My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all types to gain insight into the Motor City’s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?
Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.
Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit’s fall. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. And there’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and 1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
But here’s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And Detroit certainly hasn’t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.
So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (don’t laugh — Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
Detroit’s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city’s lack of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled “Decline in Detroit” from 1961 — yes, 1961 — had the following to say in its opening paragraph:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did–and it did plenty.
So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City’s current state. Here they are below.
1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name — Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.
Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument can be made that’s been lacking in Detroit for decades.
2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.
The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s — long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit’s residential areas look pretty much like this, from the city’s northeast side:
3. A poor public realm. Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places. Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping. Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings. The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:
4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown. The city’s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the 20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry. At some point, Detroit’s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory locations scattered throughout the city and metro area. Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs. By the ‘60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.
5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the decline of central cities, but it’s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.
6. Lack of/loss of a transit network. Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956.
The kind of lobbying (coercion?) exhibited by GM happened in many other cities across the country. However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems, in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the afore-mentioned cities. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported alternative transportation uses there.
7. Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.
The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.
8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core. A unique aspect of land use in Detroit that’s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and manufacturing land in the city. It’s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the industrial gods. Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable — producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.
Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical decision — how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World?
To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time — the railroads. By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to the northeast, all just beyond the growing city’s limits. While numerous other lines existed throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit with the rest of the nation. An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914, stated that:
The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within the city limits suitable for such development. (M)any railway and business men who had given the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.
This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western lines highlighted in red. The city’s boundaries prior to 1915 are highlighted in green (please forgive my simple graphics):
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
While it could not have been envisioned at the time, this led directly to another planning reason for the city’s decline:
9. Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy. The two maps above show (in green) the city’s boundaries as of 1915. Bear in mind that Detroit’s population exploded from 205,000 in 1890 to almost 1 million by 1920, but not much new territory was added to the city during that time. In fact, between 1892 and 1905, the city did not annex any new land, all while rapid growth was happening. With the DTR now wrapped around the city with a wall of industrial land, city leaders began looking for new lands to annex to support the expanding population.
Huge annexations began occurring in the late 1910’s but accelerated during the ‘20s. This is purely my own speculation here, but my guess is that Detroit city leaders wanted to annex areas beyond the DTR arc to establish new neighborhoods for residents working in those very factories. That, I’m sure, was the plan.
Then the Great Depression and World War II hit.
Suddenly all the farmland that was supposed to be developed into new Detroit neighborhoods in the ‘30s and ‘40s was deferred by as much as twenty years. No new neighborhoods meant that the city core that existed in 1915 was essentially the same core that existed in 1945. Sure, a very strong demand for housing developed during that 30-year period, but tensions — race, management vs. union, among others — likely grew at an even faster pace.
The industrial wall and annexation policy had four impacts on Detroit. First, it created the push for suburbanization in Detroit, as residents sought to move away from the noisy, smelly and smoky factories that dotted the landscape. Secondly, the pressure to rapidly meet the pent-up housing demand in the ‘40s and ‘50s led to the vast spread of homes that today lack contemporary appeal. Thirdly, once industrial decline occurred it contributed mightily to the blight of the city as factories became abandoned — that’s largely how the city got its famed “ruins”. A pattern was established — industrial abandonment begat adjacent residential abandonment, which begat commercial abandonment, and begat even more residential abandonment. I would argue that the vast majority of vacant, “return-to-prairie” lands in Detroit are within a two-mile radius of the DTR. And lastly, the sheer amount of industrial land, with all associated cleanup concerns, made the decommission and consolidation of industrial land for other uses extremely difficult. Not that Detroit demonstrated the will to do so. There likely was a period during the ‘70s and ‘80s when the city could have effectively redeveloped industrial land to other uses, but again Detroit doubled down on the prospect of industrial jobs.
There’s an old saying that when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail. Granted, I am a planner, and I see planning problems as key to Detroit’s demise. While this point of view hasn’t been clearly articulated before, it’s clear that given this planning and land use legacy, it’s readily apparent how Detroit got to where it is today. Detroit’s problems began precisely with the rise of the auto industry during the 1900s and 1910s, not from the beginnings of its decline 50 years later or from ill-fated attempts to resuscitate it since. The seeds of Detroit’s decline had been sown long before suburbanization accelerated in the ‘50s, or racial tensions exploded in the ‘60s.
