[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Touring Empire's Ruins from Detroit to the Amazon

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon Jun 29 22:45:50 EDT 2009

Touring Empire's Ruins From Detroit to the Amazon 
By Greg Grandin

TomDispatch  June 23, 2009

The empire ends with a pull out. Not, as many supposed
a few years ago, from Iraq. There, as well as in
Afghanistan, we are mulishly staying the course, come
what may, trapped in the biggest of all the
"too-big-to-fail" boondoggles. But from Detroit.

Of course, the real evacuation of the Motor City began
decades ago, when Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler
started to move more and more of their operations out
of the downtown area to harder to unionize rural areas
and suburbs, and, finally, overseas. Even as the
economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, 50 Detroit
residents were already packing up and leaving their
city every day. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in
1989, Detroit could count tens of thousands of empty
lots and over 15,000 abandoned homes. Stunning Beaux
Arts and modernist buildings were left deserted to
return to nature, their floors and roofs covered by
switchgrass. They now serve as little more than ornate
bird houses.

In mythological terms, however, Detroit remains the
ancestral birthplace of storied American capitalism.
And looking back in the years to come, the sudden
disintegration of the Big Three this year will surely
be seen as a blow to American power comparable to the
end of the Raj, Britain's loss of India, that jewel in
the imperial crown, in 1948. Forget the possession of a
colony or the bomb, in the second half of the twentieth
century, the real marker of a world power was the
ability to make a precision V-8.

There have been dissections aplenty of what went wrong
with the U.S. auto industry, as well as fond
reminiscences about Detroit's salad days, about
outsized tailfins and double-barrel carburetors. Last
year, the iconic Clint Eastwood even put the iconic
white auto worker to rest in his movie Gran Torino. Few
of these postmortems have conveyed, however, just how
crucial Detroit was to U.S. foreign policy -- not just
as the anchor of America's high-tech, high-profit
export economy, but as a confirmation of our sense of
ourselves as the world's premier power (although in
linking Detroit's demise to the blowback from President
Nixon's illegal war in Laos, Eastwood at least came
closer than most).

Detroit not only supplied a continual stream of symbols
of America's cultural power, but offered the
organizational know-how necessary to run a vast
industrial enterprise like a car company -- or an
empire. Pundits love to quote GM President "Engine"
Charlie Wilson, who once famously said that he thought
what was good for America "was good for General Motors,
and vice versa." It's rarely noted, however, that
Wilson made his remark at his Senate confirmation
hearings to be Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of
Defense. At the Pentagon, Wilson would impose GM's
corporate bureaucratic model on the armed forces,
modernizing them to fight the Cold War.

After GM, it was Ford's turn to take the reins, with
John F. Kennedy tapping its CEO Robert McNamara and his
"whiz kids" to ready American troops for a "long
twilight struggle, year in and year out." McNamara used
Ford's integrated "systems management" approach to wage
"mechanized, dehumanizing slaughter," as historian
Gabriel Kolko once put it, from the skies over Vietnam,
Laos, and Cambodia.

Perhaps, then, we should think of the ruins of Detroit
as our Roman Forum. Just as Rome's triumphal arches
still remind us of its bygone imperial victories in
Mesopotamia, Persia, and elsewhere, so Motown's
dilapidated buildings today invoke America's fast
slipping supremacy.

Among the most imposing is Henry Ford's Highland Park
factory, shuttered since the late 1950s. Dubbed the
Crystal Palace for its floor to ceiling glass walls, it
was here that Ford perfected assembly-line production,
building up to 9,000 Model Ts a day -- a million by
1915 -- catapulting the United States light-years ahead
of industrial Europe.

It was also here that Ford first paid his workers five
dollars a day, creating one of the fastest growing and
most prosperous working-class neighborhoods in all of
America, filled with fine arts-and-crafts style homes.
Today, Highland Park looks like a war zone, its streets
covered with shattered glass and lined with burnt-out
houses. More than 30% of its population lives in
poverty, and you don't want to know the unemployment
numbers (more than 20%) or the median yearly income
(less than $20,000).

