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Day 39: Racing Toward the Heartland
April 27, 2021
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Day 37: From North to South Through Ohio
April 25, 2021

Day 38: Motoring Toward the Motor City

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Most recently updated on March 8, 2023

Originally posted on April 26, 2021

It’s one freeway in one direction today.

Interstate 75 and northbound.

Along our virtual way, we’ll visit one of the nation’s original “greenbelt towns” as well as stop by two communities that were home base to the country’s original aviators and one of our most famous astronauts.

They’ll also be a glass factory that was the center of a widely watched 2016 documentary and the headquarters of a furniture company whose name has become synonymous with reclining and kicking back.

A lot more in between, too.

We leave Cincinnati by hopping onto Interstate 75, the nation’s 7th longest freeway and its second longest north-south expressway. I-75 runs 1,786 miles from south Florida to the northern tip of Michigan. It’s six lanes most of the way.

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The highway travels through six states. They are Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, where it crosses the Mackinac Bridge between the Wolverine State’s two peninsulas.

Construction began in 1962. The freeway was supposed to end in Tampa in central Florida, but the growth along the Sunshine State’s eastern coast caused I-75 to be extended through Alligator Alley in the Everglades to the Miami area.

After about 20 minutes, we jump off I-75 and make our way to the community of Greenhills, Ohio.

At first glance, the enclave of 3,700 people might look like any other suburban town. However, Greenhills is officially a National Historic Landmark.

It is one of three so-called greenbelt towns that were built in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The other two are Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin.

Those villages were part of the Resettlement Administration’s Division of Suburban Resettlement program. That administration operated from 1935 to 1937 before being absorbed by the Farm Security Administration.

Its goal was to relocate urban and rural families struggling during the Great Depression to communities planned by the federal government. The original plan was to move 650,000 people. The idea was to create neighborhoods on the outskirts of metropolitan areas. In effect, they were the first suburbs.

The agency worked on 200 potential sites but ended up fully building only three towns with amenities such as stores, movie theaters, gas stations and community pools. The projects provided jobs to 25,000 people.

Greenhills was built on 6,000 acres of wooded land by 5,000 employees of the Works Progress Administration. The plan was to build homes for 1,000 families, but only 646 dwellings were constructed. Most of them were apartments and townhouses.

The first residents moved into their home on Avenell Lane on April 1, 1938. The people who lived in Greenhills were required to have a steady job but were limited on how much money they could earn. If they rose above a certain income level, they were asked to move out. Most of the early residents were renters, but many got the opportunity to purchase their home when the federal government sold the property in 1949.

The town was initially a segregated community with rules that prevented non-white families from living there. Those codes are now gone and the ethnicity has changed slightly. Today, Greenhills is 84 percent white with a median annual household income of nearly $73,000. The median price for a home is about $190,000.

Many of the current residents are third and fourth generation descendants of the original homeowners.

In 2018, the town leaders started a program to demolish some of the older structures from the 1930s because it had become too expensive to preserve them.

One historic building that remains is the James Whallon House, which was here long before the New Deal programs. The home was built in 1816 by James Whallon with bricks fired on his property. He was a farmer, a justice of the peace and a distillery owner. He and his wife lived here until the 1840s, raising 13 children. The home was owned by several other families after the Whallons left before being purchased in 1939 by the Resettlement Agency. The house is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Airing It Out in Central Ohio

We hop back onto Interstate 75 and fly into central-west Ohio.

In 45 minutes, we enter the city of Dayton, a community of 136,000 that is best known as the place where the airplane was invented by a pair of famous brothers.

However, the town is also the site of a famous peace accord as well as a factory that has become a symbol of foreign-owned investment in the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Transportation has been a big part of Dayton’s past.

The region was originally inhabited by the Miami and other tribes. The town was founded in 1796 by the 12-person Thompson party who had traveled north in small boats up the Great Miami River from Cincinnati. The settlement was incorporated in 1805 and named after Capt. John Dayton, a Revolutionary War combatant and a signer of the Constitution.

