Detroit The Dynamic
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BECAUSE Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit are, in effect, situated upon Lake Erie, and because they are cities of approximately the same size, and because of many other resemblances between them, they always seem to me like three sisters living amicably in three separate houses on the same block.
As I personify them, Buffalo, living at the eastern end of the block, is the smallest sister. She has, I fear, a slight tendency to be anemic. Her husband, who was in the shipping business, is getting old. He has re-tired and is living in contentment in the old house, sitting all day on the side porch, behind the vines, with his slippers cocked up on the porch rail, smoking cigars and reading his newspapers in peace.
Cleveland is the fat sister. She is very rich, having married into the Rockefeller family. She is placid, satisfied, dogmatically religious, and inclined to platitudes and missionary work. Her house, in the middle of the block, is a mansion of the seventies. It has a cupola and there are iron fences on the roof, as though to keep the birds from falling off. The lawn is decorated with a pair of iron dogs. But there are plans in the old house for a new one.
The first two sisters have a kind of family resemblance which the third does not fully share. Detroit seems younger than her sisters. Indeed, you might al-most mistake her for one of their daughters. The belle of the family, she is married to a young man who is making piles of money in the automobile business—and spending piles, too. Their house, at the western end of the block, is new and charming.
I am half in love with Detroit. I may as well admit it, for you are sure to find me out. She is beautiful—not with the warm, passionate beauty of San Francisco, the austere, mountain beauty of Denver, nor the strange, sophisticated, destroying beauty of New York, but with a sweet domestic kind of beauty, like that of a young wife, gay, strong, alert, enthusiastic; a twinkle in her eye, a laugh upon her lips. She has temperament and charm, qualities as rare, as fascinating, and as difficult to define in a city as in a human being.
Do you ask why she is different from her sisters? I was afraid you might ask that. They tell a romantic story. I don't like to repeat gossip, but— They say that, long ago, when her mother lived upon a little farm by the river, there came along a dashing voyageur, from France, who loved her. Mind you, I vouch for nothing. It is a legend. I do not affirm that it is true. But—voila! There is Detroit. She is different.
If you will consider these three fictitious sisters as figures in a cartoon—a cartoon not devoid of caricature—you will get an impression of my impression of three cities. My three sisters are merely symbols, like the figures of Uncle Sam and John Bull. A symbol is a kind of generalization, and if you disagree with these generalizations of mine (as I think you may, especially if you live in Buffalo or Cleveland), let me remind you that some one has said: "All generalizations are false—including this one." One respect in which my generalization is false is in picturing Detroit as young. As a matter of fact, she is the oldest city of the three, having been settled by the Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701, ninety years before the first white man built his hut where Buffalo now stands, and ninety-five years before the settlement of Cleveland. This is the fact. Yet I hold that there is about Detroit something which expresses ebullient youth, and that Buffalo and Cleveland, if they' do not altogether lack the quality of youth, have it in a less degree.
So far as I recall, Chicago was the first American city to adopt a motto, or, as they call it now, a "slogan."
I remember long ago a rather crude bust of a helmeted Amazon bearing upon her proud chest the words: "I Will!" She was supposed to typify Chicago, and I rather think she did. Cleveland's slogan is the conservative but significant "Sixth City," but Detroit comes out with a youthful shriek of self-satisfaction, declaring that : "In Detroit Life is Worth Living!"
Doesn't that claim reflect the quality of youth? Does n't it remind you of the little boy who says to the other little boy : "My father can lick your father"? Of course it has the patent-medicine flavor, too; Detroit, by her "slogan," is a cure-all. But that is not de-liberate. It is exaggeration springing from natural optimism and exuberance. Life is doubtless more worth living in Detroit than in some other cities, but I submit that, so long as Mark Twain's "damn human race" retains those foibles of mind, morals, and body for which it is so justly famous, the "slogan" of the city of Detroit guarantees a little bit too much.
I find the same exuberance in the publications issued by the Detroit Board of Commerce. Having just left the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, I sedulously avoided contact with the Detroit body—one can get an overdose of that kind of thing. But I have several books. One is a magazine called "The Detroiter," with the subtitle "Spokesman of Optimism." It is full of news of new hotels and new factories and new athletic clubs and all kinds of expansion. It fairly bursts from its covers with enthusiasm—and with business banalities about Detroit's "onward sweep," her "surging ahead," her "banner year," and her "efficiency." "Be a Booster," it advises, and no one can say that it does not live up to its principles. Indeed, as I look it over, I wonder if I have not done Detroit an injustice in giving to Cleveland the blue ribbon for "boosting." The Detroit Board of Commerce even goes so far in its "boosting" as to "boost" Detroit into seventh place among American cities, while the " World Almanac" (most valuable volume on the one-foot shelf of books I carried on my travels) places Detroit ninth.
