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Detroit: How Motown became Mowtown – Scottish Review of Books
by Andrew Lees

Detroit: How Motown became Mowtown

May 30, 2015 | by Andrew Lees

AN obsession with polished aspirational black music finally carried me to Detroit. Poking my nose against a high window in the MGM Grand Hotel I survey this strung out city. Michigan Central looms in front of me, the morose emblem of the city’s mutation in death. Through the perforations in its eviscerated carcase I see smoke signals rising up from the Poletown Incinerator. No train has left the station since the 353 to Chicago on January 5, 1988. Above Bagley Street, where Henry Ford had his first garage, the people carrier skirts around the ‘Notown’ hub connecting the city’s new casinos with its historic glass dollhouses. On Michigan Avenue a dude on a Detroit Bike gives me the finger and shouts ‘What’s a cocksucking whitey doin down here?’ A few blocks from Campus Martius Park next to a coffee shop, a joker has written ‘Free Coffee with Purchase of Wurlitzer building’ on a clapboard. I enter the Greektown Casino where an unhealthy candlelight and a total absence of clocks confronts me. Solitary jaded smokers man a flashing conveyor belt of gears, brakes and levers while the money-obsessed automations scoop up the last profits. Nigga is still the code name for Detroit but it’s hard to find a friendly dog that likes Motown in this burnt out forest.

Back at the MGM Grand I hire Thomas Bell to take me for a spin in his Ford Cherokee. Thomas is massive, bearded and wears a slate blue suit with matching bow tie and pocket square. When I ask him where it all went wrong for Detroit he chuckles defensively, ‘Kilpatrick was a bad dude that stoled from the 313 but it aint his fault’. Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s former mayor, is presently in prison having been sentenced in 2013 to 23 years on multiple charges; 313 is the area code for Detroit.

I ask Thomas to drop me off in Midtown at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the fifth largest gallery in the United States and home of the city’s crown jewels. The Italian Renaissance marbled hallways that lead to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are deserted. The almost life size workers on the North Wall of Rivera Court are portrayed as vital cogs in the Highland Park factory wheels. In his memoirs Rivera enthused about his first meeting with Henry Ford. The wealthiest industrialist in the world and the Marxist painter were united by a passion for mechanical precision and technological beauty: ‘In my ears I heard the wonderful symphony, which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.’

I am still thinking of Ford and his influence on the trajectory of this melodramatic city as Thomas drives us north up the Automotive Heritage Trail past the Wayne State University Medical School campus and the old General Motors building in Cadillac Place. Loyalty, hard work, patriotism and family orientation were all virtues Ford associated with rural agrarian life. In his column in The Dearborn Independent he declared that the city as the pinnacle of civilization was finished: ‘The modern city is a classic illustration of what ensues when we fail to mix the arts. The three great arts are Agriculture, Manufacture and Transportation.’ By the time of his death in 1947, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse with a population of almost two million and had risen to become the fourth largest city in the United States. It was the shining city on the hill, an innovation crossroads where highways converged on a river that connected to the Great Lakes and the sea. Detroit’s car companies dominated the global market and produced four out of every five cars manufactured in America. But there was a price to pay for the gains in productivity. Ford’s workers had become part of a vertically integrated process and dispossessed of their creative individuality.

‘Destination; Anywhere’ by the Marvelletes is playing on WOM-SEE radio. Hitsville USA’s groove with its blaring horns, clinking chains and pounding jackhammers had got a whole generation dancing in the street. Fifteen minutes down the road we arrive at the Model T heritage site on Piquette with its museum of vintage cars and Henry Ford’s secret office. A few months earlier an urban explorer in search of hidden treasure had found a mummified corpse in one of the rotting hulks. Thomas who has been silent since I got back in the car comes out with ‘Berry Gordy produced music like Henry Ford shaped metal’. As every school kid ought to know, Gordy was Motown’s founder.

By the early 1970s ‘white flight’ had reached epidemic levels in Detroit and the packs of ‘jits’ – young thugs – left behind in the fragmented hoods were killing for fun. Escalating oil prices had started to make gas-guzzling cars with V-8 engines less attractive and Gordy had moved to Los Angeles. The ‘City of Champions’ had become decadent, seedy, overgrown and dangerous. Its streetlights had gone out, and its overworked underfunded police were slow to respond even to homicides.