Dayton was used as a staging area for attacks against British troops during the War of 1812. Shortly after that conflict, a tobacco factory and a textile mill opened. The Dayton-Cincinnati overland road was built in 1827. The Miami and Erie Canal was completed in 1829, further boosting the local economy.

The city first developed as a river port to ship agricultural products. The initial railroad arrived in 1851 and Dayton added a manufacturing component utilizing the nearby coal and natural gas fields in West Virginia.

The Wright Brothers National Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Photo by Dayton History.

In 1884, John Henry Patterson formed the National Cash Register Company here. The company produced 16,000 registers in its first decade. In 1906, it manufactured the first electronic cash registers. By 1914, the company was putting out 110,000 registers per year.

Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in Dayton. They opened their bicycle shop there in 1892. At that facility, they designed their Wright Flyer aircraft before taking it to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for the world’s first powered flight in 1903. In November 2021, the city’s appeals board approved a plan to demolish the building and allow a developer to build something else on the site. The plan has pitted city officials who feel the building is dilapidated and dangerous against historians who want to restore and preserve the facility.

Just outside of Dayton, the famous aviation brothers also launched the Wright Flyer from the Huffman Prairie Field on numerous occasions, stunning those in attendance who didn’t believe the stories of a “flying machine.”

There is a Wright Brothers National Museum here. The facility has more of the Wright brothers’ artifacts than any other place in the world. The exhibits include the 1905 Wright Flyer III. It’s the only airplane that is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

The Wright Factory Company is still standing. It was built in 1910 and was the first facility in the United States to manufacture airplanes. Over the years, the factory produced 120 airplanes in 13 different models. Members of the National Aviation Heritage Area are working to preserve the complex. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 2019.

The Wright brothers weren’t the only inventors in town. Charles Kettering held 140 patents. Among his inventions were the electric starters for cars and the electric cash register the National Cash Register Company.

The city’s economy chugged along until the 1980s when, like other cities in the Rust Belt region, the manufacturing industry faded and residents moved to the suburbs.

The economy today does contain some manufacturing and distribution industries as well as research, aerospace, defense and healthcare.

However, Dayton continues to struggle as it adjusts to new economic realities.

The city has lost half of its population since 1960. The ethnic mix is now 52 percent white and 36 percent Black with a median annual income of $33,000 and a poverty rate near 30 percent.

In response, the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan was launched in 2010. The plan was intended to strengthen Dayton’s core neighborhoods with economic development, the arts, housing, transportation and infrastructure.

The Fuyao Glass America plant in Dayton, Ohio, is the focus of the Netflix documentary “American Factory.” Photo by The Business Journals.

One of the chief targets has been the Dayton Arcade, a center with 500,000 square feet that had been shuttered for 30 years. An out-of-state investment group teamed up with the University of Dayton to redevelop the complex with residential units, artist studios, retail stores and a shared commercial kitchen program. In early March 2021, a 95,000-square-foot section known as The Hub opened with private offices, classrooms and small businesses. In August 2021, the arcade fully reopened.

Another relatively new operation is the Fuyao Glass America factory, which opened in 2016 in a former General Motors complex that closed in 2008. The facility, owned by a Chinese glass manufacturer, was the focus of the Netflix documentary, “American Factory,” which was produced by Barack and Michele Obama.

The film points out the stark differences between U.S. and Chinese employees. It also notes that when the Fuyao plant opened, there was an expectation of 10,000 new good-paying jobs. The factory employs 2,000 U.S. workers and 200 Chinese employees with automation replacing many workers. The average wage is $14 per hour. In November 2022, the company announced plans for a $46 million expansion that would add 600,000 square feet and 500 jobs to the facility.

In January 2023, Dayton officials unveiled a $22 million plan to tear down 1,000 unsightly “nuisance properties” during the next several years.

Dayton was in the national spotlight in August 2019 when a 24-year-old gunman opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle and killed 9 people in 32 seconds. He was shot dead by police officers. In the weeks following the murder spree, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley became a national voice for gun control laws. Whaley has said she wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor. She did announce in spring 2021 that she was running for Ohio governor. In May 2022, Whaley won the Democratic primary, but in November 2022 she lost to incumbent Republican governor Mike DeWine.

Dayton has had its share of historical moments.

In 1904, the world’s first speeding ticket was issued here when motorist Harry Myers was cited for driving 12 miles per hour on West Third Avenue.

In 1933, Dayton hosted the nation’s first soap box derby. It was organized by newspaper photographer Myron Scott. It was held on Hilltop Avenue with 19 boys racing 19 cars. The following year, racers from 34 other cities showed up.

In 1995, the city was the site of what would become known as the Dayton Accords. The pact was signed by leaders of the former Yugoslavia republics and ended the Bosnian war. The ceremony was held at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The base is also home to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The complex has exhibits ranging from early 1900s aircraft to space shuttles.


We fly up northbound Interstate 75 for another hour to reach another town connected to U.S. aerospace history.

Wapakoneta is the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the NASA astronaut who was the first person to walk on the moon.

Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta in 1930 and grew up here.

Although he lived in other places most of his adult life, his hometown of nearly 10,000 citizens honors him with pride. A historical marker was placed at his boyhood home in 2018, six years after the historic astronaut’s death.

The home where astronaut Neil Armstrong grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Photo by AOPA.

There’s also the Armstrong Air & Space Museum. The facility opened on July 20, 1972, exactly three years after Armstrong set foot on the moon. The complex spotlights Armstrong’s life as well as Ohio’s contribution to the aerospace industry.

Outside of its famous astronaut, Wapakoneta has had a quiet history.

The Ottawa and Shawnee tribes lived in the region for centuries. The tribe members farmed and also built a saw mill and a grist mill in the early 1800s.

A Quaker mission was established in 1809. The federal government forced the native tribes to leave in 1831 and Anglo settlers quickly moved in.

Agriculture has been the main industry for much of Wapakoneta’s history. Oil and natural gas development began in the 1880s. There have been factories that produced bricks, brooms, wagon wheels and butter churns.

The town portrays itself as a quiet, friendly community with a charming downtown.

Our next stop up the road a bit has had a more volatile past.

Tanks, Jeeps and Glass

Lima, Ohio, is less than a half-hour north of Wapakoneta along Interstate 75.

However, the town of 35,000 residents is quite different from its neighbor.

This once powerful industrial city has seen an economic decline that was captured in a 1999 documentary as well as white supremacist activities and disputes over segregation.

Things started out peacefully enough here.

The Shawnee occupied this region prior to the 1800s. A reservation was set up for the tribe in 1817 before they were relocated to Kansas in 1831. The town was laid out that year and eventually was named after the capital of Peru because a malaria drug used in the region was manufactured there.

Why was a malaria drug needed in this part of the country? More on that tomorrow.

Lima grew after the railroads came through in the 1850s.

The army tank factory in Lima, Ohio. Photo by the Toledo Blade.

Lima Machine Works was established and built the first Shea-geared locomotive in 1882. Lima Locomotive Works built the A-1 Berkshire Locomotive in 1925. That engine became the model for the modern steam locomotive.

In 1885, Benjamin Faurot drilled for natural gas at his paper mill and discovered oil. Standard Oil built a refinery at that spot. Eventually, there were 70 oil wells in the area. Other local companies made oil drilling equipment. It was all part of an oil boom in northwest Ohio from 1885 to 1895 when that state was the largest oil producer in the world.

In the early 1900s, the Gramm-Bernstein Company was established and became a leader in the motor truck industry. They designed the Liberty Truck for use in World War One.

In 1915, the Superior Coach Company was formed and became a major manufacturer of funeral coaches. The firm also made school buses. A new factory was built in 1995. Superior still produces funeral cars and limousines.

In 1941, the Lima Army Tank Plant was built. The company is the manufacturer of M1 Abrams tanks. The Joint Systems Manufacturing Center has also produced the M5 light tank and the T-26 Pershing tank as well as military vehicles used during the Korean War. The plant, the last Army tank factory in the country, employed 5,000 people at one time but it dipped to less than 600 workers in 2019. It has since risen to more than 800. President Donald Trump visited the facility in 2019 as part of his campaign to tout U.S. manufacturing as well as the federal contracts that had been awarded earlier that year to the facility.

In the 1970s and 1980s, industries in Lima began to close, including Clark Equipment and Airfoil Textron. The city lost 8,000 jobs by the 1990s. Its population dropped 10 percent from 1990 to 2000. That decline was captured in the 1999 PBS documentary “Lost in Middle America.”

The economy today still has a manufacturing base, but it’s smaller than in decades past. Among the products are military equipment as well as truck and auto parts.

Lima has had its share of racial strife in the past century.

The Ku Klux Klan was a strong force in Lima in the 1920s. The city was also home to the Black Legion, a violent subset of the Klan. In 1923, a Klan rally in Lima featured the induction of 3,000 new members

There was also unrest over civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The biggest issue was the desegregation of the city’s only public swimming pool in Schoonover Park.

The city does have its place in popular culture.

The groundbreaking comedian, Phyllis Diller, grew up in Lima before launching her stand-up comic career in the 1950s in California.

In addition, the popular television show “Glee” was set in the fictional William McKinley High School in the real town of Lima, Ohio.

The town had the same mayor for more than 30 years. David Berger, first elected in 1989, was elected to his 8th term in 2018. A native of Mansfield, Ohio, Berger moved to Lima in 1977 after graduating from college to take a job as the executive director of Rehab Project, a nonprofit community development group that trains prisoners on how to build and renovate houses. He worked there until his first run for mayor. Berger announced in fall 2020 that he would not seek a 9th term in the city’s mayoral contest. Sharetta Smith, Berger’s chief of staff, and Elizabeth Hardesty, a geologist who was born in Lima, were the top two vote getters in the May 2021 primary election and faced off in the November general election. Smith won and in late November 2021 she was sworn in as Lima’s first African-American mayor.


Our final stop in Ohio comes as we reach the state’s northern border.

Toledo is the last town on Interstate 75 before you cross over into Michigan slightly more than an hour north of Lima.

In fact, the city became part of Ohio only after a bitterly fought border dispute that included militias being stationed on both sides of the Maumee River.

This city of 265,000 people also has quite a history with the glass industry and, yes, there are claims that the phrase “Holy Toledo” did originate here.

The French set up fur trading posts here as early as 1680. The area was first settled by Europeans in 1795, a year after local tribes were defeated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The city itself was founded on the west banks of the Maumee River in 1833.

The town became the center of attention during the “Toledo War” border dispute between Ohio and Michigan after that state tried to include the “Toledo Strip” within its boundaries when it applied for statehood in 1835. Toledo’s access to the westernmost point of Lake Erie was the prime reason for the conflict, especially after the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.

Both states stationed militias on opposite sides of the Maumee River. On two different occasions, Michigan authorities arrested Ohio officials who were trying establish jurisdiction over the land. President Andrew Jackson eventually removed Michigan’s 23-year-old territorial governor from his post.

A compromise was worked out in 1836 with Michigan being granted the 9,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula region in exchange for letting Ohio keep the 400 square miles of Toledo area.

The Erie and Kalamazoo railroad line came to Toledo in 1836. The completion of the Miami and Erie Canal in 1845 also spurred growth in the city.

Glass manufacturers arrived in the 1880s. Factories here produced windows, bottles, windshields and construction materials. Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning and Libbey Glass were among the companies founded here, earning Toledo the nickname “The Glass City.”

Other manufacturers moved in, producing carriage, furniture and wheels. Auto manufacturers also set up shop with General Motors and Chrysler both opening facilities. The Willys Overland plant produced 350,000 jeeps during World War Two.

Toledo was hit hard by the Great Depression with unemployment as high as 80 percent. Some federal Work Progress Administration projects were brought in to employ local citizens.

In the second half of the 1900s, the decline in industrialization further hurt the city. Families also moved to the suburbs.

