Detroit: Ruin of a City (PDF)

Michael Chanan and George Steinmetz


Metropolitan Detroit, widely known as the Motor City, once the fourth largest city in the United States, the home of the Ford Motor Company, General Motors and, once upon a time, many other automobile manufacturers, is nowadays a city in serious decline, which has lost more than half its population in the past four decades and much of its real estate. Between the 1950s, when the city’s population peaked at almost 2 million people, and 2000, about 50 people have moved out of the city every day, on average, while the population of the surrounding suburbs has continued to grow. The city of Detroit has lost over half its jobs in the past three decades. In 1989 the Detroit Free Press counted 15,215 vacant structures (including homes, apartment buildings, and businesses), and by 2000 officials said the city owned more than 40,000 lots. Every year since 1983, on October 29-31, the city of Detroit braces itself for the annual ritual of burning property and vehicles known as 'Devil's Night,' which has only recently been brought under control through a massive annual anti-arson campaign. Houses, factories, stores, office blocks, theatres, the old baseball stadium, and even the central railway station, stand in ruins or have disappeared altogether, leaving vast empty spaces that have returned to nature. The home of Motown music and techno, Detroit is also the most segregated major city in the United States and one of the poorest, struggling to provide public services for its needy inhabitants. The film "Detroit: Ruin of a City" looks back over the history of the city in the twentieth century: reconstructing the rise and fall of the social system identified by social theorists as "Fordism"; the way the city was shaped by the automobile; and its decline following the deindustrialization that set in during the 1950s, leaving the city itself ill-adapted to the post-Fordist society of the epoch of globalization.

Click to view full text (PDF)
Paper on Detriot Film

click here to return to the Materials and Publications index

Produced and Hosted by the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture     © Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, Virginia Tech. All rights reserved. The physical campus is in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. For more information, please contact the Center at