Into this vacuum rode Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, three black adolescents with a futuristic robotic musical manifesto. Cast adrift in the leafy suburban metropolis they rejected disco and employed analog synthesisers and sequencers, a Roland TR-909 drum machine, robotic vocal tics and a prominent black hole bass to create sonic grooves. Their music, conceived in garages and played at suburban parties, was a way of subverting the assembly line, the alienating effect of mechanisation and the inexorable march of corporate plutocracy. Machine Soul, as it came to be known, turned anger and rage into a rare beauty and brought a glowing future out of a chilling past. A dreamy otherness kept a generation of forgotten young Eastsiders sane. The new music’s repetitive cadences and sophisticated minimalist melodies were the ideal soundtrack for cosmic car journeys on the virtual autobahn. Electronic technology had blown away the last vestiges of Tamla Motown. Detroit Techno was on the edge of forever. It was what Ford and Rivera had dreamed of, euphony created by machine and man for the benefit of the human race.

Down Gratiot Boulevard, Thomas pulls up and points out a middle aged black man with a torn face, sitting on a crate in a parking lot under a solitary tree. Next to him is a sign saying ‘WHAT IT DEW lawnmower repair and sales.’ Behind him two hangers-on wait like vultures for easy pickings. ‘That guy works six days a week every summer, charges a flat 45 dollar fee and usually has the job done in an hour. On a good day he gets through twelve machines but bro, does he put up with some shit’.

Eight Mile Road is six lanes wide and runs east to west for thirty kilometres. It is lined with cemeteries, bungalows, strip clubs and a few run down businesses. Off the main drag many of the wooden single storey houses are derelict and boarded up. Others have bed sheets as curtains and there are several fly tips. In one of the bereft zones someone has painted on the side of a bombed out crack house, ‘Baltimore Murder Capital of the World’. Nearby some youths are playing golf on a plot where knee-high grass sprouts through the asphalt. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile. Cocooned in the Cherokee I start to think Detroit has got what it deserves for its unequal segregation of diversity. A man with Savannah Syndrome is mowing the lawn of a deserted house. The viridescent postage stamps help to keep up appearances and impose shape and meaning on a broken city. In the historic affluent east side neighbourhood of Indian Village there is talk of the dangers of close cropping and the best way to avoid white clover and crab grass infestation. A craving for a green grass suburban respectability has also spread to some of the abandoned districts where the gentle hum of cylinder and rotary mowers evokes lost summers. Swathes of Detroit now smell of a volatile green.

We keep going up Woodward out into the cornfields and hanging gardens of Michigan. Twenty miles out and still on a four-lane highway we wind through wooded parkland past vast stretches of manicured grass. Independence Township and Romeo resemble hillbilly rifle camps where wolverines and northern bears are known to prowl. Birmingham has a fresh, raw expensive look with stylishly decorated mansions and fancy drive-in restaurants. There are plenty of spoilt white chicks in the streets of Bloomfield Hills and an overpowering smell of new money.

Although haunted by an irrational sentimentality for the old neighbourhoods these expatriate suburban sprawlers return to their ‘Paris of the West’ only on special occasions —and always with extreme caution—to watch the Red Wings at The Joe Louis Stadium, buy potted chrysanthemums at Eastern Market or disinter their distant ancestors from the desolate bone yards. For most of Metropolitan Detroit downtown might just as well be an Indian reservation.

On the way back to the MGM Grand we make a sightseeing stop at American Jewellery and Loan.Outside on the forecourt a man in a cowboy hat is talking up the virtues of his beaten-up Lincoln in an attempt to raise enough money for a Honda ride-on mower. Thomas tells me that Les Gold, the proprietor and star of the television reality show Hardcore Pawn, now has more grass cutter collaterals than plasma televisions or vintage guitars. The lawn is a divine American sacrament but here in no man’s land I have started to associate it with bad karma.

Ford’s missing art has arrived in Detroit. A few Detroit exiles are now trying to reclaim the streets through which I had tramped this morning. Healthy lines of broccoli, rows of okra and patches of Napa cabbage flourish in black soil allotments. A creeping green quilt tended by an army of guerrilla gardeners is spreading over the corroding carapace of bulldozed grey steel and even invading the lawns. The hub is going back to the farm. Beautiful hydroponic ‘grass’ farms and orchard paradises brimming with forbidden fruit fill the void. The grass roots of a higher consciousness are sprouting in the gaps exposed by ferric disintegration. Watched over by angels in the arrivals hall of Michigan Central, you can now buy a rail ticket to the open sea.

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