In response, the city offered tax incentives to DaimlerChrysler to build a new Jeep facility in town to replace the one that Willys built.  In 2001, a lawsuit filed by taxpayers challenged that program. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city in 2006. The new plant opened and Jeeps are still manufactured primarily in Toledo.

Tony Packo’s Cafe is one of the more popular restaurants in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by the Toledo Blade.

Since 2000, the city has launched redevelopment projects to try to revitalize the downtown. Some jobs in the solar energy industry have emerged.

However, Toledo, a town with an ethnic mix that’s listed as 57 percent white, 28 percent Black and 8 percent Hispanic or Latino, is still struggling economically. The median annual household income is $41,000 with a poverty rate that sits at 24 percent.

Toledo is also consistently ranked in the top 50 highest crime cities in the nation. In a 2018 report compiled by USA Today, Toledo was described as “one of the most dangerous cities in the country” with 1,192 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, nearly triple the state and national rates. In the 2019 report, that rate in Toledo had dropped to 848 violent crimes per 100,000 people, but the city was still ranked in the top 50. Its current crime rate is listed as 5, which means it’s considered safer than only 5 percent of U.S. cities.

One of the best known restaurants in town is Tony Packo’s Café, which opened in downtown Toledo in 1932 and is famous for its Hungarian hot dogs. A tradition of celebrities signing hot dog buns began in 1972 when actor Burt Reynolds autographed one during a lunch break while filming “The Rainmaker” at the Toledo Auditorium. The café was also mentioned in six episodes of the television show “M*A*S*H” by Corporal Maxwell Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr. There are now five Tony Packo’s restaurants in this area of Ohio, including the original café in Toledo.

The city is also home to the Toledo Museum of Art, which was founded in 1901. The complex has a collection of 25,000 items in 35 galleries. They include glass works from the 1800s and 1900s.

Another art project made news in October 2021 when CBS Sunday Morning reported on a local project that resulted in the repainting of 28 gray grain silos along the Maumee River. The silos have been transformed into a canvas of sunflowers and Native American portraits. In October 2022, the Glass City River Wall was finished and became the nation’s largest mural.

Finally, there’s that famous expression. There are reports that the phrase “Holy Toledo” originated here. One legend says it’s related to the number of churches in town. Another says it was a sarcastic expression tied to the number of bars compared to churches. Another version states that the expression is actually linked to Toledo, Spain, which was one of the centers of Christian culture after its liberation from the Moors in 1085.

Motoring Into Michigan

We continue north on Interstate 75 and as soon as we leave the city limits of Toledo, we enter the state of Michigan.

The Great Lakes State is 10th most populous in the country with more than 10 million residents.

It’s also the 22nd largest state at 56,539 square miles. It’s the second largest state east of the Mississippi River, behind only Georgia.

Michigan is the only state divided into two pieces. Its Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula are separated by the Straits of Mackinac and connected by the Mackinac Bridge.

Michigan borders four of the five Great Lakes and has more than 11,000 inland lakes. It has the longest freshwater coastline of any political entity in the world. In fact, 41 percent of Michigan is covered by water, the most of any state, edging out Hawaii for the title. People who live here are never more than 6 miles from a natural water source or more than 85 miles from one of the Great Lakes.

michigan map

Even though it is inland, Michigan has 120 lighthouses, the most of any state.

Michigan is the headquarters for three major U.S. automobile companies. The economy also consists of aerospace, food products, information technology and furniture manufacturing.

It’s the top state for recreational boating and is the third leading state for growing Christmas trees, behind Oregon and North Carolina. It also is the number three state in blueberry production, behind Georgia and Washington. The Upper Peninsula has the largest commercial deposit of native copper in the world, but mining has declined there since the 1960s.

Our first stop in Michigan is less than a half-hour from the border.

The town of Monroe rests along the western edge of Lake Erie.

The community of nearly 20,000 residents has some deep French origins. It was visited by explorer Robert de LaSalle in 1679. It was settled in 1784 and originally called Frenchtown.

