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Between Pontiac and Detroit runs Michigan Highway No.1, Woodward Avenue, four lanes in each direction, a fitting testament to these cities and the industry that built and sustains them. Until the late 1960s Woodward acted not only as the principal thoroughfare between the nation's fifth largest city and Pontiac, but also as one last cement haven for the amateur drag racers who did at times barrel down the wide park way at speeds exceeding one hundred miles an hour. Today, staggered traffic lights and radar-equipped patrol cars have quashed what was once a standard form of recreation for many Michigan youths. At the tame speed limit of 50, the expanse of Woodward is now a half-hour drive, past Kentucky Fried Chicken and bullet proof liquor stores, closed automobile factories, the now-deserted Motown records building, Cass Corridor--one of the nation's most crime-infested districts--several middle-class neighborhoods, and Bloomfield Hills, the nation's wealthiest per capita suburb. On a typical ride down Woodward the motorist is not likely to see buses; public transportation has never been a popular cause in the Motor City.
To the west from the head of Woodward Avenue the recently completed Pontiac Stadium, which can seat Pontiac's entire population, looms on the horizon. Built by William Ford, brother of Henry Ford II, the stadium holds the 95,000 Lions fans who come each fall weekend to watch the Ford-owned team play. Twenty-five miles to the south, at the foot of Woodward in downtown Detroit, is the partially completed Detroit Renaissance Center, a 70-story hotel surrounded by four 40-story office buildings, undertaken by Henry Ford II himself in the hopes of bringing commerce and the upper classes back into the declining city.
Near the intersection of Woodward and Six Mile Road, a barbed wire fence protects one of the city's closed automobile plants. Sex shops, pornographic movie theaters and topless bars flourish throughout the surrounding area. During the day many of the workers who have lost their jobs since the industry reached its peak three years ago visit these places. Industry-wide auto sales rose 48 per cent last year, but unemployment in Detroit and Pontiac remains at over 20 per cent. Average unemployment in the two cities throughout 1974 hovered at around 30 percent. The percentage of unemployment for those under age 22 is considerably higher; half, perhaps more than half of them are out of school or out on the streets.
The only statistic which has risen consistently through boom and bust in the Detroit area is crime. Over 113,000 felonies were reported in Detroit city last year, a solid 12 per cent increase over the 1974 figures. The murder rate decreased, but remained the second highest per capita of all large U.S. cities. Estimated trade in heroin, the nation's highest per capita, has leveled off at about $300,000,000 for approximately 30,000 addicts.
During an economic slump crime is one of the few means of maintaining a decent standard of living--whether that crime is petty theft or the more glamorous domains of the pimp and the dealer. Dealing starts in high school or earlier. Some students can afford cars before they are old enough to obtain driver's licenses. The game has its risks, but excitement adds to the glamour. Some win; 17 and 18 years olds can be seen confidently wheeling Fleetwood Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals through the city streets. Some lose; an acquaintance of one of the authors was murdered in a "drug-related crime" within half a year of graduation from high school.
While the speeds on Woodward have decreased, the number of teenagers who parade their cars up and down the road has not. Supersized mag wheels on the back axle make the cars look as if they are always pointed downhill, and garter belts hang from rear-view mirrors as a sign of sexual conquest. Owning and maintaining a car at an early age is a special status symbol around Detroit. It provides exitement and an identity for students whose careers are already a thing of the past when they enter high school.
Educators have tried to explain why in Detroit even students in the elementary schools seem unwilling to learn. Perhaps both students and teachers know that in most cases education is not a path leading to the executive suite, but a way of biding one's time before going to work on the assembly line. The number of fourth grade students who score significantly below the national average on standardized tests is almost ten times the number of students whose scores exceed the national average. Educators complain about a lack of money for proper facilties. Under the current system of property tax finance for public schools, it is especially difficult to obtain decent funds for education in a city where extensive citizen and industry migration to the suburbs has left many buildings only partially occupied or entirely deserted. Furthermore, public schools in the last decade have lost $2 million in property tax revenues because of the conversion of $150 million worth or private property to make room for 23 miles of freeway from Detroit to its suburbs. (Not a single highway entering Detroit has a toll-both on it.)
Half-way between Detroit and Pontiac it is a different story. Just off Woodward at Fifteen Mile Road in Bloomfield Hills--the home of those who have made it in the automobile and related industries--is the Cranbrook School. At Cranbrook a classroom may have no more than ten students in it. Most of the teachers could hold university positions. Cranbrook is the midwest's answer to Andover and Exeter. Here a platoon of gardeners work on the acres of forest and expenses of green lawn. Most of the entrances are patrolled by security guards. Dotting the landscape are small ponds and lakes, athletic facilities which include a domed tennis building with more than 25 courts, a hockey rink, polo field and colliseum-like football field. One of the small groves hides a Greek amphitheater. Beautiful pieces of sculpture rest undisturbed on the lawns. The buildings are low and beautiful, with copper roofs and leaded windows.
The grounds are surrounded by a meandering stream and the homes of the affluent and there is nothing in the area that can be compared with it. And each year a few promising students from poor neighborhoods in Detroit are given scholarships to attend, so that perhaps some day they can live in the homes that one sees from the ampitheater.
A peaceful and prosperous Detroit has long been the dream of those business titans who built the city and the surrounding area. Henry Ford II's Renaissance Center, the most recent attempt to rebuild Detroit, is not the first optimistic gesture of its kind. In 1941 Henry Ford II's father offered an unprecendented five dollar a day wage to his workers and vowed he would make Detroit the great American city. Within two years, the worst race riot in America's history up to that time had destroyed Ford's hopes of industrial serenity. Ten years ago, at the start of the mid-1960s business boom, a feature in Fortune magazine on "The New Detroit" proclaimed, "A new consensus is abroad in the city. All the diverse elements that make up Detroit's power structure, once divided and pitted against itself, are being welded together in a remarkable synthesis...most significant is the progress Detroit has made in race relations." Less than two years later, in the summer of 1967, America's most violent race riot racked the city, leaving 43 dead and destroying almost $50 million worth of property.
After the riot the Detroit Police Department formed STRESS, a corps of specially-trained undercover units, to control crime in the city. The program was discontinued after undercover action resulted in the deaths of at least two minors and a police officer who was playing cards at the time. In Detroit the name policeman is rarely used for law enforcement officials. They are usually called "pigs" or "fucks."
Nowhere do the vicissitudes of the nation's business cycle show more starkly than in the Motor City and its environs. In times of economic hardship, unemployment and crime skyrocket; in times of prosperity, workers of different races and backgrounds, thrown together on assembly lines in a one-industry region, vent their frustrations in racial hatred and violence.
Across the Detroit River from the foot of Woodward Avenue you can see Windsor, Ontario, a city with close to 250,000 people. Windsor, a medium-sized processing and industrial center, is the quiet gateway to Ontario's southern farmlands. Windsor is hardly a hub cap's throw away from the soon to be completed Detroit Renaissance Center. From the top of the Center's 70-story tower the men who built Detroit and their successors will have a bird's eye view of their city and the city across the river, and then maybe will be able to see why in 1974 there were only 25 murders in Windsor, and 801 in the Motor City.
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