In recent years, Detroit has become a byword for the decline of industrial cities in the United States. The community grew rapidly with industrialization in the mid-1900s, faced political, social, and economic turmoil through the rest of the century, and decayed into a disaster of infrastructure. Today, Detroit is finding its own way in the future of urban life, and it just might prove an example for all of the cities facing their own changing futures.

Detroit’s Planning History

The Woodward Plan for Detroit, the Grand Circus at the top. Credit: By Unknown - Dickens, Asbury & Forney, John W., eds. (1832) "Plan of Detroit" (Map). American State Papers. Vol. 6: Public Lands. 1:6,000. Washington, DC: Gales & Seaton. p. 299. OCLC 2053058. OL7014594M. LCCN 09033892. – via Public Domain,
The Woodward Plan for Detroit, the Grand Circus at the top.

Although French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701, its planning really began in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1805 which leveled the former French settlement. Augustus B. Woodward, the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory, arrived in the city soon after the devastation and led the rebuilding. His plan, based on the L’Enfant plan for Washington D.C., depended on broad avenues laid out in a pattern of equilateral triangles. There would be large circular parks at each corner, with rectangular parks in the centers. A large park – the Grand Circus – lay at the plans very center. Unfortunately, due to disagreements with local landowners, only its southern half and a portion of one triangle were built.

After Woodward’s plan halted, the city developed along more organic lines, with roads following the property lines of the ribbon farms perpendicular to the Detroit River, and later growing in the cardinal directions to follow modern surveys. The rapidly expanding automobile industry drove growth in the first half of the 20thcentury. The manufacturing boom during and after World War II attracted many people, especially African-Americans and poor whites from the South.

Later planning, most notably in the 1970s and onward, focused on restoring a declining city. Unfortunately, by the time these projects – such as Henry Ford II’s controversial Renaissance Center – rose to reform the city, Detroit was already a long way down the path of decay.

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Decline and Bankruptcy

The seeds of Detroit’s collapse were planted even as the economy boomed and the city grew in the mid-1900s. The Great Migration brought waves of African-Americans, stoked racial tensions over housing and labor. Walkouts and riots began as early as 1943, and discrimination would only accelerate from there. White-majority homeowner’s associations fought to maintain de facto segregation by race and class, with support from discriminatory regulations and programs. These groups staged campaigns to keep public housing out of white neighborhoods and to block public school funding. There were even crosses burned throughout the city in 1965. Where these efforts failed, white flight to the suburbs provided the chance to start over with even more control. The ongoing construction of freeways to quickly move people to and from the city’s fringes bolstered this trend.

Similarly, powerful and majority white industrial unions – including the United Auto Workers – ignored or even encouraged discriminatory hiring practices. Research showed that automaker’s screened candidates by race as recently as 1993. As the auto industry began to decentralize and automate, it was clear that African-Americans would bear the brunt of uneven growth. Many were pushed to society’s edges, and growing tensions eventually snapped in summer 1967 with massive riots against police brutality and inequality.

Government interventions could do only so much. The 1960s War on Poverty failed to target the discrimination and deindustrialization at the condition’s root. Efforts to enforce diversity only led to tokenism and glacial change. Meanwhile, Detroit failed to attract new industries as auto manufacturers shrank production in the face of oil crises in the 1970s and expanding foreign competition. Even massive plants, built on eminent–domain–acquired land in the 1980s, employ only a few thousand workers.

The reliance on a single shrinking industry, unresolved racial tensions, corrupt or incompetent leadership, and the promotion of freeways over public transit all led to the city’s downward spiral. Detroit was left with a dissolving tax base, a poverty-riddled population, and decrepit infrastructure of all sorts. By the turn of the century, prairie grass had begun to reclaim abandoned swathes of the city, a low-wage service sector had replaced manufacturing, and large, isolated ghettos had become what historian Thomas J. Sugrue described as “reservations for the poor.”

