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
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
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
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