Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 15:31 UK

Prosperity driven from Detroit

Detroit was once the heart of the US car industry. But, as Andrew Whitehead discovers, declining sales and rising unemployment means the city is facing difficult times.

General Motors building, Detroit (Photo:  JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
General Motors used to produce half the cars made in the US
Don was happy to meet - but I would have to head his way, and travel into Detroit. That sounded just fine.

I was keen to touch base with Don, a regular radio listener with insights to share, and curious to get a chance to see a little of Michigan's biggest city.

It could not be too tough to get there from where I was staying at Ann Arbor - a leafy, campus city just 35 miles (55km) out.

But this is Motown, the heartland of a car culture so pervasive, that my quest to travel to Detroit by public transport, marked me out as an English eccentric.

Don had no idea how to do it. I asked around. There is no bus service from Ann Arbor - the coach, fine for long-haul if you really had to, but wildly unreliable for a short hop.

"Why not hire a car?" a friend asked, with just a hint of impatience.

But that would be giving in.

Empty seats

The map puts Ann Arbor on the main rail line between Chicago and Detroit.

A patient hotel receptionist pointed me towards Ann Arbor's Amtrak station: clean, modern and deserted, apart from a solitary ticket clerk.

"The day's first train into Detroit?" I ask. "A little after 2pm sir."

"The last train back?". "It leaves Detroit just before six."

"And are the trains usually on time?".

"No, sir. Engineering works in Indiana," he explained, before suggesting that a day trip to Detroit by train was not a great idea.

With a sales pitch like that, I could see why there was not a queue at the ticket window.

But I persisted and, an hour late, the train lumbered in, hooter sounding, on the only set of tracks.

The conductor got out his portable steps - all aboard. I had a comfortable seat. Indeed there were rather a lot of comfortable, empty seats.

Then I sent a quick message to Don who was going to meet me at the Detroit end.

Although he had spent his life in the city, he had asked me to tell him where the station was.

When we arrived I could see why. Serving a city of 900,000, it was smaller than a suburban halt back home in London.

Moving away

Don's top-end convertible looked a little incongruous in the grimy station car park.

Abandoned houses in Detroit (Photo: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
As the car industry declined, people started to move away
So too did Don, a successful local businessman with sun-bleached blond hair and an easy smile.

He was brought up in Detroit, he told me, and had stayed when so many white families had moved out. The city is now 80% black.

He was proud of Detroit, but conceded that it was not an easy place.

It was rust-bucket and had not managed to bounce back as Chicago had.

The mayor was about to be sent to jail, he explained, and folks from out of town kept out of town, or if they came in for a ball game or concert, they stuck to the highways and headed straight home afterwards.

But he wanted to show off the positive side.

And with the roof down to make the most of the autumn breeze, he drove me round the city centre.

Once with a claim to being the US's second city, it is no longer in the top 10
Past the Institute of Arts and other fine municipal buildings from the inter-war years, when the motor magnates wanted to be remembered as benefactors as well as business pioneers.

Then to the new Tigers ball stadium - shiny and showy. And on to the towering, sparkling General Motors world headquarters.


Don shepherded me to a waterside cocktail bar, and we sipped expensive white wine as we gazed across the Detroit River to Canada beyond.

File: Aerial view of widespread fires started during the riots in Detroit in 1967
After the 1967 riots, parts of Detroit never fully recovered
But the talk quickly turned to Detroit's difficulties.

The new downtown is just a few blocks wide and I had not spotted any smart shops. There is not an up-market retail centre in the heart of the city.

On the train in, I had seen what seemed like remnants of a lost era - inner city areas that were grassland, not park, but semi-derelict and industrial buildings that were silent, sealed off.

The motor corporations which made Detroit, which attracted the workers and produced the wealth, are now facing hard times, though their lobbying power is still blamed, by some, for the stifling of public transport.

A map of the USA showing Michigan, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Chicago
The city has lost half its peak population. Once with a claim to being the second city in the US, it is no longer in the top 10.

Some of the districts burnt out in race riots 40 years ago have never been redeveloped.

Mainly white Michigan, a big state with 10 million people, sometimes seems to have turned its back on its principal city.

We had to hurry the bar bill and Don dropped me at the station just in time for the last train out.

A burly security guard gave the ticket office the feel of a prison waiting-room. He unlocked the door to the platform as the carriages pulled in.

With the handful of trusty passengers on board, the train edged its way out of Motown through an urban landscape made and unmade by the motorcar.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 9 October, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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