Like Cleveland, I find that Detroit is first in the production of a great many things. In fact, the more I read these books issued by commercial bodies, the more I am amazed at the. varied things there are for cities to be first in. It is a miserable city, indeed, which is first in nothing at all. Detroit is first in the production of overalls, stoves, varnish, soda and salt products, automobile accessories, adding machines, pharmaceutical manufactures, aluminum castings, in shipbuilding on the Great Lakes and, above all, in the manufacture of motor cars. And, as the Board of Commerce adds significantly, "That 's not all!"
But it is enough.
The motor-car development in Detroit interested me particularly. When I asked in Buffalo why Detroit was "surging ahead" so rapidly in comparison with certain other cities, they answered, as I knew they would : "It 's the automobile business."
But when I asked why the automobile business should have settled on Detroit as a headquarters instead of some other city (as, for instance, Buffalo), they found it difficult to say. One Buffalonian informed me that Detroit banks had been more liberal than those of other cities in supporting the motor industry in its early days, This was, however, vigorously denied in Detroit. When I mentioned it to the president of one of the largest automobile concerns he laughed.
"Banks don't do business that way," he declared. "The very thing banks do not do is to support new, untried industries. After you have proved that you can make both motor cars and money they '11 take care of you. Not before. On the other hand, when the banks get confidence in any one kind of business they very often run to the opposite extreme. That was the way it used to be in the lumber business. Most of the early fortunes of Detroit were made in lumber. The banks got used to the lumber business, so that a few years ago all a man had to do was to print `Lumber' on his letter-head, write to the banks and get a line of credit. Later, when the automobile business began to boom, the same thing happened over again : the man whose letterhead bore the word `Automobiles' was taken care of." The implication was that sometimes he was taken care of a little bit too well.
"Then why did Detroit become the automobile center I asked.
The question proved good for an hour's discussion among certain learned pundits of the "trade" who were in the president's office at the time I asked it..
First, it was concluded, several early motor "bugs" happened to live in or near Detroit. Henry Ford lived there. He was always experimenting with "horseless carriages" in the early days and being laughed at for it. Also, a man named Packard built a car at Warren, Ohio. But the first gasoline motor car to achieve what they call an "output" was the funny little one-cyclinder Olds-mobile which steered with a tiller and had a curved dash like a sleigh. It is to the Olds Motor Company, which built that car, that a large majority of the auto-mobile manufactories in Detroit trace their origin. In-deed, there are to-day no less than a dozen organizations, the heads of which were at some time connected with the original Olds Company. This fifteen-year-old forefather of the automobile business was originally made in Lansing, Mich., but the plant was moved to Detroit, where the market for labor and materials was better. The Packard plant was also moved there, and for the same reasons, plus the fact that the company was being financed by a group of young Detroit men.
It was not, perhaps, entirely as an investment that these wealthy young Detroiters first became interested in the building of motor cars. That is to say, I do not think they would have poured money so freely into a scheme to manufacture something else—something less picturesque in its appeal to the sporting instinct and the imagination. The automobile, with its promise, was just the right thing to interest rich young men, and it did interest them, and it has made many of them richer than they were before.
It seems to be an axiom that, if you start a new business anywhere, and it is successful, others will start in the same business beside you. One of the pundits referred me, for example, to Erie, Pa., where life is entirely saturated with engine and boiler ideas simply be-cause the Erie City Iron Works started there and was successful. There are now sixteen engine and boiler companies in Erie, and all of them, I am assured, are there either directly or indirectly because the Erie City Iron Works is there. In other words, we sat in that office and had a very pleasant hour's talk merely to discover that there is truth in the familiar saying about birds of a feather.
When we got that settled and the pundits began to drift away to other plate-glass rooms along the mile, more or less, of corridor devoted to officials' offices, I became interested in a little wooden box which stood upon the president's large flat-top desk. I was told it was a dictagraph. Never having seen a dictagraph be-fore, and being something of a child, I wished to play with it as I used to play with typewriters and letter-presses in my father's office years ago. And the president of this many-million-dollar corporation, being a kindly man with, of course, absolutely nothing to do but to supply itinerant scribes with playthings, let me toy with the machine. Sitting at the desk, he pressed a key. Then, without changing his position, he spoke into the air:
"Fred," he said, "there 's some one here who wants to ask you a question."
