Detroit Falters In Wake Of Automakers' Troubles This may be the final weekend before Chrysler files for bankruptcy. The automaker and the government are negotiating with Chrysler's creditors over its future. And as they wait, some people in the auto industry's capital are thinking of their city's past.

Detroit Falters In Wake Of Automakers' Troubles

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NPR reports that General Motors is about to get rid of the Pontiac. John DeLorean was once the brand's chief designer. And for many years Pontiacs exemplified big, broad American cars, glistening with horsepower: the GTO, Trans Am, and the Firebird.

(Sound bite of a General Motors commercial)

Unidentified Man: A Pontiac Firebird, the Magnificent Five from wide-track country; everything from 165 horse overhead-cam, Firebird fun machine to the fabulous 325 horsepower Firebird 400.

SIMON: Pontiac announcement is expected Monday at the start of a week that may see Chrysler file for bankruptcy. The automaker and the government are negotiating with Chrysler's creditors over its future. Familiar American auto names that use to mean power, ingenuity, and style are now dying or being sold off.

NPR's Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Detroit all this week. He says that some people in the place whose very name was once considered a kind of capitol, like Paris or Hollywood, are reflecting on the character of their city.


This city, for all its problems, is a beautiful place. I'm standing on a row of vacant lots. Where a number of houses use to be, there's just grass now. And the houses elsewhere in this neighborhood, the ones that remain, seem almost to be deflating: wood frame houses as they rot and sag into the ground. There's a public art installation here, kind of folk art that a local man has made. It includes piles of shoes, which have come to symbolize the many lives that have bee ruined in this troubled city.

And yet, the General Motors headquarters, the Renaissance Center, is visible on the horizon. And even looking at these houses you sense the tremendous wealth that was generated in Detroit over the years. This city was home to an immense variety of industries before the auto industry. They're the industries that made it possible for the car industry to thrive here.

And I got a better sense of that while talking with Mike Smith of Wayne State University, who gave me a drive around town, as he talked about Detroit's economic past.

Professor MICHAEL SMITH (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Wayne State University): Actually, if you take the 1890's, this was the ship building capitol and we had the largest stove industry in the country.

INSKEEP: Stoves?

Professor SMITH: Stoves, cast-iron stoves. So we had people that knew how to work with metal. We had a gasoline marine engine industry. Now, it wasn't a huge industry, but what it meant is we had people who knew how to build gasoline engines that could be easily converted to automobiles. We made more railroad cars than any place in the country, cars that would haul logs for the Upper Peninsula logging industry, cars that would hold iron ore.

INSKEEP: Anything you needed to make an automobile was already in Detroit; it just took somebody to adapt those skills to different purposes.

Professor SMITH: Henry Ford started out in a garage in 1905 making cars. And he then moved in 1908 to this factory we're going to look at right here.

INSKEEP: Ford's three-story brick building looks quaint compared to more recent factories down the street. Our car rolled passed larger and larger old plants; you'd know them by row after row of oversized windows that let in natural light. Then we saw a GM plant that stretches for blocks, which is still in use today, although like other plants the suffering company plans to close it for much of the summer.

Mike Smith was talking about how his neighbors have recently lost their jobs, when he suddenly had to hit the brakes.

Professor SMITH: And our neighbor on the other side, who she had worked for TRW, we're stopping for a pheasant, by the way in Detroit. TRW is a major auto supplier. She was laid off. So...

INSKEEP: That long-tailed bird scurried across the road. Parts of this shrinking city are going back to nature after decades of economic decline. As long ago as the 1960's, a writer described Detroit's economy as "stagnant." In her classic little book called The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that, "Detroit had lost that incredible variety of industries that drove it in the 1800's."

One giant industry had made it a company town. The industry was incredibly efficient and made Detroit far more wealthy than the smaller industries it replaced, but it was harder for that industry to adapt.

We were talking about that when Mike Smith said that Detroit retains an emotional attachment to its troubled Big Three.

Do you think that emotional attachment to autos makes it hard for people to turn their eyes to whatever it is that's coming next?

Professor SMITH: You know, I think that's an excellent observation. Yes. You know, how do you give up something that you've worked in, you sweated in the industry, you've worked over the industry, you love cars, the city is all about cars? I ask you where else can you land at an airport, drive to Detroit and see a giant tire? Or see billboards that mean nothing to the average citizen but are code for automobile suppliers? It's all about cars. So do you abandon your child? Do you abandon your family, you know, without some remorse and some feelings about it? And I think that's what it is for us in Detroit.

INSKEEP: Smith still believes the industry will survive, though in smaller form. He can only hope that the people left behind can adapt their skills to new and different enterprises restoring the vitality that Detroit knew so long ago.

Steve Inskeep, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can hear all of NPR's reports from and about Detroit on our Web site,

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