Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 12:00 UK

'Motor City' in mourning for GM

As General Motors files for bankruptcy protection this week, becoming the biggest industrial casualty in US history, BBC North America business correspondent Greg Wood assesses the impact on Detroit, home to the US car industry.

General Motors building, Detroit (Photo:  JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
General Motors used to produce half the cars made in the US

Detroit is a flat, sprawling, monster of a city. You seem to fly over it for an age before you actually land at the airport. On the ground, it is a low-rise landscape, with one exception.

The Renaissance Centre - no irony intended in the name - houses the headquarters of General Motors.

It stands, a cluster of glass cylinders like giant salt and pepper pots, on the banks of the Detroit River across the water from Canada which here, confusingly, is to the south.

The Renaissance Centre, which also housed my hotel, felt like a mausoleum.

Wishful thinking

As I unpacked in my hotel room on the 45th floor, I could look straight across into the offices of General Motors and spy down on hundreds of those individual cubicles where the corporate planners had sat, desperately trying to come up with some big idea to save the company.

General Motors experimental sports car Le Sabre in 1952
For much of the 20th Century, General Motors defined the American way of doing business

I wandered down to the lobby, a confusing labyrinth of concrete walkways leading to an area like a car showroom, where the latest shiny GM models were displayed on stands.

They bore famous names such as Pontiac - soon to disappear for good.

But these cars were not for sale. They were just for show.

Banners proclaimed General Motors' 100 year history and the proud motto: "We've only just started."

Talk about wishful thinking.

Outside, children were playing in the fountains beside a new terrace of grass and trees, leading down to the water's edge.

The late afternoon sun was hot on my back.

Detroit felt almost benevolent. It is not like this in the winter, when a vicious, sub-zero wind howls in from Lake Huron to the north, numbing your face within seconds.

Signs of decay

But despite the neat corporate landscaping, you only have to walk a few minutes from the city centre to find desolation - entire blocks where the buildings have been razed to the ground, gutted factories closed down and left to rot, graffiti-covered warehouses with broken windows and rubbish blowing in the streets.

Most Americans see government support as a necessary evil. But it does not mean they are happy about it

Detroit is pock-marked with the signs of decay.

It has been on the slide for decades.

In 1967, dozens of people died here during five days of race riots sparked by a police raid on an after-hours drinking club.

The riots accelerated the flight of people - mainly white - to the suburbs.

Detroit's population fell by a quarter of a million in the two decades up to 1970.

By that time the motor industry was already beginning to run into trouble. Japanese carmakers were taking more of the market, the oil price surged and General Motors made concessions to its workers that would later cripple the company.

But for much of the 20th Century, General Motors defined the American way of doing business.

Beyond repair

Paint peels from the GM logo painted on a chimney at a shuttered GM assembly plant, Wisconsin
GM has lost its corporate sheen faced with falling sales and a global recession

In the words of Alfred P Sloan, its chief executive in the 1920s, it aimed to make "a car for every purse and purpose", from the affordable Chevrolet to that pinnacle of luxury, the Cadillac, named after the Frenchman who founded Detroit.

In the boom years of the post-war era its president declared: "What's good for our country is good for General Motors, and vice versa."

Not any more. US taxpayers are now bailing out General Motors for $50bn (£31.2bn).

Most Americans see government support as a necessary evil. But it does not mean they are happy about it.

There are some happy people in Detroit though. The fans of the local ice hockey team, the Red Wings, were celebrating a second victory in the best of seven series to decide the Stanley Cup, the championship of the sport.

Their hardened skaters were getting the better of the more flamboyant Pittsburgh Penguins.

Cruelly, I punctured their euphoria by asking them about the bankruptcy of General Motors.

The fans all had personal or family connections to the car plants. "It's the end of an era," said one.

A map of the USA showing Michigan, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Chicago

I noticed that look of sadness and resignation which I have also seen in the eyes of redundant Nottinghamshire miners and laid-off Tyneside shipbuilders - the realisation that the thing which identified and bound their community together had been broken beyond repair.

"What is the point of Detroit," I thought, "without the motor industry?"

Maybe they will turn some of the car plants into casinos. That is what I had seen in another part of America's blue-collar heartland - Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - where the vast steel works shut down in the 1990s.

Part of it is now a pleasure dome built on the ruins of industry.

That evening we went to a restaurant near the city centre. It was pleasant enough.

But apart from a few people at the bar, we were the only customers. Across the street was a boarded-up cinema - the name "Fine Arts" still hanging, crookedly, above the door.

Deserted office blocks. A closed up church. The odd car. Few pedestrians.

The familiar Detroit landscape where the human beings seem to have faded from the picture. I sighed and turned to my soup.

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