There is one reminder that it wasn't always so. A small
historical-register plaque outside the Ford factory
reads: "Mass production soon moved from here to all
phases of American industry and set the pattern of
abundance for 20th Century living."

America in the Amazon

To truly grasp how far America has fallen from the
heights of its industrial grandeur -- and to understand
how that grandeur led to stupendous acts of folly --
you should tour another set of ruins far from the
Midwest rustbelt; they lie, in fact, deep (and nearly
forgotten) in, of all places, the Brazilian Amazon
rainforest. There, overrun by tropical vines, sits
Henry Ford's testament to the belief that the American
Way of Life could easily be exported, even to one of
the wildest places on the planet.

Ford owned forests in Michigan as well as mines in
Kentucky and West Virginia, which gave him control over
every natural resource needed to make a car -- save
rubber. So in 1927, he obtained an Amazonian land grant
the size of a small American state. Ford could have
simply set up a purchasing office there, and bought
rubber from local producers, leaving them to live their
lives as they saw fit. That's what other rubber
exporters did.

Ford, however, had more grandiose ideas. He felt
compelled to cultivate not only "rubber but the rubber
gatherers as well." So he set out to overlay Americana
on Amazonia. He had his managers build Cape Cod-style
shingled houses for the Brazilian work force he hired.
He urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens and
eat whole wheat bread, unpolished rice, canned Michigan
peaches, and oatmeal. He dubbed his jungle town, with
suitable pride, Fordlandia.

It was the 1920s, of course, and so his managers
enforced alcohol Prohibition, or at least tried to,
though it wasn't a Brazilian law, as it was in the
United States at the time. On weekends, the company
organized square dances and recitations of the poetry
of Henry Longfellow. The hospital Ford had built in the
town offered free health care for workers and visitors
alike. It was designed by Albert Kahn, the renowned
architect who built a number of Detroit's most famous
buildings, including the Crystal Palace. Fordlandia had
a central square, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, manicured
lawns, a movie theater, shoe stores, ice cream and
perfume shops, swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf
course, and, of course, Model Ts rolling down its paved

The clash between Henry Ford -- the man who reduced
industrial production to its simplest motions in order
to produce a series of infinitely identical products,
the first indistinguishable from the millionth -- and
the Amazon, the world's most complex and diverse
ecosystem, was Chaplinesque in its absurdity, producing
a parade of mishaps straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Think Modern Times meets Fitzcarraldo. Brazilian
workers rebelled against Ford's Puritanism and nature
rebelled against his industrial regimentation. Run by
incompetent managers who knew little about rubber
planting much less social engineering, Fordlandia in
its early years was plagued by vice, knife fights, and
riots. The place seemed less Our Town than Deadwood, as
brothels and bars sprawled around its edges.

Ford did eventually manage to get control over his
namesake fiefdom, but because he insisted that his
managers plant rubber trees in tight rows -- back in
his Detroit factories, Ford famously crowded machines
close together to reduce movement -- he actually
created the conditions for the explosive growth of the
bugs and blight that feed off rubber, and these
eventually laid waste to the plantation. Over the
course of nearly two decades, Ford sank millions upon
millions of dollars into trying to make his jungle
utopia work the American way, yet not one drop of
Fordlandia latex ever made its way into a Ford car.

The eeriest thing of all is this: Today, the ruins of
Fordlandia look a lot like those in Highland Park, as
well as in other rustbelt towns where neighborhoods
that once hummed with life centered on a factory are
now returned to weed. There is, in fact, an uncanny
resemblance between Fordlandia's rusting water tower,
broken-glassed sawmill, and empty power plant and the
husks of the same structures in Iron Mountain, a
depressed industrial city on Michigan's Upper Peninsula
that also used to be a Ford town.

In the Amazon, Albert Kahn's hospital has collapsed,
the jungle has reclaimed the golf course and tennis
courts, and bats have taken up residence in houses
where American managers once lived, covering their
plaster walls with a glaze of guano. No commemorative
plaque marks its place in history, but Fordlandia, no
less than the wreck of Detroit, is a monument to the
titans of American capital -- none more titanic than
Ford -- who believed that the United States offered a
universal, and universally acknowledged, model for the
rest of humanity.

