A Printed Time Capsule From '61: 'Detroit Is Determined to Maintain Its Leadership'

June 01, 2015, 4:58 PM by  Alan Stamm

Hindsight can entertain, amuse and startle.

See what you feel as we go back a half-century to a time when "Detroit is determined to maintain its leadership as the nation's fifth-largest city." That's among the boasts by Detroit Edison in a 36-page booklet promoting this region as "a good place to grow."

"Production and productivity are high in Michigan," adds the utility (now DTE Energy) in its 1961 economic development handout. 

It was an era of full-bore highway construction, thriving auto plants, hyperactive suburban development and unbridled optimism. "Michigan cities will continue to lead in [population] expansion and will be more prosperous," says Edison's Area Development Division, citing unspecified "recent estimates."  

Misty orange-colored memories of the way we were.

A copy of this 8.5-inch by 11-inch artifact was digitized at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library by Google and posted by UM's HathiTrust Digital Library. Wayne State graduate student Alex B. Hill links to it from a May blog post showing "this beautifully illustrated map of the Detroit region" (his larger version is more legible than at right).

The map and text -- made accessible for historians, urban planners, authors, journalists and other researchers -- are like diary entries from our predecessors. We see the confidence, as well as the myopia, in this region as a 43-year-old named John Kennedy moves into the White House. We also see the city's name used to represent a wide region in a way that's far less common now.      

The centerpiece map is a two-dimensional time capsule that locates industrial landmarks that vanished, such as McLouth Steel in Trenton and an Allegheny Ludlum steel plant in Ferndale. Other ghosts include Parke-Davis and U.S. Rubber along the river just east of downtown, Ford tractor manufacturing in Troy, Bendix Research Laboratories in Southfield, a Reichhold Chemical plant in Ferndale (shut 1989) and Warren's Holley Carburetor factory.

Also pinpointed are Tiger Stadium and the former Berz Airport in Utica. 

The 54-year-old artifact focuses extensively on "Dynamic Detroit, Motor Capital of the World, the Research Center of the Middle West" -- a region with "6,100 manufacturing plants." These prose pillars support the hype:

  • For the nearly 2 million people who make the city what it is, Detroit provides an unusually high standard of living.
  • In the heart of downtown Detroit, the $100,000,000 Civic Center is rising. In it are Cobo Hall and Arena -- the world's largest convention complex.
  • Measured by factory jobs per capita and use of finished steel, Detroit is considered one of the great industrial centers . . . [with] consistently high industrial volume and large payrolls.
  • In addition to its world leadership in motor vehicles and parts, Detroit is first in the production of machine tool accessories, stampings, hardware and industrial inorganic chemicals.
  • Drugs, paints, varnishes, business machines, tires and pharmaceuticals also are high on the list.

Time-warp curiosities also pop out, such as references to three horse racing tracks and "seven excellent ski resorts within a 65-mile radius of Detroit." Who knew, right?! (Wonder how those resorts got shorter and less "excellent.")

Not to be neglected is an unusual data point under in a section labeled "Labor Maturity and Stability:"

Studies prove that man-days lost by strikes in Michigan are less than those lost because of the common cold.

Such studies were nothing to sneeze at, one could say (even if one shouldn't).

In a more serious vein, WSU master's student Hill comments to Deadline: "The map shows how the auto industry had already begun abandoning the city. The spread of manufacturing was already becoming more concentrated in the suburbs, as it is today."

Hill also appreciates the focus on regionalism back in '61, when Edison uses "Greater Detroit" and devotes a page each to Mount Clemens. Troy, Trenton, Howell and Ann Arbor, among other communities.  

On a Reddit thread about the map, one comment says "how depressingly optimistic" and another remarks: "It's too bad they didn't just call it good on freeways right then."

                    Detroit Edison's booklet reflects the 1960s' male-dominated workforce, except for clerical support staffers.

Read more:  DETROITography

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