Student & Teacher Resources

From Motor City to Motor Metropolis

    1. Questions for Reading
    2. Questions for Discussion
    3. Making Connections
    4. Questions for Writing
    5. Questions for Research


I. Questions for Reading

1. How did Detroit’s geographical location contribute to its becoming the home of the auto industry?

2. From what part of the U.S. did most job-seeking Americans come to Detroit in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? Why?

3. As the auto industry in Detroit expanded, what happened to housing patterns? Where did white workers live? Black workers? Managers?

4. Sugrue says that by 1950 Detroit had become “a true automobile city,” that it resembled newer cities shaped by the car, like Los Angeles, much more than it did eastern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. How so?

5. Sugrue frequently points out that African Americans in Detroit often did not participate in changes in housing patterns, that they were not free to move wherever they wanted to. What factors caused this?

6. What does Sugrue argue were the effects of the auto industry’s decentralization on cities and metropolitan areas, and especially on Detroit, from the 1950s on? What factors does he claim led automakers to abandon or reduce the scope of large, centralized factories like Ford’s River Rouge complex?

7. What does the term “spatial mismatch” mean?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. What are the housing patterns like where you live? Are they shaped by race, class, and/or ethnicity? What are their connections to economic conditions of the past, especially to earlier industries or businesses?

2. Sugrue quotes Henry Ford II that “Obsolescence is the very hallmark of progress.” Do you agree with this sentiment?

3. Does a large company or industry have any obligation to a city and its workers when a factory is closed? Should the government penalize those companies that “outsource” jobs overseas?

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III. Making Connections

1. Sugrue notes how extensively Ford relied on immigrant labor in the 1910s. Based on Stephen Meyer’s discussion of “Labor Under Mass Production,” how was it possible for uneducated, non-English-speaking immigrants to obtain jobs in Ford’s plants? How did Ford’s workers, including the immigrants who comprised the majority of the workforce by 1914, respond to their monotonous, fatiguing jobs before and after the introduction of the five-dollar day?

2. Sugrue argues that the effects of highways and suburban sprawl on Detroit and its metropolitan region were similar to those being experienced in other cities. Read Martin Melosi’s “The Automobile Shapes the City,” which discusses highways and sprawl in greater detail. Would Melosi agree that Detroit is typical in this regard?

3. Modern suburban or small-town auto plants like those in Wixom, Michigan, and Lima, Ohio, lack the grimy brick walls and belching smokestacks of older, urban industrial complexes like Ford’s River Rouge facility. Based on what Martin Melosi says about the automobile production process in “The Automobile and the Environment,” are these newer plants less polluting?

4. David Gartman doesn’t discuss the design of auto factories in his essays, but if he did, what kind of an approach would he take and what would he be likely to say about the look of the early factories (like Ford’s Highland Park and River Rouge) and of the post-war suburban “greenfields” plants (like Ford’s Wixom and Lima plants). And what might he say about the significance of the transition from the earlier design to the later one?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. What is your own family’s geographical and economic history since 1900? Has it followed any of the trends—immigration, migration, suburbanization, discrimination, etc.—that Sugrue describes? What roles, if any, has the automobile played in that history?

2. Analyze the two sets of before-and-after pictures of workers’ housing taken by the Ford Sociological Department. What do these photos show? What changes have occurred between the “before” picture and the “after” picture? Do these photos make a point about the Ford Sociological Department and about the company itself, in terms of attitudes towards workers? What impact does the information that Thomas Sugrue and Stephen Meyer provide about the Ford’s Sociological Department and the introduction of the five-dollar day have on our interpretation of these photos?

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V. Questions for Research

1. We often take the Interstate Highway System for granted, but Sugrue, Melosi, and Walsh all speak of its importance and its impact on many aspects of Americans’ lives. Investigate the history of the Interstate system—when was it conceived and for what reasons? how was it paid for? who determined where the interstates would be?—and some of its effects in greater detail. As Sugrue notes, the parts of the Interstate system that cut through cities often drastically altered urban neighborhoods, so you might want to focus your investigation on a city near you. Alternatively, you might consider how a new piece of interstate altered a suburb or a small rural town.

2. Sugrue notes that throughout America’s history, cities or whole regions have become economically dependent on particular industries or businesses, and that often these industries or businesses fail or move elsewhere. In addition to Detroit and automobiles, it’s easy to think of New England and textiles, Pittsburgh and steel, Houston and oil, the Appalachian region and coal, California’s “ Silicon Valley” and computers, New York and the financial industry, Las Vegas or Atlantic City and gambling, Los Angeles and entertainment. Often a city can be become dependent on a single company (Boeing in Seattle, Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati), or a town on a single plant or business. Select one of these cases, or one of your own devising, perhaps one from where you live, and research it. What factors led to the development of the industry or business in its location? Were other locations associated with that industry or business, and if so, why did just one win out or become prominent? If the industry or business failed or moved, what were the reasons for this, and how has the city or region responded? If the industry or business still dominates its region economically, what has enabled it to do so?

3. Ford’s River Rouge complex entered a new era in 1997. Renamed the Ford Rouge Center, it is designed to balance the needs of auto manufacturing with social and environmental concerns. Investigate how this controversial and innovative industrial redevelopment project came to be, what it involves, and how it’s working. (You might begin your research by visiting The Henry Ford’s “History of the Rouge,” especially the section on “The Rouge Enters a New Millennium,” and “Reinventing the Rouge.”) Is Ford’s attention to environmental issues a public relations gimmick, a visionary business decision, a genuine expression of concern for the environment, or some combination of these and other motives? Will it succeed? Is “green” manufacturing and a true “eco-car” really possible?

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For other Resources on Race see:

From Motor City to Motor Metropolis

Driving While Black


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