Detroit circa 1890 was a moderately-sized Great Lakes port whose economy revolved around shipbuilding and carriage-building. It was eerily similar in size, scale and character to Milwaukee at that time. But the work of Henry Ford, William C. Durant and the Dodge brothers altered that forever.
The rise of the automobile enriched the corporations and created the template for the expansion of the middle class around the country, but it transformed the city, to its astounding detriment. Left untreated, any improvement in Detroit’s economic, social or political fortunes would still leave the city with a troubled planning legacy.
Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who current works as an urban planner in Chicago.
Excellent analysis. The abundant nostalgia for pre-1967 Detroit is misplaced. Detroit sacrificed virtually all of its assets on the altar of the auto industry starting from the very beginning of Ford’s assembly line. It got explosive growth that was unsustainable. It shouldn’t be compared to great American cities of comparable size because it hasn’t been a real city since the Model T. You can put up dozens of skyscrapers but it doesn’t mean you’ve built a functioning city. (I’d put a lot of Sunbelt boomtowns in exactly the same category.)
To #1: I’d add that the parts of town that are doing the best right now — among them Midtown/Woodbridge, Corktown, Mexicantown, New Center, Greektown, and Lafayette Park — are the ones with strong neighborhood identification.
This is a good list, but I would say items 1-3 account for over 80% of the problem.
RJ Koscielniak says
The author should note that much of the decline experienced in St. Louis predates the decline in Detroit. In 1978, Robert Reinhold of the New York Times wrote, “If its decline was steeper than most, St. Louis may also help show how cities can get along by adjusting to being smaller and less important.” In fact, St. Louis lost 27.2% of its population during the 1970s, and has plummeted by almost 600,000 since 1950 – a 63% loss. Many of the problems faced by Detroit – minus the decline of a mono-industry – were faced and are being faced by St. Louis. I’m not attempting to lionize this collapse, but only to highlight how these issues are not exclusive of any one place.
I think too many writers, critics, and residents have allowed the story of urban collapse to be defined by Detroit and confined to the last five years. When we fetishize one city, we tend to forget another. If there’s one habit we should be abating, it should be language, ideas, and efforts that neglect the entire community of ordinary cities. Yes, ordinary. Detroit and St. Louis must become terrains where leaders and advocates recognize the potential to be liberated from the old ways of planning, developing, and changing. This will not only craft more dynamic cities, it will acknowledge the diversity of ‘urban’ forms.
I haven’t ever lived nor been to Detroit, but what you wrote could accurately describe many US cities. I think many cities missed the mark when it came to planning and they are trying to treat the symptoms today without looking at the cause.
It seems these nine reasons could easily translate into many places. It is kind of ironic that the town’s nickname is also a curse.
With many people trying to resurrect Detroit I would love to hear what your suggestions are to get the city on track on possibly successful once again. I have seen many jobs posted that are attempting to bring the Live.Work.Play mentallity to Detroit. I really wonder if it could be successful in the next years to come.
John Morris says
When one talks about the poor housing stock, one has to remember those were not the only buildings available. What was the quality of the former industrial and warehouse buildings and why were so few ever adopted or reused? Like wise, Detroit had a pretty amazing, if not huge stock of great downtown buildings.
This might not be a great example, but Lowell, Mass is now a trendy place to live and work near Boston. Almost all the worker housing was pretty bad and a huge amount is gone.
The factories; warehouses, downtown buildings; old schools and churches became the base of a new housing stock.
In most of Waterfront Brooklyn, one has a mix of pretty poor housing mixed with potentially useful old factories. Cleveland, made a huge mistake, when it tore down so much of it’s warehouse district but a lot of the new trendy development in Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway and the flats relates to building reuse.
We also need to define what we mean when we say, poor housing stock. In this case, the big factor isn’t just cheaply built houses but, poor sprawling community design.
Pittsburgh’s South Side, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville have a lot of cheaply built housing, but they have the base of well designed communities.
John Morris says
I’m not an expert, but another big factor is that rapid technological change quickly made many of the early car plants obsolete, soon after they were built.
The multi floor plant of the 1905-1920, vintage wasn’t in line with the need for larger, single floor open plants. This created succesive waves, of replacement with each outward wave taking out the base of the nearby community.
You are correct in your statement that Detroit has an abundance of “anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping,” but I think you miss the connection between that statement and your observance of “all the suppliers that made assembly there viable — producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.” Detroit is unique in its landscape of these tens of thousands of small, mostly brick, one-story shops that lined the perimeter of virtually every neighborhood. These tiny shops — I used to pass by 4 on my one-block walk from my house to my bus stop in my childhood — turned out every nut, bolt, screw, spring and whatever else was needed on every car made in the city. Now they are virtually all empty and crumbling.
