Few think of Detroit as an old city. But it is, in fact, one of the Midwest’s oldest, founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac for Louis XIV of France.
Early Detroit was alternately ruled by the British and the French. In 1763, Pontiac, the Ottawa war chief, ordered an attack on British posts all over Michigan. Tired of the abuse suffered by the British army, Pontiac united the many Indian nations living around Detroit in a determined effort to capture the fort and restore French rule. Chiefs of the Ottawa, Huron, Potawatomi, and Chippewa tribes attended a secret war council. According to legend, however, a squaw tipped off the British, and Pontiac’s men were met by a waiting British army. Rebuffed and defeated, Pontiac was later assassinated in 1769. Today, Pontiac’s Rebellion is still regarded as one of the most formidable Native American uprisings in American history.
In 1783, Britain yielded the area to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. Local tribes, however, disputed the U.S. claim, so it wasn’t until 1796 that Detroit finally unfurled the stars and stripes. The city fell again during the War of 1812 but was recaptured by the Americans a year later. Despite discouraging reports from initial settlers, people continued to pour in from the East. Between 1830 and 1860, the population doubled with every decade, and the city became best known as a nucleus of beer brewing and stove making.
By the turn of the 20th century, the auto industry had changed everything, making Detroit the fifth-largest U.S. city. The state’s first self-propelled vehicle was likely a steam-powered car built by John and Thomas Clegg of Memphis, Michigan, in 1884. Later, Ransom Olds of Lansing developed a gasoline-powered auto and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. In 1896, Charles C. King, an engineer and auto designer, drove the first car through the streets of Detroit; in the same year, Henry Ford tested his Quadricycle, which chugged along fairly well, despite no brakes and no reverse gear.
It was Ford and his later perfection of the assembly line that changed the face of the city—and America—seemingly overnight. Between 1905 and 1924, thousands of immigrants poured in from all over the world, attracted by Henry Ford’s then-unheard-of wage of $5 per day. By 1917, 23 companies were busy in Detroit and its suburbs assembling vehicles for an ever-eager public. The Motor City had arrived.
By the 1930s and 1940s, Detroit was the place to be. Lively and full of energy, it was home to after-hours bars known as “blind pigs” (police—“pigs”—turned a “blind eye” to Prohibition-era hideouts that served liquor) and “black and tan” clubs where people of all races mingled. But things began to sour after World War II. As in other U.S. cities, the middle class began to head for the suburbs. Bigger and better freeways took people farther and farther away from the heart of the city, leaving behind vacant storefronts, vacant houses, empty streets, and empty lives too soon filled by poverty and crime.
The 1960s were difficult years. One bright spot was the birth of the Motown Sound, which began in Berry Gordy, Jr.’s tiny basement studio. Like the city, Motown had a hard-driving beat, and it quickly took over airwaves across the country. Detroit became known for producing more than cars, with Hitsville U.S.A. churning out rhythmic Top-10 tunes by artists such as Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The late 1960s brought massive unrest to the country and the worst race riot in Detroit’s history. In 1967, Detroit was the site of one of 59 racial “disturbances” around the country, a tragedy in which more than 43 people were killed. The nightly news in cities throughout the world showed a Detroit in flames, leaving a lasting impression on the country and a deep scar on the city’s psyche.
The riots touched off an even greater exodus, the infamous “white flight” that left Detroit with a black majority in less than five years. By the 1970s, downtown had become a virtual desert after business hours. Controversial mayor Coleman Young, who ruled for more than 20 years, once said you could shoot a cannon down Woodward in those years without hitting a soul.
Today, some four million people call Detroit and its suburbs home. They comprise myriad ethnic groups, with more than 840,000 African Americans in the metropolitan area and the country’s largest population of Bulgarians, Chaldeans, Belgians, and Arabs (the most outside the Middle East).
While the city has courted big business almost since the first horseless carriage jounced awkwardly off the assembly line, Detroit has never been a major tourist destination. An active tourism bureau has attempted to change that, with frequent events for national and international media and an aggressive campaign to attract visitors from other parts of the country as well as Europe and Japan.
In 1996, the much-celebrated anniversary of the “birth” of the car turned an international spotlight on the city, with favorable reports in both The New York Times and USA Today. Detroit responded with a centennial bash and invited the entire world. In 2001, the city celebrated its third century with exhibitions, events, and a month-long riverfront party with visits that included both tall ships and the Temptations. Stevie Wonder led the homecoming concert, which attracted approximately one million people (ironically, more than the city’s current population).
While city boosters don’t expect flashy events such as these to erase the memories of Detroit in flames during the 1967 riots, they hope that they’ll help to heal the wounds that have too long plagued the city—and perhaps ameliorate more recent troubles, such as Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s 2008 resignation and subsequent felony conviction for obstruction of justice.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel