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Thursday, July 3, 2008

The dinosaur days

Part II in a long Telegraph series on America & China discusses Detroit, cars, suburbia, and these "dinosaur days" of all three.


Mass production...soon moved from [Detroit] to all places of American industry 'and set the pattern of abundance for 20th-century living'.

It is a wonderfully evocative phrase that stops you in your tracks - the pattern of abundance for 20th-century living. From here came the principles of mass production that provided the goods that fuelled the consumer society; from here, the automobile that begat the roads and the freeways that carried people and goods from sea - as America the Beautiful has it - to shining sea, and then to the world beyond.


Driving around Detroit one was forcefully struck by how the city had been irrevocably shaped - and continued to be shaped - by the car.

Detroit has the second largest amount of freeway lane miles of any metropolitan area in America, after Kansas City. And it is the only city in America without a rapid transport system - the legacy of years of resistance by the powerful lobby of the car industry that dictated that workers should drive their own products rather than taking public transport.

One of the city's most astonishing architectural relics is the Michigan Central Station, a towering, beaux-arts structure built in 1913. The last train pulled out in 1988. But like many of Detroit's great ruins it had proved too expensive to renovate, too expensive to demolish, and so had been left to stand, an enduring testament to the city's decline, and a reproof to its plans for regeneration.


Ford's greatest legacy was the car and all that grew from it. As Christopher Leinberger, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, points out, the nature of the American dream has always been driven by the underlying economy of the age. In 1800, at the time of the first census, more than 90 per cent of Americans were engaged in agriculture. 'The American dream at that point could be summarised by the Civil War expression "40 acres and a mule". In the post-war era, one-third of the American economy was related directly, or indirectly, to the building of automobiles - steel, cars, roads, petroleum, insurance. There was an expression that GM used "See the USA in your Chevrolet" - so as you travelled the roads of America in your car you were making yourself and the country wealthier'.

The car become synonymous with America's most cherished ideal - freedom: the freedom to go, to move, to be wherever you chose.

Full story here.

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