Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Vital City


Chrysler advertisement, 1940
Eighty-three-year old Philip Levine has been named Poet Laureate of the United States, the latest of many honors. A native of Detroit, Levine worked in various industrial jobs, including the night shift at an auto factory, an early experience that became one of the major topics of his poems. Levine’s remembers Detroit as a “vital city,” as illustrated by five menus from the spring of 1940, showing a prosperous Midwestern city hard at work and play. 

The menu shown below from the Detroit-Leland Hotel features an aerial photograph of the city. Although World War II had already started in Europe, there are no ominous overtones reflected on this menu dated May 23, 1940. Nazi Germany crushed the Netherlands and France in May and June of that year, continuing its march of conquest that began with the invasion of Poland the previous year.  In response, the United States began wartime planning, encouraging the car companies to  manufacture the military equipment needed by our European allies. It would be another year and a half before America directly entered the war, following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The best place in town was then the London Chop House situated in the basement of the Murphy Telegraph Building at 155 West Congress. Affectionately known as the “Chopper,” this restaurant attracted business executives, and celebrities passing through the town, much like the Pump Room in Chicago which also opened in 1938. The first chef at the London Chop House was Eddie Dobler, dubbed the “Perch King of America.” Considered one of the finest freshwater fish from the Great Lakes, the yellow perch is still an important game fish. Its only drawback is that it is bony, an issue addressed on the menu by describing it as “boneless” perch fried in butter. 

The London Chop House was also known for its steaks, chops, and fine wines. It also served alcoholic concoctions like the Zombi, touted on the menu below as the “world’s most potent potion.” A better bet was to order something from their excellent wine list, such as the 1928 Chateau Margaux, a first growth Bordeaux from one of the legendary vintages of the twentieth century. The Margaux is a relative bargain at $4.50, especially compared to the Italian sparkling wine Asti Spumanti costing $6.50. To put those prices into context, the average cost of a new car in 1940 was $850, representing about eight months wages for a factory worker, or seven months of a teacher’s salary.

Attracting more of a middle- and working-class crowd, the Cow Shed was situated in an old fire station dating back to 1858. However, what really distinguished this restaurant was its interior, designed to look like the inside of a barn. More akin to corny nightclubs, barn-themed restaurants were popular in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, the Cow Shed claims on this beverage list to have served over seven million customers by 1939. Other famous restaurants with rustic interiors included Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco, where patrons sat in ramshackle chicken coops; and the Village Barn in New York’s Greenwich Village, featuring country music, square dancing, and audience participation games like potato sack races. The person who saved this menu from the Cow Shed extended the timeline on the back by one year to include 1940, adding the inscription “cured my curiosity,” a quaint reflection of their excursion to see some of the city’s nightlife.

The menu shown below, featuring modest everyday fare, comes from the wood-paneled executive dining room at Chrysler’s Jefferson plant.  Located only a few miles east from the downtown hotels and restaurants, the plant on Jefferson Avenue was situated in an area along the Detroit River where the city’s factories were first established. Illustrated with photographs of the laboratories and two of its new cars, the menu is dated June 17, 1940, a day that German tanks were racing toward Paris, forcing France to capitulate six days later.

It was about this time that Chrysler’s president K. T. Keller received a call from the Office of Production (O.P.A.) in Washington. “K.T., will you make tanks?” asked the O.P.A. chief. “Sure” replied K.T., “Where can I see one?” Described by Fortune magazine as “heavy, hearty, two-fisted, and go-getting,” Keller was a tough production man who led Chrysler during its massive retooling effort to produce military equipment. In particular, the Jefferson plant manufactured a wide range of materiel for the war, including industrial engines, steel pontoons, marine vehicles called “sea mules,” artificial-smoke machines used to conceal ships and amphibious troops, heavy-duty fire pumps, air raid sirens, submarine nets, and highly-polished searchlight reflectors. The war not only dramatically changed Chrysler’s product line, it also transformed its work force which suddenly included large numbers of African-Americans and women for the first time.

Chrysler's Jefferson Plant, East Detroit, ca. 1940

Three weeks earlier, Chrysler hosted a banquet at the Book-Cadillac Hotel for 1,400 of its supervisors and managers, a sizable representation of its 76,000 workers. In the booklet shown below, all of the attendees are listed by name under the heading “All Present and Accounted For” (only one page is reproduced below), giving the meeting the feeling of a corporate call to arms. It also provides the lyrics to four songs intended to boast morale like “God Bless America” and “Dump All Your Troubles,” along with the program, menu, and photographs of top management, including one of K. T. Keller, named here as the “boss.”

Providing an anecdotal glimpse of life in Detroit during a brief moment before the war, these menus bring to mind some of the changes that have come about over the last seventy years. Generally speaking, today’s menu covers no longer reflect the civic pride and optimism expressed by the aerial view of Detroit, nor have the workers in our industrial heartland been singing many songs at company meetings lately. In addition, the menus suggest that America was a more level society in 1940, as reflected by the simple fare served in the executive dining room. Perhaps most troubling, the Chrysler meeting reminds us of how the military-industrial complex evolved after the war. One of the first warnings about its dangers came from President Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961. Today, military contractors are permanent industries not capable of retooling to produce consumer products in times of peace, thereby hindering the nation’s ability to beat its “swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” as it says in the Book of Isaiah.

Creating verse well-suited for our times, poet Philip Levine says that anger has been the engine in his poetry. To this point, the New York Times recently described his work as radiating “a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.”

An Abandoned Factory, Detroit
By Philip Levine

The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.

Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,

And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.


ephemeralist said...

Henry, nice post! I interpret "cured my curiosity" to mean "I don't need to ever go back there."

Jeanne Schinto said...

Nice post!.... Especially since it mentions Levine! One of my favorite poets! I used some lines from one of his poems, "What Work Is," as an epigram in my book Huddle Fever. I love his prose book, The Bread of Time.... Detroit is a sad story, but this remembers its heyday so well...