A young man is walking alone on the road linking the airport to the population centre. He is wearing the typical sports vest — the kind that usually has the name of a basketball team or the star-spangled banner emblazoned on it. This one has a single five-letter word: Black. I go up to exchange a few words and ask him where exactly I am. He tells me laconically that he has lived here since he was born; he has got used to it.

The backdrop to our conversation is surreal: I have never seen anything like it. I keep looking around and realise how much everything I have read about this place corresponds to reality. Empty buildings stretch out endlessly. Old factories left unguarded for decades, with the appearance of huge wrecks corroded by time and the elements. Gutted edifices, pieces of broken glass, machinery covered with ice and snow. A wasteland inhabited only by stray dogs, drug addicts, homeless people and others on the margins of society.

I am in Detroit: the ghost city, one of the most striking examples of the other America that never intrudes into the cocoon-like TV series set in Manhattan or the 3-D movies produced in Hollywood.

If industrial archaeology was a science, Detroit would undoubtedly be the first specimen to study. Yet its history has known development and splendour aplenty.

Baptised Motor City – hence, too, Motown, the famous soul and rhythm-and-blues record company — it was for decades the world&’s leading automobile centre. In 1902, the city greeted the birth of the Cadillac. A year later, Henry Ford unveiled the plants that in 1908 would turn out the Model T, the first-ever assembly line vehicle. General Motors was founded not far away in the same year and Chrysler followed in 1925. In short, everything to do with the US auto industry began in the matrix of Detroit.

The city spread on the wings of progress. In the second decade of the 20th century, the population more than doubled and Detroit became the fourth most populous centre in the country. A large proportion of the newcomers arrived from the states of the south — part of the mass of Afro-Americans (120,000 in Detroit alone) who headed what has become known as the “first great migration”.

The expansion did not affect only the four-wheeled world. America&’s entry into World War II transformed the principal city of Michigan into the “great arsenal of democracy”, to quote Franklin Roosevelt&’s slogan. Large numbers of workers, both men and women, moved there as Detroit burgeoned around the arms sector, contributing more than any other US city to the war effort.

The growth continued after 1945, and by 1956 the population had reached its peak of 1,865,000. Renowned professors and respected journalists of the time hailed it as emblematic of the end of class struggle in America, pointing to the influx of workers into the ranks of the middle class and their enjoyment of its associated pleasures. How much water has flowed under the bridges since then!

The decline began in the 1960s and then speeded up after the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. Today, Detroit has barely 700,000 inhabitants, the lowest number for 100 years, and the downward spiral seems destined to continue. In the first decade of the 21st century, the city lost a quarter of its total population. Every 20 minutes another family gathers all its possessions, ships them off to a new destination and leaves Detroit behind for good.

As I wander the streets, the spectral impression intensifies. There are more than 100,000 vacant lots and abandoned houses inside the city limits, most of the latter in ruins or so rickety as to be unsafe. Ten thousand should be demolished in the next four years but there are no funds to do it. There is a feeling of real desolation, since often only one lived-in house remains in an entire block; Detroit is so empty that Boston or the whole of San Francisco could fit inside it.

The city authority is trying to group the population together in selected areas and to convert others into commercial farms. However, the crisis has made the picture even bleaker than before. In an attempt to stave off the bankruptcy that has now engulfed it, the city recently cut its last public services, including the bus (the only means of transport for the less well-off) and nocturnal lighting in the outlying areas.

The social situation is no less grim than the external surroundings. In Detroit, one person in three lives in poverty, as do more than a half of minors. The level of racial segregation is still very high: more than 80 per cent of the population are of Afro-American origin and live in the centre, while the “white” workers, or rather the remainder who have not managed to leave altogether, have moved to protected suburbs or to areas near the big stores.

This indicates that, although the times have changed, the racism that made Detroit a war zone in July 1967 – when Lyndon Johnson sent in armoured cars, leading to 43 deaths, 7,200 arrests and the destruction of more than 2,000 buildings – has not been completely eradicated. The crime rate is one of the highest in the country and, by an irony of fate, the cost of a motor insurance policy is nowhere greater than in this birthplace of the auto industry.

Real unemployment has reached 50 per cent and money invested in the huge casino that now stands on the main street has produced only one change: a legion of desperate, embittered souls queue up each evening to feed their last dollars, and their last hopes of salvation, into the long line of fruit machines.

In 2009, reeling from the crisis, General Motors and Chrysler filed petitions for bankruptcy, while Ford, too, was severely affected. The aid received by the Big Three at the end of the last decade, from both the Bush and Obama administrations, came to a total of $80 billion. The parallel “restructuring”, involving layoffs, wage cuts and less secure contracts, extended the model  represented by the companies, which were founded in 1994 to supply General Motors and Chrysler with lower-cost automobile parts.

After all, Detroit does not only speak of the 20th century; it also testifies to changes taking place today and lying ahead. It underlines the extent to which poverty and unemployment are the result of economic links that prevent technological advances from being placed in the service of the community. It shows that factories are empty not because work no longer exists but because production has been moved elsewhere — to places where labour costs are lower and the struggle for social rights is still weak.

In the fall, it gets dark early in Detroit. Some people are begging near the exit from the freeway. In the distance, a fire can be seen in the heart of what used to be the industrial district. A group of young people lit it in a tumbledown factory, hoping to break off some bits and pieces that are due to be sent east by sea. These scraps of metal, which fetch two and a half dollars per pound, are the only useful things left to help make ends meet.

They are one of the main US exports to China, and Detroit has more of them than any other city in the world. They serve to build elsewhere what once used to exist here, creating the infrastructure that will allow for higher profits. Let there be no mistake though: new conflicts and new hopes will emerge with the new factories.

The writer is assistant professor, department of sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada