Remembering Henry Ford’s failed suburban utopia in Brazil

Read about Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s town built from scratch in Brazil:

The community was spurred by a problem caused by the incredible success of Ford’s empire. By the early 1900s, America was gobbling up more than 70 percent of the world’s rubber, most of it going to Detroit. These were the days when rubber still came from plants—meaning that most of it had to be shipped from Southeast Asia. Ford, a dude who was pretty into efficiency, was hesitant to keep buying his company’s supply from Asia, where British rubber plantations were churning out most of the global supply. So he set out to establish his own rubber farm. In a fit of creativity, he named it Fordlandia.

In 1928, Ford sent an envoy of supplies and Ford workers to a 6,000-square-mile plot of land on the Amazon. The charter’s mission was to embed American suburbia in the heart of the rainforest. Within a relatively short period of time, they’d set up homes, running water, electricity—plus all kinds of other extras (like swimming pools) that played to Ford’s belief that leisure was an essential part of the economy.

Local workers were expected to adopt a suburban Michigan lifestyle, too—along with a healthy dose of Ford’s own morals, which meant that both booze and ladies were outlawed within the town. According to a terrific podcast from How Things Work, the transplant town even hosted mandatory square dancing. Hamburgers and other American fare featured in the cafeteria…

But it turned out that rubber plants were being cultivated in Southeast Asia instead for a very good reason: There were no natural floral predators there, as there were in Brazil. Production was sluggish, and the Michigan managers had zero botany know-how.

Three things are notable: Ford’s attempt to control production from start to finish, his interest in having a company town, and his idea that he could simply import an American suburb to Brazil. This could be interpreted as a quixotic effort but it also seems to have darker undertones of American imperialism.

Chicago moving forward with federal money to improve riverwalk

Chicago has done a great job developing public space along its lakefront. Not so much along the river. But, new federal money is coming that will help the city improve the downtown space along the Chicago River:

A $100 million federal loan to build an urban playground along the Chicago River downtown is a “done deal,” outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday.

Appearing along the river with LaHood, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he expects groundbreaking for the extension of the Riverwalk to take place in 2014. The six-block project would run along the south bank from State Street to West Lake Street.

The Riverwalk extension is set to include a learning center focusing on the river’s ecology, a “zero-depth fountain” for children to splash in, kayak rentals and a wood-planked section dotted with floating gardens, among other amenities. Details were announced last October…

Emanuel has pressed to continue branding the riverfront as a recreational destination for Chicagoans along the lines of the lakefront or Millennium Park. On Thursday, he characterized developing the riverfront — begun by Mayor Richard Daley — as an important moment in Chicago moving beyond its industrial past.

Why has it taken so long for Chicago to utilize this asset? This part of the Chicago River runs right through a set of impressive buildings and a business district as well as borders tourist areas. As Emanuel suggests, the river is part of Chicago’s industrial legacy. Indeed, Chicago is still dealing with improving the a lot of the land around the river. Originally, the railroad bringing freight and goods to Chicago came up from the south to the southern edge of the Chicago River east of Michigan Avenue. This was a docking area. This is the same area that has only boomed in recent decades and now includes hit buildings like Aqua. Lower Wacker Drive might be nice for cars and the original truck traffic that would be routed off surface streets might it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a pedestrian park.

In the end, this could be a great space for Chicago. I do wonder how the water quality of the river might impact these park spaces but there is a lot of potential here. If Chicago is going to boost its tourist numbers, this could help.

Military towns benefit from increased compensation

USA Today reports “16 of the 20 metro areas rising the fastest in the per-capita income rankings since 2000 had military bases or one nearby.” Compensation packages have increased since 2000: “Soldiers, sailors and Marines received average compensation of $122,263 per person in 2009, up from $58,545 in 2000.”

While places with nearby military bases benefited from these changes, USA Today also found some losers in per-capita income over the past decade. These include high-tech centers, college towns, and industrial cities.