While working on my 2012 reading list last month I came upon a heavy critique of the dismantling of downtown Detroit. But it isn’t the standard “get-rich-and-move-to-the-suburbs” criticism. It identifies the collaboration between one member of the automotive industry and the economic collapse that followed.
It increasingly seemed to many that Ford’s social criticism was a form of self-rebuke. His reformer image was wearing thin, as he and his company became implicated in many of the modern vices he condemned. Throughout the 1930s, Ford stepped up his jeremiads against crowded, dirty, crime-ridden cities. Yet even before the ruin of the Great Depression, Ford had contributed to the slow decline of Detroit’s downtown by transferring much of his production and administration to Dearborn, paving the way for Chrysler and General Motors to abandon the center of the city.Ford lobbied for Prohibition, saying that Detroit’s distilleries could be converted to make biofuels. Yet the criminalization of alcohol served only to deliver Detroit to gangsterism. Ford railed against finance capitalism even though his company was heavily invested in Detroit’s Guardian Group, a banking house that, when it went bankrupt in 1933, helped spark a nationwide bank panic. Ford aggravated the crisis by first offering to bail out Detroit banks and then, perhaps acting on advice from Harry Bennett, withdrawing the offer. The collapse of the Guardian Group led to a wave of foreclosures of businesses and homes that would devastate the Motor City’s downtown.