The abandoned Packard Automotive Plant in 2009. The factory shut down in 1958, and the last tenant moved out in 2010. Since then, sections of the complex have begun to collapse and be demolished. By Albert duce - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The abandoned Packard Automotive Plant in 2009. The factory shut down in 1958, and the last tenant moved out in 2010. Since then, sections of the complex have begun to collapse and be demolished.

In the early 2010s, Detroit had spiraled deep into debt and was facing cash shortages. In 2013, Michigan state government took control of the city’s finances, and ultimately declared it bankrupt, the largest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy ever. Forty percent of Detroit’s streetlights didn’t work and 78,000 buildings were abandoned.

In 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan swore, “We’re going to start fresh tomorrow and do the best we can to deliver the kind of services people deserve.” After a series of deals and plans for improvements, the city exited bankruptcy in December 2014. It was released from state oversight in April 2018.

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Detroit’s Future

Detroit’s motto, chosen in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1805, is “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” There are many reasons for hope in the ashes of the most recent crisis. Population and land prices have begun to stabilize. Abandoned buildings are now more likely to be renovated than demolished. In a hopeful indication for the future, Detroit was named a UNESCO City of Design in 2015 – the first in the United States.

The plan for the Avenue of Fashion revitalization in the Livernois-McNichols neighborhood.
The plan for the Avenue of Fashion revitalization in the Livernois-McNichols neighborhood.

Development has restarted, including both corporate-backed redevelopment in the downtown and public or nonprofit programs in residential areas. Much of the latter work is designed to attract people back to these neighborhoods, especially areas with a history of prosperity. Livernois-McNichols, also known as the “Avenue of Fashion” is one such district. Here, the Detroit planning and development department has proposed dramatic changes to make the neighborhood more livable, including widening sidewalks, adding trees, and building bike lanes. Planners have labored to involve existing residents in the process. As designs were publicized in the first half of 2018, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) encouraged entrepreneurship in the area, well before any work on the road had begun.

Despite these efforts, there are concerns about uneven growth. Those who stuck around during the worst years – living in the so-called “Other Detroit” – are worried that new development may leave them behind once again. Much of the new investment seems focused on the downtown and on districts that already are performing well. Some residents fear that their neighborhoods may be torn down to make way for upscale residents.

Planners have attempted to address these concerns. For example, the city requires that developers using taxpayer money set aside at least twenty percent of units affordable housing. But gentrification is still a reasonable concern and should be carefully managed during Detroit’s rebirth.

The Dequindre Cut Greenway. Note the intentionally unremoved graffiti on the underpass. Credit: By Andrew Jameson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The Dequindre Cut Greenway. Note the intentionally unremoved graffiti on the underpass.

A cadre of Detroit nonprofits has sprung up to help create a better future for the Motor City. Arise Detroit aims to bring together community leaders with agencies and programs to improve individual communities from within. The Detroit Greenways Coalition is building a network of bike paths and lanes throughout the city, including the Dequindre Cut, a trail along an old railway path that notably left graffiti in underpasses along the route. There has also been a boom in urban agriculture taking advantage of the city’s vacant space. I’ll cover this in more detail later this month.

The DEGC created one of the largest nonprofits, Detroit Future City to realize a strategic framework based on insights from professionals and more than 100,000 residents. The framework promotes quality of life in the city through a combination of land use, sustainability, and community and economic development. DFC projects include campaigns to promote use of vacant lots, installing green water infrastructure, and research on issues such as rental housing and developing the African-American middle class.

There’s a long way to go: Detroit is still the poorest big city in the U.S., and the area it covers is far too large for its population and density. Planners have begun considering the community’s future as an “archipelago” of revitalized neighborhoods linked by public green space, be it urban agriculture, parks, or solar and wind farms, almost to echoing the ribbon farms of the region’s original French farmer inhabitants.

Many American cities face the same issues of shrinkage, decentralization, and deindustrialization, to differing degrees. As Detroit begins its rise from the ashes – whatever that looks like – it may provide an example for how every city can handle the changing future of urban life.

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