Detroit, stretching out many miles in each direction from its core, houses many times that number.

It is tempting to ascribe this phenomenon solely to the decline of the US automobile industry. The rise of Japanese competition in the 1970s struck first, smashing the original triopoly of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. The latest challenge from Chinese firms, with a fraction of US manufacturing costs, is even more frightening. Throw in the effects of high oil and steel prices, and in this frontier city, you see globalisation in the raw.

In the second quarter alone, GM's North America division lost $12bn (£6.8bn), and Ford some $907m. These losses came after years of cost cutting - Ford's "Back to Basics" strategy involved shedding 21,000 jobs. GM cut a similar number and Chrysler lost 27,000. There is talk now of more to come.

But while these challenges do provide the city with its backdrop of decline, they do not explain all that has happened. For this, turn to Paul Clemens' new book, Made in Detroit. He evokes growing up in a place where "civilisation surrounded the city and the Wild West lawlessness was contained within".

More importantly, he describes how this was exacerbated by political decision makers like Coleman Young, who served as Detroit's mayor five times. High local taxes and an attitude unfriendly to business drove the life of the city away from its heart.

Clemens also documents the unfolding consequences. He notes how his mainly white suburb contrasted so much with those full of abandoned homes and broken-down cars, that on Hallowe'en black families sent their children there as the only safe place to go "Trick-or-Treat".

As the UK begins its own debate on ghettoisation, one of the biggest contributions should come from the lessons of Detroit. Globalisation has created an unforgiving environment with no room for mistakes. Local politicians can't attempt to hold capitalism captive - it will find its own way out. Are you listening, Ken?

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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