The village was important during the War of 1812 due its proximity to Fort Detroit, which the British captured during the conflict. The Battle of Frenchtown occurred here. It’s the largest battle ever fought on Michigan soil. The battle was a major defeat for the American side. More than 370 of the 1,000 U.S. troops involved were killed by British soldiers and the native tribe members who supported them. The massacre of some wounded U.S. men angered Americans throughout this region and was used as motivation in future conflicts. The Frenchtown battle site is preserved as the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.

The statue of General George Custer in his hometown of Monroe, Michigan. Photo by Wikipedia.

After the war, the community was renamed after President James Monroe, who paid a visit in 1817.

General George Armstrong Custer grew up in Monroe and met his wife here. A decade before his demise at Little Big Horn in southern Montana, Custer led Union troops as part of the Michigan Brigade during the Civil War.

There is a statue in Custer’s honor in Monroe. A street and airport are also named for him. His former home is now the county museum, too. In April 2021, the City Council set aside funds to hire a consultant to discuss the future of the statue. Options include relocating the historic marker or adding more information about Native American history.

In 1927, the La-Z-Boy furniture company was founded in Monroe. The company headquarters is still here in a new building that opened in 2015. The company has about 9,500 employees around the world. The company is famous for its recliners and other easy chairs.

The local economy consists mainly of shipping and manufacturing. The city is also home to the Monroe Power Plant, the third largest coal-fired plant in the United States. In May 2020, DTE Energy, the owner of the Monroe facility, agreed to a multi-million-dollar settlement with the EPA involving pollution reduction at its five power plants in southeastern Michigan. Part of that action involved upgrades made at the Monroe complex without installing the best technology to minimize toxic emissions. It appears the facility’s days are numbered. In November 2022, DTE Energy announced plans to close the plant by 2028 as it ventures more into solar and wind energy.

There is an 800-acre wildlife preserve at the plant that is the winter home for about 200 migrating bald eagles.

Besides Custer, other well-known people who grew up in Monroe include actress Valerie Harper and actress/model Christie Brinkley.

Motown, Motors and Migration

It’s difficult to cover all that is Detroit in one swoop, but we’ll give it a try.

Let’s start with some numbers.

Detroit now has 616,000 residents, making it the most populous city in Michigan as well as the largest U.S. city along the Canadian border. The Motor City is also the 28th most populous community in the country, just behind Las Vegas, Nevada, and Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1940, Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the nation when it had 1.6 million people. That means it’s lost about 60 percent of its population since that peak.

The percentage of Black residents hovers at 78 percent, one of the highest ratios of any U.S. city with more than 100,000 people. The median annual household income is slightly above $34,000, almost $20,000 below the state average. The poverty rate is nearly 32 percent. The median price of a home is about $70,000.

Detroit climbed to great heights and it fell hard to depths not seen among most cities.

Nonetheless, Detroit is still home to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It remains a major port, sitting on the Detroit River that connects Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. Its name is also synonymous with Motown music.

And a downtown revival is slowly emerging with a new 100-room hotel helping lead the way.

In the late 1600s, fur traders from Canada were common in this region 40 miles north of Monroe.

The French founded the city in 1701. The British took control in 1760 and then handed it over to the newly created United States in 1783. The British regained possession of Detroit in 1812 as that war began. U.S. forces recaptured it in 1813.

The city’s port grew during the 1800s as products were increasingly transported between Detroit and other Great Lakes settlements. Flour mills became a big industry and at one point the city had four stove manufacturers.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, recounts some of the history of the Detroit area’s automobile industry. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

In 1896, Henry Ford built his first automobile in a rented workshop on Mack Avenue. He founded the Ford Motor Company here in 1903. He moved his manufacturing plant from Detroit to nearby Dearborn in 1910. The Model T rolled off the assembly lines from 1908 to 1927. In 1918, half of the cars on American roads were Model Ts. Ford made sure this popular vehicle remained affordable to middle-class families. He also instilled a 40-hour workweek and higher pay for his workers.

Other car companies set up shop in the region, too.

General Motors was founded in 1908 in Flint, Michigan, by merging several auto manufacturers, including Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac. In 1912, the company introduced the self-starting ignition system, which eliminated the need for the hand crank. GM moved its headquarters to Detroit in the 1920s.  By 1929, GM had surpassed Ford as the leading U.S. passenger car manufacturer. In the 1940s and 1950s, GM accounted for more than 40 percent of automobiles sold in the United States.

