THE PULSE OF DETROIT weakened perceptibly two weeks ago. The latest setback for this sickly city immersed in a battle for survival was not another round of massive layoffs, or overcrowding in its burgeoning soup kitchens. Rather, the outlook grew bleaker because the 101-year old downtown mainstay J.L. Hudson's department store went out of business.
It's difficult to get teary over the shutdown of a store, particularly when going-out-of-business posters or plywood boards adorn so many storefronts. But the closing of Hudson's represents far worse news for Detroiters and others concerned about American cities than other examples of the effects of the failing economy. Detroit will never be the-same without Hudson's, a 25-story urban treasure that pioneered the department store concept. A vital aspect of daily life in the city is now gone. Even if the city hit hardest by the nation's economic tumble witnesses an economic recovery, it will do so without its century-old focal point, an institution which offered a revered common experience to the urban and suburban, rich and poor.
Like New York's Macy's and Chicago's Marshall Fields, "Hudson's Downtown," the flagship store of a midwestern chain--was an American merchandising phenomenon. Based in such a grungy city, Hudson's never received the national acclaim accorded to its counterparts in New York and Chicago: But it was--and it meant--more. A weekly trip to Hudson's was virtually mandatory in Detroit's golden years. The store sported 14 floors and more than 500,000 separate items; it operated four restaurants which served up to 13,000 meals a day. Nothing anywhere else could compare. Perhaps more importantly. Hudson's offered a brand of courtesy and service which bonded shoppers and bred loyalty. Up to its final day of business on January 7, employees operated the store's elevators and delivery men drove dark green tracks along familiar routes. People came not only to stop, but also to make travel arrangements and rub shoulders with an eclectic crown of shoppers. Hudson's reportedly employed clerks of more than a dozen nationalities to accommodate immigrant customers.
Hudson's was a macabre version of its old self this past December and January. The store's management had announced five months before that the store would close sometimes at the beginning of the year because Detroit's economic tumble had made it a tremendous financial drain. For several years. Hudson's had already pared down significantly; during the holiday months, it withered away. Consolidating merchandise on seven floors, store wide sales initially offered 20 percent discounts and eventually doubled. Hudson's witnessed a dramatic upsurge of business in its waning weeks, as shoppers capitalized on bargains and paid last respects.
Store executives had made clear in previous weeks that the department store's death would not be accompanied by an advance announcement or ceremony. Even late in the afternoon on January 17, when rumors of Hudson's final day had spread, store officials were cagey. When a Detroit reporter asked Hudson's chairman P. Gerald Mills if the store was in fact in its final hours, he said. "Are we? I still see customers."
From a management point of view, the obvious reason to muffle the closing was its bitter irony. The flight of Detroiters to the suburbs afflicted the city and accelerated Hudson's demise, but--embarrassingly--Hudson's itself had been intimately involved in promoting this suburban growth. By opening branch stores in suburban outlets, Hudson's had actually sapped the pull of its flagship store; down-playing the store's ultimate failure was, then, more than understandable.
But another reason for the unspectacular closing its the serious implications the death of Hudson's holds for Detroit. A meaningful, common part of life in America's most troubled city has been irreparably lost. Strange to say, Hudson's for decades acted as the model. Detroit citizen, providing sincere, accessible, non-discriminatory service and courtesy. In a city so fractured, the loss of this unique cohesive element is utterly painful; fanfare-filled tributes to the grand store would have only drawn attention to a situation beyond repair.
Hudson's chief Mills put it tactfully and fittingly. "We always said one day we'll close and just not open." With that sort of non-ending. Detroiters can less mournfully continue to try pulling their city back together--and do their shopping elsewhere.