A Different Time: When Detroit Believed It Was The Greatest City

March 13, 2013, 12:36 AM by  Bill McGraw

This week certainly will go down as one of the cruelest periods in modern Detroit history. 

It's not a happy time. The racketeering verdict and imprisonment of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the pending announcement of a state takeover of Detroit city government underscores the city’s corruption, bankruptcy and disarray.

So let’s take a break and turn for a moment to the best week in Detroit history. A joyous time.

The week, arguably, when Detroit peaked, when population was hitting its pinnacle and the factories hummed with the productive might of post-war America.  The week when the eyes of the nation focused on Detroit, as Detroiters celebrated their city and told themselves it was one of the most remarkable cities on earth -- an industrial dynamo that had invented a new form of civilization.

The week is that of July 22-29, 1951, when Detroit marked the 250th anniversary of its founding. It took place almost 62 years ago, a period that is slowly fading from the collective memory of metro Detroit residents.

“All men everywhere look to Detroit,” wrote John Manning, editor of the Detroit Times. “Everybody says Detroit is a magic city, and it is.”

Unbridled optimism

In bursts of braggadocio, Babbitry and self-congratulation, Detroit in 1951 marveled at its past – especially the previous 50 years of auto-fueled growth – and predicted a future that would be even more amazing.

And it wasn’t just homers who were doing the back-patting. The nation and world came to Detroit that week to express their admiration.

Time Magazine gushed that month that Detroit is “brash, ingenious, emphatic and go-getting.”

President Harry Truman, who joined the celebration along with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, told a crowd of 60,000 in front of city hall (long since demolished) that “today the word ‘Detroit’ is a synonym throughout the world for the industrial greatness of America.”

The rhetoric that accompanied the city’s 250th birthday is so triumphant that you have to remind yourself that you are reading about Detroit, because so much as changed, for the worse, in only a couple of generations.  And, despite the grandiloquence then, historians today have traced the origins of Detroit’s devolution to trends that were already underway in 1951, though almost everyone was oblivious at the time.

The remarkable reversal of fortune, though, can be instructive. If Detroit can decline so drastically in six decades, could it not stage a recovery of some sort over the next 60 years?

A musical with 1,200 particpants

While the celebration focused on the latter part of July, events stretched out for months, and the city gave itself such permanent birthday presents as the historical museum, International Institute, three branch libraries and a drive to raise millions for what became Cobo Hall and Wayne State University’s Community Arts building.

Commemorative medallion is among keepsakes on eBay. It awaits a $30 starting bid.

Other events related to the celebration included the Major League All-Star game at Briggs Stadium; special concerts, events and plantings in all of Detroit’s parks; art exhibits; dances; a national swimming meet at Rouge Park; a Detroit River regatta; air races; a lavish banquet for official guests at Masonic Temple and events for ethnic groups and the city’s 350,000 children.

Souvenirs, many still available on eBay, included a stamp, booklets, books, glassware, medallions, artwork, pillow covers, scarves, ties, keys, pennants, playing cards, postcards and more.

A 20-year-old psychology student, Pauline Gugelyk, of 11410 Ohio -- specific addresses were always used in those days -- was crowned Empress of Detroit.

Among the main events was a five-hour parade July 24 with 20,000 participants and 21 floats that re-enacted Detroit history and moved down Woodward Avenue as about 1 million people watched. Streetcars ran on special schedules to handle the throng and 1,700 cops stood guard along the route.

'Majestic and powerful community'

Secretary of State Acheson delivered a speech that day, the actual anniversary of Detroit’s founding by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac..

“How little could he have foreseen the majestic and powerful community which Detroit has become,” Acheson said, “a symbol to all the world of the New World’s industrial might.”

In the middle of Grand Circus Park was a four-story stage in the form of a cake, decorated with lights and 250 candles.

Perhaps the most remarkable happening was a dramatic spectacle titled “City of Freedom” that ran for 11 nights at the University of Detroit stadium. Written and produced by the Rev. Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, the mammoth musical involved 1,200 singers, dancers and actors plus a 100-voice chorus and 34-piece orchestra on five stages.

The show was an allegory of sorts in which an actor named Fred Foy played Detroit, and he/it is seen fighting “political, economic and social slaveries”  to become “the freest town in the freest land on earth.”

Detroit, the city, is portrayed “as a place of opportunity, of struggle, of the gathering of nations, of a quest for truth,” according to the official program.

“City of Freedom and many festival speeches echoed with concerns of the day that went beyond the city limits. With American troops in Korea and communism on the rise around the world, Detroit’s role as a bulwark of American virtues, Christianity and industrialized firepower was a frequent subtheme.

Truman and Acheson praised the city for its role as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, and U.S. Sen. Kenneth Wherry, R-Neb., called Detroit’s productivty “a complete answer to the resurgence of pagan infidentlities.”

The decline was already underway

It’s fair to say the Detroit of 1951 that hosted the elaborate birthday festival would be largely unrecognizable to Detroiters suffering from today’s malfunctioning streetlights and no-show cops and EMS.

The population was nearly 2 million, and the city had little abandonment. Main avenues and sidestreets alike were chockablock with thousands of dry cleaners, bowling alleys, car showrooms, markets, movie theaters and factories that manufactured everything from fasteners to finished automobiles.

“Detroit’s income per capita is larger than that of any city in the world, “ the New York Times said in an article headlined “Detroit at 250: Lusty and Young.”

The reality, though, was not quite as optimistic as city boosters suggested.

The Times’ reporter noted the city had few bookstores, legitimate theaters and, until recently, a symphony, which was forced to disband twice during the 1940s because of financial problems.

The city also had just recovered from a 59-day transit strike, and so-called “slum clearance” was encountering problems and opposition. Minorities and women had almost no voice in civic affairs. African Americans, who made up about one-fifth of the population, were virtually invisible in the birthday festivities.

Serious setbacks on horizon

Despite the hyper-boosterism and adulation by outsiders, no one appeared to realize at the time is that there also were large forces at work that would undercut Detroit’s productive capacity in a relatively short time and begin the slow destruction of neighborhoods.

Historians have noted in recent years that Detroit was already losing manufacturing jobs as early as 1951, and the white population would fall by 360,000 persons in the coming decade. The auto companies were building new plants in the suburbs; by the late 1950s, unemployment and poverty in Detroit had become growing problems. Jerry Cavanagh instituted an income tax because of budget problems almost as soon as he became mayor in 1962.

As Thomas Sugrue wrote in his "Origins of the Urban Crisis," white Detroiters frequently used violence and intimidation in this era to deter African Americans from moving into their neighborhoods.

The Lodge and Ford freeways were under construction in 1951; the opening of Northland was only three years away. Suburbia was beginning to boom.

Looking back, it is much easier to see the beginning of decline. In 1951, Detroit was all about celebrating the supposedly glorious present of traditional American values.

In an advertisement that ran during the birthday celebration, the J.L. Hudson department store said: “Yes, Detroit is a mechanical city – but not a mechanized city for at the close of the working day comes the triumphant return to home and family.”

And everyone lived happily ever after.

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