Detroit’s Quixotic Bid to Host the United Nations

What if the U.N.'s headquarters had been on Lake St. Clair instead of the East River?

In the 20th century, Detroit earned a reputation as the automotive capital of the world -- a declaration of pride in its manufacturing achievements. In the 21st century, the struggling city has cropped up in the news as the murder or arson capital of the world. Based on its massive consumption of salty snacks, some even regard it as the potato chip capital of the world.

But suppose Detroit were the capital of the world, known around the globe not only for its industrial past or post-industrial present, but also as the focal point of international diplomacy. Suppose that the United Nations had its headquarters there, and that the last six decades in Detroit's history were framed not only by the decline of the auto industry, the racial tensions, and the plummeting population, but also the work of securing world peace. What then would we think of Detroit? And what might we think of the United Nations?

At the end of World War II, Detroit's boosters dared to dream. In 1944, while the Dumbarton Oaks conference met to lay the foundation for the United Nations, Detroit was the first American city to conceive that the new world peace organization might also offer a hometown opportunity. The idea to invite the United Nations to establish its headquarters in Detroit originated with the local Convention and Tourist Bureau, gained unanimous support from the Detroit City Council, and before long was dispatched to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. As the United Nations became reality in 1945 and 1946, additional missives to the world's diplomats called attention to Detroit as an ideal site for the organization's headquarters.

The Motor City pointed to its location on the U.S.-Canadian border -- "the international boundary of two great nations which have been at peace for 132 years" -- and to its role as one of the "arsenals of democracy" that helped win World War II. By 1945, as the United Nations began to define its criteria for a headquarters location, Detroit also boasted of its cosmopolitan population, listing every conceivable nationality that resided there -- but in a sign of the times, excluding any mention of its large and growing African-American population.

The boosters imagined the city as a future hub of commercial air travel, arguing that Detroit's central location would allow for swift transportation and communication to all parts of the world. "Other American cities may have one advantage, but Detroit has them all," wrote the president of the Convention and Tourist Bureau, Frank A. Picard. Even the climate would get with the program: "Few localities in the world can offer such delightful days in spring or fall, and it is an area free from hurricanes, earthquakes, cyclones, or floods."

In the early days of the United Nations, a vision for a freestanding Capital of the World -- not merely a headquarters within an existing city -- led to a search for a large tract of land that would allow the organization to create its own distinctive identity. Detroit's civic leaders felt they had an ideal location: Belle Isle, the lovely 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River landscaped earlier in the century by Frederick Law Olmsted. Such a location, Detroit's leaders proclaimed, was the perfect setting for a U.N. building that would be a "living monument to world peace."

Boosterism being what it is, the invitation accentuated the positive -- to borrow a phrase from the 1944 song -- and left out a particularly revealing detail. Belle Isle also had been a flashpoint for a devastating wartime race riot: In July 1943, fighting between black and white teenagers on the island combined with widespread rumors of racially motivated violence against women to spark a three-day riot that left 34 people dead, hundreds injured, and $2 million in property damage. While dramatic, it was not an isolated event but a symptom of the racial tension in a city with a growing African-American population and vast inequalities in employment and housing opportunities.

Detroit's boosters were only too happy to ignore this hitch in their plans -- and they were persistent in pressing their case. In 1946, they managed to lure U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie to an Automotive Grand Jubilee celebration, and the Convention and Tourist Bureau detected a glint of hope when Lie proclaimed, "With your brains, your leadership, your energy, and your toil, you played a leading part in achieving victory" in World War II.

Diplomats being diplomatic, no one ever said no to Detroit -- only that the city's interest would be considered by the appropriate authorities at the appropriate time.

Detroit wasn't the only city vying for the United Nations' attention: The new global organization unintentionally ignited a wave of world capital boosterism that swept to every region of the country between 1944 and 1946. Without invitation, other localities joined Detroit in staking claims to ideal locations on the U.S.-Canadian border. Invitations came forth from the two towns of Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario, and from the two Sault Ste. Maries, Michigan and Ontario, not to mention a suggestion of the International Peace Gardens on the border of North Dakota. Other American cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, claimed the mantle of arsenal of democracy. Geographically, Boston could claim to be the closest city to Europe, the traditional center of diplomacy, and just about any community could imagine itself at the center of a commercial air network that had yet to be constructed.

Before it was over, Americans in at least 248 cities and towns made suggestions, issued invitations, or launched full-out campaigns to win the prize of becoming the Capital of the World. Like most of the other contenders, Detroit never really stood a chance.