Then the little wooden box began to talk.
"What does he want to ask about?" it said.
That put it up to me. I had to think of something to ask. I was conscious of a strange, unpleasant feeling of being hurried—of having to reply quickly before some-thing happened—some breaking of connections.
I leaned toward the machine, but the president waved me back : "Just sit over there where you are."
Then I said : "I am writing articles about Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. How would you compare them?"
"Well," replied the Fred-in-the-box, "I used to live in Cleveland. I've been here four years and I wouldn't want to go back."
After that we paused. I thought I ought to say something more to the box, but I didn't know just what. "Is that all you want to know?" it asked.
"Yes," I replied hurriedly. "I'm much obliged. That's all I want to know."
Of course it really wasn't all—not by any means ! But I could n't bring myself to say so then, so I said the easy, obvious thing, and after that it was too late. Oh, how many things there are I want to know ! How many things I think of now which I would ask an oracle when there is none to ask! Things about the here and the hereafter; about the human spirit; about practical religion, the brotherhood of man, the inequalities of men, evolution, reform, the enduring mysteries of space, time, eternity, and woman !
A friend of mine—a spiritualist—once told me of a seance in which he thought himself in brief communication with his mother. There were a million things to say. But when the medium requested him to give a message he could only falter: "Are you all right over there?" The answer came : "Yes, all right.." Then my friend said: "I 'm so glad!" And that was all.
"It is the feeling of awful pressure," he explained to me, "which drives the thoughts out of your head. That is why so many messages from the spirit world sound silly and inconsequential. You have the one great chance to communicate with them, and, because it is your one great chance, you cannot think of anything to say." Somehow I imagine that the feeling must be like the one I had in talking to the dictagraph.
Among the characteristics which give Detroit her individuality is the survival of her old-time aristocracy; she is one of the few middle-western cities possessing such a social order. As with that of St. Louis, this aristocracy is of French descent, the Sibleys, Campaus, and other old Detroit families tracing their genealogies to forefathers who came out to the New World under the flag of Louis XIV. The early habitants acquired farms, most of them with small frontages on the river and running back for several miles into the woods—an arrangement which permitted farmhouses to be built close together for protection against Indians. These farms, handed down for generations, form the basis of a number of Detroit's older family fortunes.
Today commerce takes up the downtown portion of the river front, but not far from the center of the city the shore line is still occupied by residences. Along Jefferson Avenue are many homes, surrounded by delightful lawns extending forward to the street and back to the river. Most of these homes have in their back yards boathouses and docks—some of the latter large enough to berth seagoing steam yachts, of which Detroit boasts a considerable number. Nor is the water front reserved entirely for private use. In Belle Isle, situated in the Detroit River, and accessible by either boat or bridge, the city possesses one of the most unusual and charming public parks to be seen in the entire world. And there are many other pleasant places near Detroit which may be reached by boat—among them the St. Clair Flats, famous for duck shooting. All these features combine to make the river life active and picturesque. In midstream passes a continual parade of freighters, a little mail boat dodging out to meet each one as it goes by. Huge side-wheel excursion steamers come and go, and in their swell you may see, teetering, all kinds of craft, from proud white yachts with shining brasswork and bowsprits having the expression of haughty turned-up noses, down through the category of schooners, barges, tugs, motor yachts, motor boats, sloops, small sailboats, rowboats, and canoes. You may even catch sight of a hydroplane swiftly skimming the surface of the river like some amphibious, prehistoric animal, or of that natty little gunboat, captured from the Spaniards at the battle of Manila Bay, which now serves as a training ship for the Michigan Naval Reserve.
A good many of the young aristocrats of Detroit have belonged to the Naval Reserve, among them Mr. Truman H. Newberry, former Secretary of the Navy, about whom I heard an amusing story.
According to this tale, as it was told me in Detroit, Mr. Newberry was some years ago a common seaman in the Reserve. It seems that on the occasion of the annual cruise of this body on the Great Lakes, a regular naval officer is sent out to take command of the training ship. One day, when common seaman Newberry was engaged in the maritime occupation of swabbing down the decks abaft the bridge, a large yacht passed majestically by.
"My man," said the regular naval officer on the bridge to common seaman Newberry below, "do you know what yacht that is ?"
Newberry saluted. "The Truant, sir," he said respectfully, and resumed his work.
"Who owns her?" asked the officer.
Again Newberry straightened and saluted.
"I do, sir," he said.