In 1925, Walter Chrysler established Chrysler Corporation in Detroit. The company headquarters was eventually transferred to nearby Auburn Hills.

Between 1900 and 1930, Detroit’s population had increased by six-fold. Its automobile sector had also supplanted steel as the nation’s top industry in terms of value-added and wages paid.

Detroit not only became known as “Motor City,” it also changed the entire Midwest economy as factories sprung up all over the middle of the country producing auto parts, rubber and other materials. Gas stations also opened in towns across the nation.

By 1950, Detroit was home to nearly 300,000 manufacturing jobs.

The city’s economic success lured European immigrants. It also brought in African-Americans as well as whites from the rural South in a Second Great Migration in the 1930s and 1940s.

During World War Two, the city’s auto industry joined in the industrial effort to help the Allies, producing 20 percent of the military output during those years.

That influx of new residents created racial strife.

In 1943, a race riot broke out that killed 34 people.

In 1967, the Twelfth Street riot erupted in late July. It pitted inner city Black residents against police officers. National Guard troops and Army soldiers were eventually called in. During the five days of confrontation 43 people were killed, 467 were injured and more than 7,000 were arrested. About 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

The collapse of U.S. industry after 1960 and the high gasoline prices of the 1970s destroyed Detroit’s economy.

The first casualty was the Packard Motor Car factory. It opened in 1903 and was shuttered in 1958. The abandoned facility has been a symbol of Detroit’s economic freefall. However, it won’t be there much longer. In October 2022, a two-year demolition project got under way to clear the property of the crumbling building.

The decline of Detroit unraveled over a number of decades, but the pace started to accelerate in the 1990s.

In 1992, Moody’s reduced Detroit’s debt rating to junk status. Between 1994 and 2001, urban renewal projects helped raise the city’s credit rating back to investment level. However, between 2002 and 2008, the debt rating fell back to junk status.

During the 2008 recession, housing prices plunged. Half of the homes purchased in Detroit that year were sold for less than $10,000. One 3-bedroom brick house was listed at $1,250.

In 2009, both General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy. The Obama administration provided emergency funds to shore up the companies.

In 2013, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. The financial failure happened for a number of years, including plummeting tax revenues and a failure to cut expenses. The city exited bankruptcy status in 2014 thanks in part to a $300 million aid package from the Obama administration that helped hire firefighters, repair buses, build a trolley line and clean up blighted areas.

The Detroit Foundation Hotel is part of the efforts to revive the city’s downtown area. Photo by Architect Magazine.

In 2019, auto plants in nearby Warren and Hamtramck closed, eliminating thousands of jobs and having ripple effects on businesses in Detroit.

During the past 20 years, the Motor City has not recovered as quickly as other Midwest cities or even other parts of southeastern Michigan.

It didn’t help that an LED streetlight program failed and threatened to cost the city $9 million. A lawsuit was filed in 2019. A settlement was reached in December 2019 in which the streetlight company gave the city $4 million to help pay for the $7 million it cost to swap out nearly 20,000 lights.

However, there has been some rebound in the midst of the city’s economic decline.

In 2011, the Port Authority opened a new port.

In 2015, Detroit was named a “City of Design” by UNESCO, cited for its design legacy. It became the first U.S. city to garner that recognition. In 2018, the city unveiled the Detroit City of Design Action Plan, which is developing a blueprint to encourage design and growth through 2025.

Indeed, in recent years, the restoration of older buildings and the redevelopment of others has helped shore up the downtown area.

One of most notable is the Detroit Foundation Hotel. The 100-room hotel was built in an old, unused fire department headquarters that had been closed in 2013. The hotel opened in 2017. It was named by Time magazine in 2018 as one of the “World’s Greatest Places.”

There are other signs of progress in the city.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is upgrading the city’s waterfront. Their plan includes construction of an uninterrupted river walk with plazas, pavilions and green spaces along 5 miles of the Detroit River.

