Demolition Means ProgressFlint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis

Demolition Means ProgressFlint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis

Andrew R. Highsmith

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780226050058

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

In 1997, executives from the General Motors Corporation (GM) announced plans to shutter a massive complex of automobile factories in the Rust Belt city of Flint, Michigan. Shortly after the plants closed, company officials placed signs around the facility that read, “Demolition Means Progress.” The signs suggested that the struggling city of Flint—GM’s birthplace and onetime manufacturing hub—could not move forward to civic greatness until the old plants met the wrecking ball. More than just a corporate slogan, GM’s phrase encapsulates the operating ethos of the nation’s metropolitan leadership from the Great Depression of the 1930s through the present. Throughout that long period, residents of Flint and other cities repeatedly tried to revitalize their communities by demolishing outdated structures and institutions. During the Depression, education officials hoped to renew the city by re-making public schools into racially segregated community centers. In the postwar era, federal housing administrators sought to reinvigorate the local real estate market by subsidizing suburbanization and practicing various forms of mortgage redlining. Over the same period, GM executives worked to revolutionize automobile production by demolishing old urban factories and rebuilding them outside the city. When those efforts failed to create a renaissance, city leaders launched a plan to replace African-American neighborhoods with a freeway and new factories. In the end, though, each of these campaigns yielded a more impoverished and racially divided metropolis. Demolition Means Progress focuses on how these and other urban renewal efforts contributed to mass suburbanization, racial segregation, and deindustrialization.