The ‘80s were a pretty bleak time for Detroit. The auto industry was in crisis, and the city was firmly in decline, hemorrhaging jobs and residents. Children were being killed for their Air Jordans, crack cocaine was wiping out neighborhoods, and thugs were dropping cinderblocks into traffic from freeway overpasses. Broadly speaking, the era was better known for suburbia and new shopping malls than for today’s rush back to cities and urbanism.
Not that there weren’t herculean efforts to reverse the slide.
The Detroit Historical Society has been converting reams of fascinating historical video tape footage to digital formats and uploading it to YouTube. “Detroit Means Business,” from 1985, is a reminder that, despite the bleak headlines from the era, Detroit certainly saw its share of big-ticket development deals during the 1980s.
They included the (controversial) GM Poletown plant, the Millender Center, the People Mover, Trapper’s Alley (now part of Greektown Casino), the Harbortown residential development, the Stroh River Place and several other developments.
It’s a long video that occasionally veers into tedium, particularly when it pauses for highly scripted segments with mostly white business leaders with dubious on-screen charisma (Peter Stroh OMG!). But you’ll be rewarded with cameos from the likes of former Mayor Coleman A. Young, Domino’s Pizza founder and then-Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, businessmen and philanthropists Max M. Fisher and A. Alfred Taubman, and former General Motors CEO and Chairman Roger Smith (of “Roger & Me” fame). There’s even a segment with Dave Bing, the then-President of Bing Steel Inc. who would later become mayor in between the corrupt regime of Kwame Kilpatrick and the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing.
“Detroit Means Business” is a fascinating look at what we’ve lost – from the city’s once-vibrant financial district to Burroughs Corp., once a major manufacturer of business machines and computers — what took forever to realize (a walkable riverfront) and what never quite came to be. And who knew we were once referred to as the “Hollywood of the Midwest” for our industrial film and video disc production?