The city’s urban renewal efforts, however, have been criticized by some in the past for shining up skyscrapers downtown while homes in poorer neighborhoods were demolished.

One of the nation’s largest banks decided to help by focusing on the city’s blighted areas.

“60 Minutes” aired a story in 2019 about how J.P. Morgan Chase has helped Detroit bounce back. Jamie Dimon, the bank’s chief executive officer, contacted the mayor in 2014 about helping the bankrupt city rebound. Among their initial efforts was $4 million to acquire and revamp 30 abandoned homes and vacant lots. Since then, they have assisted 5,000 businesses.

The bank committed to spending $200 million by the end of 2022 to rejuvenate Detroit. It is also dedicating another $300 million to do what it’s done in Detroit in other cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The auto industry is also looking ahead.

The car manufacturers have unveiled initial plans to focus more on electric vehicles. GM, in fact, has promised to make only battery-powered cars by 2035. The switch has caused some concerns among workers, who will need different skills if they want to retain a job at the factories.

The change will take time. A 2020 Reuters article reported that GM and Ford plan to manufacture more than 5 million trucks and SUVS in 2026 compared to 320,000 electric vehicles. The industry got some notice in May 2021 when President Joe Biden visited a Ford factory in Dearborn to tout the industry’s plans to build electric vehicles.

In addition, Detroit is getting into the electric bicycle business. Officials at Vela have decided to move their factory operations from China to Detroit, taking over a 50,000-square-foot facility in western Detroit. In there, Detroit Bikes will manufacture high-end e-bikes for Vela.

If you visit Detroit, there’s plenty to see.

For starters, the city’s automotive history is on display in several locations.

The Motown Museum in Detroit is in the former home of company founder Berry Gordy Jr. Photo by TripAdvisor.

One is the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. The facility was built in 1904 and was the first factory owned by Ford Motor Company. It’s where the Model T was invented. The museum opened in 2001 and is filled with a collection of antique cars.

There’s also The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. The 250-acre complex contains a collection of cars and a rundown of automobile history. It also has an exhibit dedicated to American innovation.

The Ambassador Bridge is another landmark.

The 7,500-foot suspension bridge opened in 1929. It connects Detroit with the Canadian town of Windsor across the Detroit River. About 10,000 vehicles cross the span on weekdays. It’s the busiest international crossing in North America in terms of trade volume. About 25 percent of all merchandise trade between the United States and Canada crosses this span.

The toll bridge is owned by local billionaire Manuel Moroun through the Detroit International Bridge Company.

There are plans to build a new public-owned $5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge. The span, named after the famous Detroit Red Wings hockey player, is now scheduled to open in August 2025.

Detroit is also known as a center for modern music.

It was the headquarters of Motown Records and played a role in the formation of hop, jazz and punk music. Soul singer Aretha Franklin grew up here and rapper Eminem has roots in Detroit.

You can see some of this history at the Motown Museum, the small home where Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. lived with his family when he established Motown Records in 1959. The museum was founded by Gordy’s sister in 1985. It includes Studio A, where musical greats such as Marvin Gaye and The Temptations recorded songs.

A $50 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion project has been completed. The museum, also known as Hitsville USA, is now spread across three neighboring houses.

A couple other attractions to check out if you’re visiting the city.

There’s the Monument to Joe Louis, which was completed in 1986. The 8,000-pound bronze sculpture is a 25-foot-long arm and fist of a boxer in honor of Louis, a Detroit native who was heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, the longest reign in boxing history.

There’s also the Stearns Telephone marker on the site where a Bell telephone was installed in 1877 at a local drug store. The phone was connected by a half-mile-long wire to the nearby Stearns laboratory. The phone was put in just 18 months after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. A placard in the store invited the public to stop in and check out this amazing new device.

We’ll call it a day here.

Tomorrow, we make our transition from the Rust Belt to the Midwest.

Along the route we’ll visit a place closely connected to the legendary Johnny Appleseed as well as another community that has a hall of fame for circus performers before we finish up at a state capital known for its race cars.