John Morris says
Here’s a good example of a large scale factory conversion in Cleveland.
John Morris says
BTW, Detroit has a pretty awesome example of a thriving community of DYI entrepreneurs, artists and craft manufacturers in the giant Russell industrial Center.
The big question is why it took so long to get this kind of ball rolling.
One huge reason is that Detroit’s civic leaders never made significant investments in higher education. As you said, everyone doubled down on the same bets.
One comment on this”
“I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation.”
Detroit is a (and has been since the 20s) a huge city in terms of land area. I suspect that statement isn’t true, BUT, I suspect it is (and has been) true to say that Detroit has more freeway miles per capita than most cities in the nation.
Number 6. is wrong, Detroit did have a suburban commuter rail system analogous to Chicago’s Metra. It was called SEMPTA. See here: http://chicagourbanist.blogspot.com/2011/09/chicago-and-detroit-comparing.html?m=1
Detroit began to lose factory jobs to the suburbs starting in the 1950s. I think that is worth examining, because it coincides with the beginning of the city’s population loss. It also coincides with desegregation, sadly.
When deindustrialization began full swing in the late 70s some cities began to redevelop industrial plants and warehouses for new purposes. New York and Chicago have done that rather successfully. I would suggest one reason for Detroit’s terminal woes is the lack of imagination of city and civic leaders to think about what it is they could do to enhance what they have, such as repurposing buildings. This is the same group of leaders that refused to support big events like the electronic festival, so it is no surprise.
StÃ©phane Dumas says
There a color map showing the annexations then Detroit did over the years http://www.urbanophile.com/2010/04/23/midwest-miscellany-32/
When I check the evolution of city limits over the years, it could be interesting to ponder about 2 “what if?” scenarios about the city limits:
-what if Detroit continued to annex during the Depression and WWII?
-what if Detroit kept its 1915 city limits?
John Morris says
Detroit began to lose factory jobs to the suburbs starting in the 1950s.
That’s my reading because the early factories were obsolete by then. Modern car plants don’t look anything like the 1905 buildings.
It’s an interesting contrast with Pittsburgh, where Steel plants were gradually and continuously adopted and expanded in the same location because of the very specific locational advantage. The ET works in Braddock is still on the same basic site as the original 1877 one.
John Morris says
BTW, we have an old 1910 or so era Ford plant in Pittsburgh. Of course, UPMC, is renovating it for offices or something.
It is interesting to look at some overlooked factors in Detroit’s decline, but they are not the major ones. I disagree with the author’s premise that Buffalo and Cleveland lost as much industry as Detroit during the same period.
His rundown of planning mistakes could just as well describe Indianapolis, whose population has remained stable and whose fortunes in general have gone the opposite way of Detroit’s.
Single-family homes are not “scattered” throughout the City but are the primary housing structure in the City contributing to the lack of density. Also, the Poor Public Realm has more to do with the fact that the urban fabric in Detroit is broken and most of the recent development that has been allowed has been suburban, parking-oriented.
Lizzy Caston says
Excellent post breaking down the interrelated and long term reasons Detroit has declined.
Two very important points missing from the post. It’s not just about city annexation. The importance of region wide and state mandated planning, investment and initiatives can not be underscored in the transformation and health of individual cities. Pittsburgh for example has had over 30 years of strong coordinated investment by the State and regional groups (including the powerhouse Pittsburgh Regional Alliance) from a manufacturing and steel economy into a knowledge based economy based. Pennsylvania has some pretty strong mandates for statewide land use planning efforts that are imposed on local levels as well as strong public private partnerships on not just the local, but the regional and state level as well. Detroit is a case of vulcan death grip on auto manufacturing, something still very much alive in the Chrystler “comeback” ads shown this year at the Superbowl. (anecdote, that TV ad was not shot in Detroit, it was shot in…Louisiana, which says something right there about Detroit). Anyway, Michigan’s overall economic health on the other hand has suffered with most cities, maybe besides Ann Arbor suffering the rust belt “brain drain” and other business and population losses and subsequently is a state also known for very weak regional coordination and state planning. Places such as The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “research triangle” and Portland, Oregon however – both places with strong regional governments are on the opposite pole of the Detroit equation.
