Changing Gears: A look back at 'magic bullets'

October 18, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(Photo courtesy of Changing Gears)
Memorabilia from the second unsuccessful magic bullet in Flint, Mich. – the now defunct AutoWorld.

Cities across the Midwest have put great hopes and resources into “magic bullets”– one-shot solutions to jobs and economic prosperity. Some have hit the target, but many have backfired. The Changing Gears project explores the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest. This week the series is taking a look at the past, present and future of magic bullets. In Michigan, Kate Davidson starts off with a look back.

Magic bullets are kind of like imaginary friends. We all have them in our past, but most people deny they exist. Just turn on the TV these days and you’ll hear a list of things that aren’t magic bullets: fiscal stimulus, inflation, tax credits, etc, etc…

But then ask George Bacalis.

“There was a magic bullet when I was young and they called it an automobile,” he says.

Bacalis is 80, born in Detroit. He remembers a city crazy for cars in the 1950s.  Since then, the auto boom town has lost a million people, more than half its population. So can magic bullets work?

“Yeah, sometimes they work,” says historian Kevin Boyle. “But it’s a rare thing and it has consequences as Detroit today I think really shows.”

Boyle is a history professor at The Ohio State University and the author of Arc of Justice, about 1920s Detroit. He agreed to help us run through a very abridged history of the Midwest magic bullet.

Magic bullet number one: A city or town finds that one key industry on which it tries to build a whole economy.

“So Detroit had its auto industry; Akron had the tire industry; Sheboygan had toilet production,” Boyle says. He says the problem is the Midwest grew a lot of single industry towns that were hit hard when that first magic bullet failed them. Think Youngstown or Muncie.

“And so you get a certain desperation,” Boyle says, “to try to find the way back to where we once were.”

Which can lead to magic bullet number two (this one is our nomination): “If you build it, they will come.”

On July 4, 1984, Michigan’s then governor James Blanchard declared, “Today…is the first day of the rebirth of the great city of Flint.”

He was announcing the opening of AutoWorld, an ill-fated $80 million theme park in the birthplace of GM.  Some touted it as the world’s largest indoor theme park. But attendance lagged and it seemed AutoWorld couldn’t decide what it wanted to be: a thrilling amusement park or an homage to the car. AutoWorld closed months later, reopened briefly, then ended up a punch line in a Michael Moore film. It was demolished in 1997.

Then there’s magic bullet number three: the great event.

In 1893, Chicago hosted, literally, the greatest show on earth: the world’s fair.  It built a gleaming white city within the real city of slaughterhouses and industrial grime. The world’s first Ferris wheel spun 2,000 passengers at a time. But in 1893, financial panic seized the nation. Workers marched in the streets. Historian Kevin Boyle says no single event, no matter how glorious, could offset the soaring unemployment of the downturn that followed.

More than a century later, former mayor Richard Daley lobbied hard for a Chicago Olympics.

“The 2016 Olympic Games will grow our economy,” he proclaimed, “Create hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Generate billions in new economic activity. The impact will be enormous and most of it will be concentrated in Chicago neighborhoods.”

Or, in Rio neighborhoods.  Despite at least an $80 million bid, Chicago lost the games to Brazil in 2009. If it’s any consolation, Rob Livingstone of GamesBids.com says Detroit tried for years to get the games. The city bid for 1944, 1952, then 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972.  A lot of bids, no

“It is a lot of bids,” says Livingstone. “It’s not uncommon, but I think they actually do have the record for the most consecutive unsuccessful bids.”

Historian Kevin Boyle points to one last magic bullet, maybe the most complex.  Urban renewal: the massive postwar effort to transform cities by eliminating blighted housing and building public housing for the poor. Boyle says the poorest neighborhoods in America were desperately poor and did need revitalization.  But too often, he says, urban renewal simply devastated black neighborhoods and the communities within them.

“It took all of old Black Bottom away,” says Reverend Horace Sheffield III of Detroit. “The freeways were built through the heart of black businesses. Gotham Hotel and Hastings Street.  I mean, all of that was lost.”

Vibrant Hastings Street once hosted the great musicians of the day: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and more. It’s where Alberta Adams, Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” got her start. Today, it’s a stretch of the Chrysler Freeway.

There’s nothing simple about so-called magic bullets.  But it’s also a city’s job to constantly look for ways to improve the lives of its people. So what are the magic bullets of today and tomorrow?  We turn to those next and we want to hear from YOU as well. Please leave your nominations below.

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Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.