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Touring Empire's Ruins: From Detroit to the Amazon | The Nation

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Touring Empire's Ruins: From Detroit to the Amazon

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America in the Amazon

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

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He taught us how to live with loss, and he told us, over and over again, that other utopias are possible.

Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.

To truly grasp how far America has fallen from the heights of its industrial grandeur--and to understand how that grandeur led to stupendous acts of folly--you should tour another set of ruins far from the Midwest Rust Belt; they lie, in fact, deep (and nearly forgotten) in, of all places, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. There, overrun by tropical vines, sits Henry Ford's testament to the belief that the American Way of Life could easily be exported, even to one of the wildest places on the planet.

Ford owned forests in Michigan as well as mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, which gave him control over every natural resource needed to make a car--save rubber. So in 1927, he obtained an Amazonian land grant the size of a small American state. Ford could have simply set up a purchasing office there, and bought rubber from local producers, leaving them to live their lives as they saw fit. That's what other rubber exporters did.

Ford, however, had more grandiose ideas. He felt compelled to cultivate not only "rubber but the rubber gatherers as well." So he set out to overlay Americana on Amazonia. He had his managers build Cape Cod-style shingled houses for the Brazilian work force he hired. He urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens and eat whole wheat bread, unpolished rice, canned Michigan peaches and oatmeal. He dubbed his jungle town, with suitable pride, Fordlandia.

It was the 1920s, of course, and so his managers enforced alcohol Prohibition, or at least tried to, though it wasn't a Brazilian law, as it was in the United States at the time. On weekends, the company organized square dances and recitations of the poetry of Henry Longfellow. The hospital Ford had built in the town offered free health care for workers and visitors alike. It was designed by Albert Kahn, the renowned architect who built a number of Detroit's most famous buildings, including the Crystal Palace. Fordlandia had a central square, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, manicured lawns, a movie theater, shoe stores, ice cream and perfume shops, swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course and, of course, Model Ts rolling down its paved streets.

The clash between Henry Ford--the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions in order to produce a series of infinitely identical products, the first indistinguishable from the millionth--and the Amazon, the world's most complex and diverse ecosystem, was Chaplinesque in its absurdity, producing a parade of mishaps straight out of a Hollywood movie. Think Modern Times meets Fitzcarraldo. Brazilian workers rebelled against Ford's Puritanism and nature rebelled against his industrial regimentation. Run by incompetent managers who knew little about rubber planting, much less social engineering, Fordlandia in its early years was plagued by vice, knife fights and riots. The place seemed less Our Town than Deadwood, as brothels and bars sprawled around its edges.

Ford did eventually manage to get control over his namesake fiefdom, but because he insisted that his managers plant rubber trees in tight rows--back in his Detroit factories, Ford famously crowded machines close together to reduce movement--he actually created the conditions for the explosive growth of the bugs and blight that feed off rubber, and these eventually laid waste to the plantation. Over the course of nearly two decades, Ford sank millions upon millions of dollars into trying to make his jungle utopia work the American way, yet not one drop of Fordlandia latex ever made its way into a Ford car.

The eeriest thing of all is this: today, the ruins of Fordlandia look a lot like those in Highland Park, as well as in other Rust Belt towns where neighborhoods that once hummed with life centered on a factory are now returned to weed. There is, in fact, an uncanny resemblance between Fordlandia's rusting water tower, broken-glassed sawmill and empty power plant and the husks of the same structures in Iron Mountain, a depressed industrial city on Michigan's Upper Peninsula that also used to be a Ford town.

In the Amazon, Albert Kahn's hospital has collapsed, the jungle has reclaimed the golf course and tennis courts, and bats have taken up residence in houses where American managers once lived, covering their plaster walls with a glaze of guano. No commemorative plaque marks its place in history, but Fordlandia, no less than the wreck of Detroit, is a monument to the titans of American capital--none more titanic than Ford--who believed that the United States offered a universal, and universally acknowledged, model for the rest of humanity.

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