There is also the issue of City government structure. The argument for a “ward system” form of government is a double edged sword, as the author points out. However, as a Portland, Oregon resident, Portland is also one of the few cities in the U.S. with a “weak mayor”, Commission by bureau form of government. Known as “Planning Nirvana” and “the City that Works” Portland has been able to bypass the turf wars, corruption, and other problems with the ward system. Although this has been brought up to Portland residents off and on over the years many studies and planning experts (including those from my own fine University Portland State), the citizens in Portland have repeatedly voted down City Charter Change measures as recently as 2007. This form of government seem to work in Portland with neighborhood representation through other measures such as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and a very strong public participation and outreach process. Cleveland on the other hand has close to 20 Council men and women based on wards. Cleveland has been no shining example of a city that works politically. Segregation, fat cat real estate development pet projects gone bad, some of the most notorious corruption in the U.S., many wards bypassed into Detroit conditions while others get a large share of the pot continue to plague Cleveland. The point however remains the same: Not all forms of government work for all cities during all eras. Detroit would be well served to examine and restructure their government into a form that does work for the benefit of the whole and individual neighborhoods – whatever form that might take.
As for Cleveland and Buffalo, the proof is in the numbers. To the commenter who says he questions the number loss, the author never said the same AMOUNT of loss. He said the same TYPE of loss. That’s a big distinction. There are big parallels between these three cities that can not be dismissed. Cleveland by the way, lost 17% of their population between the 2000-2010 census. That is a significant parallel.
Regardless,these are excellent points and a road map missing from other articles that dissects the Detroit problem in a holistic rather than piecemeal approach including the importance of land use planning in the equation. Bravo.
John Morris says
Carnegie, Mellon and co will never get any credit in Pittsburgh. Long before anything else, civic leaders during the boom made critical, useful long term investments, in great colleges, libraries, parks, museums and high quality public architecture.
A huge amount of public cooperation since to build highways, stadiums and subsidised parking has been dumb and destructive although many very wise things have also been done.
John Morris says
“The powerhouse Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.”
How can we thank them for the destruction of The Lower Hill, tearing down central Market District and other caring investments?
I guess they want a medal for not being worse, but it won’t come from me.
It seems less like a Renaissance and more like the sacking of Rome.
John Morris says
I mean The North Side’s Central Market.
John Morris says
A small slideshow of some of the buildings torn down in Pittsburgh, just in the Downtown and North Side. Not saying everything had to stay, but it does give one some idea of the type of first class city, earler generations had intended to leave. Certainly a few of these buildings are over the top, but they all were the product of real care.
In many, many cases, nothing replaced them beyond an empty lot or parking garage.
Aaron M. Renn says
Thanks for the replies, everybody.
@flavius, I too was immediately struck by the similarity of the first three items to Indianapolis. Actually, the housing quality, as well as the general design of the streets, depicted in Pete’s residential Detroit photos is actually higher than what you see in much of Indianapolis. Of course, central Indianapolis is in very bad shape. Center Township lost 25,000 people in the last census. There are only a small number of neighborhoods with market driven redevelopment. The biggest differences between the two is Unigov (by far #1), the fact that Indy’s leaders started a major downtown turnaround effort much sooner, and that Indy had less total industry to lose.
DaveOf Richmond says
Hopefully this link will work:
It links to a Life magazine article in 1942 called “Detroit is Dynamite”, and they were not using “dynamite” in the J.J. Walker sense – they meant it was a powder keg. The author was prescient, for there was a very bad race riot in 1943 as mentioned by Pete in this post.
But here is a comment that stands out to me:
“More than half of its population of nearly two million came to Detroit in the past twenty years. They have no great love for their city and they give their loyalty to their own group, creed or union”.
This strikes a chord in me, that Detroit was a sort of “East St. Louis run amok” type of town, meaning that it existed solely as an industrial burg (this point also made by Pete), except that in this case Detroit was also the core regional city, not a small, ugly, industrial suburb as in East St. Louis or Camden, NJ. Those small cities have also experienced horrific declines. It seems everyone went to Detroit solely for economic reasons, including both management and labor, and everyone just wanted to “get theirs” and then get out.
This to me is the key. You might say “people get the city they deserve”. The Life article seems brutally honest, and no one in the city, not in any strata of society, comes out looking too good. This was in 1942, during an employment boom. As one commenter above said, this should help dispel any myth of a pre-1967 paradise. After reading this blog post and the Life article, it doesn’t seem surprising to me at all that Detroit went down the tubes.