Errand into the Wilderness

It would be easy to read the story of Fordlandia as a
parable of arrogance. With a surety of purpose and
incuriosity about the world that seem all too familiar,
Ford deliberately rejected expert advice and set out to
turn the Amazon into the Midwest of his imagination.
The more the project failed on its own terms -- that
is, to grow rubber -- the more Ford company officials
defended it as a civilizational mission; think of it as
a kind of distant preview of the ever expanding set of
justifications for why the U.S. invaded Iraq six years
ago. Yet Fordlandia cuts deeper into the marrow of the
American experience than that.

Over 50 years ago, the Harvard historian Perry Miller
gave a famous lecture which he titled "Errand into the
Wilderness." In it, he tried to explain why English
Puritans lit out for the New World to begin with, as
opposed to, say, going to Holland. They went, Miller
suggested, not just to escape the corruptions of the
Church of England but to complete the Protestant
reformation of Christendom that had stalled in Europe.

The Puritans did not flee to the New World, Miller
said, but rather sought to give the faithful back in
England a "working model" of a purer community. Put
another way, central from the beginning to American
expansion was "deep disquietude," a feeling that
"something had gone wrong" at home. With the
Massachusetts Bay Colony just a few decades old, a
dissatisfied Cotton Mather began to learn Spanish,
thinking that a better "New Jerusalem" could be raised
in Mexico.

The founding of Fordlandia was driven by a similar
restlessness, a chafing sense, even in the good times,
the best of times, that "something had gone wrong" in
America. When Ford embarked on his Amazon adventure, he
had already spent the greater part of two decades, and
a large part of his enormous fortune, trying to reform
American society. His frustrations and discontents with
domestic politics and culture were legion. War, unions,
Wall Street, energy monopolies, Jews, modern dance,
cow's milk, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt,
cigarettes, and alcohol were among his many targets and
complaints. Yet churning beneath all these imagined
annoyances was the fact that the force of industrial
capitalism he had helped unleash was undermining the
world he hoped to restore.

Ford preached with a pastor's confidence his one true
idea: ever increasing productivity combined with ever
increasing pay would both relieve human drudgery and
create prosperous working-class communities, with
corporate profits dependent on the continual expansion
of consumer demand. "High wages," as Ford put it, to
create "large markets." By the late 1920s, Fordism --
as this idea came to be called -- was synonymous with
Americanism, envied the world over for having
apparently humanized industrial capitalism.

But Fordism contained within itself the seeds of its
own undoing: the breaking down of the assembly process
into smaller and smaller tasks, combined with rapid
advances in transportation and communication, made it
easier for manufacturers to break out of the dependent
relationship established by Ford between high wages and
large markets. Goods could be made in one place and
sold somewhere else, removing the incentive employers
had to pay workers enough to buy the products they

In Rome, the ruins came after the empire fell. In the
United States, the destruction of Detroit happened even
as the country was rising to new heights as a

Ford sensed this unraveling early on and responded to
it, trying at least to slow it in ever more eccentric
ways. He established throughout Michigan a series of
decentralized "village-industries" designed to balance
farm and factory work and rescue small-town America.
Yet his pastoral communes were no match for the raw
power of the changes he had played such a large part in
engendering. So he turned to the Amazon to raise his
City on a Hill, or in this case a city in a tropical
river valley, pulling together all the many strains of
his utopianism in one last, desperate bid for success.

Nearly a century ago, the journalist Walter Lippmann
remarked that Henry Ford's drive to make the world anew
represented a common strain of "primitive Americanism,"
reinforced by a confidence born of unparalleled
achievement. He then followed with a question meant to
be sarcastic but which was, in fact, all too prophetic:
"Why shouldn't success in Detroit assure success in
front of Baghdad?" We know the ruination that befell
Detroit. Whither Baghdad? Whither America?

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York
University and author of a number of books, most
recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's
Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009). 

Copyright 2009 Greg Grandin 

More information about the URBANTH-L mailing list