After prolonged debate over whether to place the U.N. headquarters in Europe or the United States, the diplomats opted for the United States, and then quickly reduced the options by region. The West was considered too distant from Europe, the Midwest too isolationist, and the South too prone to racial discrimination. Only the Northeast remained. In the face of homeowner resistance in the suburbs of New York, dreams of a Capital of the World gave way to the expedient gift of $8.5 million from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the site, previously a slaughterhouse district in midtown Manhattan, where the U.N. headquarters stands today.

We cannot know whether a world capital on Detroit's Belle Isle would have changed the course of the city's history. It seems unlikely, given the extent of the inequalities that already existed and the struggles the auto industry would soon endure. We cannot know whether a U.N. headquarters in Detroit would have survived as an island enclave or become another of the city's haunting ruins.

But this much we do know: At a pivotal time in history for the city and for the world, Detroit's promoters lifted their gaze from their city's looming crises to imagine happier alternatives. They staked local prosperity on international dreams. If it seems a little crazy in retrospect, then we have lost touch with the spirit of determination that forged connections between local ambitions and world affairs at the end of the Second World War.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Sim Paulo

How I used SimCity to solve the world's worst traffic jam.

For a look at the unintended consequences of Brazil's emergence as an economic superpower, take a drive on Sao Paulo's ring road at rush hour, or really any time of day. You'll have a while to ponder.

With about 18 million people in the greater metro area, the world's eighth-largest city by population is often described as having the world's worst traffic jams, but that really doesn't do it justice. On a bad day, the traffic on the roads in and out of the city can stretch for nearly 200 miles. Unless you're one of the lucky few who can afford to commute by helicopter, getting in and out of the city center can be a two- or three-hour proposition.

I decided to take a crack at fixing the problem. But as I'm a video-game blogger living 6,000 miles away in Manchester, England, it seemed unlikely that Sao Paulo's authorities would hand me the key to the city planner's office anytime soon. So I decided to try out some ideas first on SimCity.

For the uninitiated, SimCity is an ongoing series of urban design games from the California-based studio Maxis. The game allows users to play mayor -- or rather a mayor with nearly godlike powers to build and demolish structures on a whim -- to manage a virtual city and be tasked with providing for the housing, health, energy needs, transportation, and entertainment of its inhabitants. Mismanage your resources and the city will eventually fall into ruin or explode into violent anarchy. Normally, there's a limit on time and resources, but you can also turn on "sandbox mode" for experiments like my virtual Sao Paulo.

This latest edition takes a far more casual approach to the genre, somewhat limiting the options that players have available in favor of focusing on making the experience as accessible and entertaining to as many people as possible. However, concealed underneath the new game is a system capable of re-creating real-life traffic layouts as well as plenty of other real-world city infrastructure services. Traffic, for example, will follow the sort of behavior you would expect to see on your own commute to work, building up at peak times in both the morning and afternoon and routing itself through alternative avenues if there's a particularly nasty buildup along the way.

By re-creating part of Sao Paulo in SimCity, I hoped to get to the heart of the traffic issues and perhaps attempt to provide a feasible solution that could bring traffic numbers down -- or at least redirect them away from the awful jams.

First, it was necessary to understand how things got so bad. Sao Paulo is Brazil's largest metropolis by land area and for decades was one of the world's fastest-growing cities. In the last 10 years, the suburbs have grown from 6.7 million to 8.4 million people, accounting for more than two-thirds of the area's population growth. And with around 6.8 million cars, the city has one of the largest vehicle fleets. But the single ring road around Sao Paulo provides the only real route into the city and is simultaneously used by all those millions of people trying to get into the center, plus those hoping to avoid going through it at all costs.


Meanwhile, only a handful of main roads cut through the city and offer real passage to where you need to be. Essentially, everyone is driving on the same small set of roads, and no one is going anywhere fast. This is compounded by the highway system in the surrounding area, which essentially forces trucks traversing Sao Paulo into the urban maze.

In recent years, the city government has put some new regulations in place in an attempt to quell the heavy traffic numbers, including caps on how many cars can drive in the area each week and a ban on trucks during the daytime on certain main roads. These initiatives have helped to an extent, but the hours-long jams are still there. Perhaps, I thought, I might have better luck.

My main focus was on a main road called Avenida dos Bandeirantes, which connects the ring road to the center of Sao Paulo. This is one of Sao Paulo's most important roads, providing five lanes in each direction that act as the main access point to the Congonhas Airport, and as such this relatively straight road doesn't throw too many sets of traffic lights at commuters. The idea is to allow the traffic to flow freely -- however, anyone attempting to get home along this avenue after a hard day at work can expect to sit in standstill traffic for hours, thanks to the sheer volume of cars, vans, and buses that pass through each day.

Building my version of Sao Paulo was simply a case of piecing it together bit by bit, using a Google Maps overview of the area as my guide to situate the roads. Once the streets were in place, I could then position housing, commercial areas, and industrial sites around them as accurately as possible, using Google Street View as my guide. Constructing a SimCity region is relatively easy going, and in no time at all hundreds of thousands of future Sao Paulo residents were arriving via the connecting ring road.

Notably, my SimCity representation of the area yielded the same results as the real-life situation. Traffic would build up heavily along Bandeirantes both in the morning and as the sun started to set, making the commute a nightmare.

However, an obvious solution presented itself in the smaller streets that weave throughout the city. There are numerous potential routes that drivers could take to skip the traffic, but these smaller roads are in disrepair and in some places can barely cater to one car, let alone vehicles in both directions.

With this in mind, I made it my mission to upgrade every smaller residential road in the area, making them fit for travel. After I made the repairs, a good portion of my SimCity folk opted to peel away from Avenida dos Bandeirantes, instead homing in on their target destinations via this series of smaller lanes and avenues. This did cause new traffic buildups at junctions and traffic crossings throughout the area, but it was nothing close to what Bandeirantes had been experiencing.

Of course, this also revealed one of the game's limitations. In the real world, many of the back roads I was directing traffic onto were in areas motorists might want to avoid. Indeed, rather than experimenting with journeying along these smaller roads, Paulistas would rather stay in the traffic jam, for fear of finding themselves lost in a dodgy part of town. Kidnappings and carjackings are commonplace in Sao Paulo.

So if this solution is a nonstarter, what about public transportation? Sao Paulo does have a metro system that ferries more than 5 million people every day. Unfortunately, it's not all that extensive -- its 194 miles of metro lines are less than half of what New York or London has in smaller metropolitan areas -- and the trams are often crowded to the point where people are regularly injured on their commute.

The city's bus service isn't really up to scratch either. There are over 16,000 buses in Sao Paolo, which may sound like a huge number -- New York City has only 5,600 -- yet for the 20 million people who live and work in the greater metropolitan area, it's simply not enough, and the buses are often jampacked. No wonder 45 percent of daily journeys in Sao Paulo are done by car.

I thought I might provide my virtual Sao Paulo residents with some better options. I started by implementing an extensive bus service, with multiple depots, bus stops on pretty much every street corner, and a large fleet of vehicles. SimCity allows me to monitor the average wait time for my bus service, and I continued to add more routes, vehicles, and services until it went below 30 minutes. At this inflection point, more of my citizens began to decide that the service was up to snuff, and usage numbers skyrocketed. Traffic on the main roads was cut back ever so slightly as a result.

I was also interested in seeing whether an extended metro system that reached the most crowded business areas would help, so I created a streetcar system running down the center of Avenida dos Bandeirantes, which then cuts onto Avenida Moreira Guimaraes and in the direction of the Edifício Copan -- the iconic Oscar Niemeyer-designed apartment building -- in the city center. (Incidentally, the Edifício is one of the pre-made monuments users can drop into their projects in the new SimCity game.) A similar project is already under way in real-life Sao Paulo, as the city looks to bolster its transport offerings in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.

This new option clearly had an effect on my SimCity people, as metro passenger numbers rose, while traffic was cut down even further. Jams on the main roads were still quite heavy, but far from what I saw before putting these extra transport options in place. Citizen happiness, as measured by the game, even jumped up a notch as a result, and Sao Paulo residents were able to commute to work far more easily if they chose to give the metro a go.

Whether real-life Sao Paulo citizens would choose to take advantage of these extended bus and metro services is another story entirely, but it's clear that, in SimCity at least, there is a partial solution. Of course, it's also very easy to throw money around willy-nilly in a video game. The question of where the investment for such services would come from in real life is another conundrum.

Traffic issues in Sao Paulo aren't going to get better anytime soon -- in fact they're more likely to get worse as the city's population heaves. Hopefully, the problems will be addressed before it's only practical to visit the city in a computer simulation.

Screenshots courtesy of Mike Rose