Early 20th Century Detroit: ‘the Paris of the West’, by DE Johnson
Detroit has been hung with a few nicknames over the years but it’s probably been a few years since you heard it called the Paris of the West. Okay, I know. You’ve never heard it called that. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, before Motown, Motor City and, more recently, Murder City, people called Detroit the Paris of the West.
It was for good reason. It was a beautiful city full of green space, culture and stunning architecture. Detroit’s streets were originally laid out by Augustus Woodward in a spoked-wheel design, emulating Washington D.C. The city was filled with parks and wide boulevards. Some of the earliest skyscrapers in the United States were built in Detroit around the turn of the century. (At the time, the term skyscraper meant a building of ten stories, give or take.) The city had a well-funded and-attended opera, symphony, ballet and art museum.
On top of that, commerce boomed. Detroit became one of the great hubs of manufacturing in the country, leading or being one of the leaders in stoves, cigars, train cars and a myriad of other items. The city’s location was perfect – ever since the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the Detroit River connected the Great Lakes to New York and the Atlantic. Natural resources were plentiful. Most of Michigan was forest and its Upper Peninsula was one of the great mining regions of the world.
All of this makes for a nice place to live but it’s a very incomplete picture of Detroit in the early twentieth century, which is when my novels are set. Nice places to live are fine and dandy, but not the greatest places to set dark mysteries. Fortunately (for me), the time period and city were layered with much more interesting people and problems. Every city has its dark underbelly, and we all expect Detroit’s to be extra dark. You wouldn’t be disappointed.
One reason manufacturing was so strong was the Employers Association of Detroit, which acted as a sort of outsourced human resources company for the city’s manufacturers. The EAD specialized in keeping out unions, thereby controlling wages. They planted spies in factories, beat up agitators, and even brought in muscle from organized crime when necessary.
Speaking of crime, the newspapers estimated there to be more than 1,000 street gangs in the city in 1910. Sicilian gangs had begun the takeover of the city’s rackets. Illegal importing was a huge money maker, because import duties were so high at the time, often doubling the price of an imported item. The Detroit River made a convenient smugglers’ highway, with Canada less than half a mile away from the city.
I can’t write about Detroit crime without including city government. In July 1912, twenty six of Detroit’s thirty six aldermen were arrested for bribe taking and, in true Detroit fashion, by the end of 1914 every one of them had either been acquitted or had the charges dropped. This was in spite of the prosecution’s open-and-shut cases against many of them, including audio recordings of the men demanding bribes in one of the earliest uses of wiretapping.
Detroit’s people were fascinating. According to the 1910 census, less than 10% of Detroit’s 465,000 residents were even born in the State of Michigan. Many came over in great waves of emigration, first from Western Europe, primarily Germany and Ireland, and then, in the early twentieth century, from Southern and Eastern Europe. The city was a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, like a smaller version of New York City.
Most of those people lived in squalor. It was a great time to be alive if you had money, but life was hard for the other 99.99% – there were no government social programs like unemployment insurance or welfare, dollar-a-day wages that didn’t feed a family and crumbling tenements in which to live. The masses from Europe came for the opportunity and for most the reality didn’t live up to the dream.
This mash-up of rich and poor, grand success and sweeping failure, honesty and vice makes for a perfect crucible for stories of people’s experiences, good and bad, with most, like our own personal stories, usually somewhere in between.
DE Johnson’s author website: www.dejohnsonauthor.com
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