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.