Detroit, as seen through the eyes of a Canadian in 1980

The CBC's Joe Schlesinger describes a city of extremes as the U.S. Republican Party was meeting there to nominate their candidate for President in July 1980.

U.S. Republicans met in the beleaguered city to nominate their presidential candidate

CBC reporter Joe Schlesinger takes the pulse of the American city affected by unemployment and labour strife. 2:16

When seen from Canada, the city of Detroit looked "great," in the words of the CBC's Joe Schlesinger, its gleaming skyscrapers rising above the Detroit River across from Windsor, Ont.

But in crossing the river into the city, Schlesinger got a very different picture.

"Smelly garbage is piled up, because the garbagemen were on strike until this morning," he said.

"But strikes are only a small part of what's wrong with Detroit. The auto city is down on its luck."

Republican National Convention site  

The Detroit Renaissance Center on the city's waterfront projected "luxurious vitality" in a city marked by "urban decay." (The National/CBC Archives)

Schlesinger was visiting the city for the 1980 Republican National Convention, which was due to begin the next day.

According to host George McLean on the CBC's The National on July 12, 1980, Ronald Reagan was already the presumptive nominee, and "the only real suspense" was who would be his running mate. 

And so Schlesinger's story focused on to the city it was in, a place whose "very lifeblood" was plagued by layoffs and plant closings in the auto sector. 

By contrast with Detroit's "rotted" city centre, the shiny Renaissance Center on the waterfront — the site of the convention — tried to convey the "rebirth" of the city.

"[It] stands like a snaggletooth of luxurious vitality in a landscape of urban decay," said Schlesinger.

'Sledgehammer blows' to self-image

Japan had taken the number-one spot in auto-making, an economic activity that had once been Detroit's "lifeblood." (The National/CBC Archives)

The problems were deeper than economic ones, said Schlesinger, acknowledging that unemployment was high in Canada, too.

"The Americans have been hit hard by sledgehammer blows to their pride, their self-confidence, their realization that they're probably no longer number one militarily," he said.

The Soviet Union had eclipsed that position, he said. As for auto-making, Japan had taken over the number-one spot.

"So when you're low, what do you do?" asked Schlesinger. "Why, you throw a party, of course."

The camera then took viewers to the convention floor, where delegates sang Roll Out the Barrel and wore wide-brimmed novelty hats under a blanket of white balloons.

"What happens here at the Republican convention may do much to solve Detroit's problems," summed up the reporter. "But it should be good for its soul."

People attending the 1980 Republican National Convention are seen having a laugh as the event gets underway in Detroit. (The National/CBC Archives)