Detroit, Michigan, is a major urban center in the Great Lakes region of the American Midwest. The center of the American automotive industry for more than a century, it has many nicknames resulting from this status, including the Motor City and Motown. These nicknames originated in the early 20th century among new residents who came to work in the city’s automobile construction plants. Motor City and other nicknames have since been used in the names of businesses, public works, and artwork related to or based in the Detroit area.
Like many areas of the Midwest, Detroit was settled by European explorers in the early 18th century. These explorers were French and named the city Detroit after the nearby Detroit River, a strait that connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie, two of the Great Lakes. The word Detroit is, in fact, French for strait. The settlement became part of the United States in 1796. Over the next century, it developed into a major industrial center, as did many cities based around the Great Lakes, then a major American hub for transport and travel.
By 1900, Detroit had become a manufacturing center for horse-drawn carriages and coaches. This led automotive pioneer Henry Ford to build his first automobile assembly plant in the area in 1903. Many other American auto companies quickly followed suit. This industry boom coincided with a decline in jobs in the American South, leading to a mass migration of Southerners to Detroit and other Midwestern cities. These new residents referred to Detroit by nicknames such as the Motor City.
This northward migration of Southerners, many of them African American, continued into the 1940s and ‘50s. In addition to the Motor City, they called Detroit Motortown, later shortened to Motown. In 1960, record producer Berry Gordy named his Detroit-based recording company Motown. The label released many early hits by pioneering musicians in the rock, soul, and blues genres. Motown Records remained a Detroit institution for the remainder of the 20th century.
By the 21st century, the Motor City nickname has been semi-officially adopted by the city, appearing in the name of public works, such as the beautification initiative called the Motor City Makeover. Nightclubs and other businesses incorporate the nickname into their own names. Many popular songs refer to Detroit as the Motor City, including the oft-covered Motown classic “Dancing in the Street.“ Other nicknames for Detroit include D-Town, the D, and Rock City, a name inspired by a popular rock song from the 1970s.