One last note, my comparison between Detroit and East St. Louis comes in part from having read the book “East St Louis, Made In USA”, which is also brutally honest. It strikes me that the two cities are almost mirror images of each other (with regard to total industrial development, race issues, and the general ‘this place blows’ attitude of all involved – pols, labor and management), except that the Detroit side of the mirror is one of those circus mirrors where the image is horribly distorted into an overly huge glob.
I’ve been a semi-frequent commenter on this blog under this name, but I’m also the author of the article. I’m thankful and totally overwhelmed by the responses, and grateful to Aaron for providing this platform for me.
Given the response, I sure picked the wrong day to be out in the field. I appreciate the quality of the comments and I do want to address them — those with which I agree and disagree. I’ll get to them later this evening.
I think there is a lot of truth to this. It was more efficient for the factories to be sprawly. I think there are only 3 car factories left in Detroit (or at least there were when I last checked in about 6 years ago). But I’ve seen the factories in the suburb of Lake Orion. Or some of the factories in Illinois.
I have some old articles on Detroit from 1925 boasting of the city’s fortunes that I can post if anyone is interested.
Also worth noting is how the city stopped annexing land in the postwar era. The metro region continued to grow but the city stopped annexing the suburbs. Perhaps more relevant than the city’s annexation cessation during the Depression and war years.
First of all, I found the quality of comments as good and enhancing the quality of this great article. Also, it demonstrates my theory that Detroit is always a traffic generator here on Urbanophile.
What I’d like to add is that Detroit’s decline is unique in how cataclysmic it has been for SE Michigan. It gets noticed because of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” However, there are some patterns that played out in the region about the same time.
It’s a malady that could be called Rust Belt Syndrome, because it happened to all industrial cities at the same time and the effects had been the same. What happened was that industrial cities became too successful with their factories that local economies developed income dependence.
Not only did the factories dominate the labor pool, but most of the parallel economies were dependent on these workers as well. Too much of the city’s wealth was tied to one industry and when the wealth slowed, it exacerbated the decline.
The Rust Belt Syndrome has a unique symptom: Income dependency took away the city’s ability to transition away from factories and leverage their skills into something else. Line workers had skills limited to the context of the shop floor, but it didn’t give them the ability to start their own car line or their own supply chain. The parallel economy of shops and services withered because they were locally dependent on business, or those that held out eventually found their fortunes elsewhere.
@John Morris had a comment about poor housing stock. It depends on the quality of building materials and the quantity built at the time when they were new. If the homes were designed for low cost of entry, they were likely built with low-cost materials and minimal craftsmanship. They simply cannot last. The decay of materials and the effects of weather wear down low-cost housing with a vengeance. These homes can become unlivable, or they end up filtering down to lower-income residents even less able to replace or maintain the homes.
Aaron M. Renn says
@DaveofRichmond, that Life article is stunning. Definitely highly recommended for anyone to read.
Craig Hennigan says
Did you READ Sugrue? I mean, your analysis sounds well and good, but in multiple areas you are saying how you are making “speculations” or that you’re not sure. I mean, wouldn’t you want to look into these issues a bit more?
The idea that people wanted to move away from smelly factories more than they feared that black migration in the 40’s were going to deplete the values of their property seems a bit laughable.
Also, Sugrue says exactly why freeways created problems for the city, and it wasn’t because they had a lot of them (I don’t even know what the warrant behind that argument would be..) Freeways cut poor neighborhoods in half and often made life more difficult than it already was for people there.
I have to agree with a previous commenter that these issues are similar in most rust belt cities, and the narrative of the “Pittsburgh comeback” is more narrative than reality. It’s not like poor people in Pittsburgh suddenly got affluent. There are also some gentrification issues that are relevant to the Pittsburgh story as well. Suffice it to say the jury is still out on Pittsburgh. And to say Cleveland isn’t going through some of the same issues Detroit is seems rather odd as well. Have you seen Cleveland’s murder rate?
One thing that is true is that yes, there is a lot of housing in Detroit. One of the characteristics that is truly unique is that there is a lack of highrise apartment buildings. Housing was spread out as the American Dream was lived out by people who placed value on having their own property.
The idea that there were no neighborhoods is also odd that you would say that. Of course there were neighborhoods. Paradise Valley, Poletown (before the GM plant), 8 mile/Wyoming (even though it’s a crossroads, it was a neighborhood) were all neighborhoods. Today, the neighborhoods are even smaller and more community driven, Rosedale Park, Woodbridge, Palmer Park, Brightmoor, to name a few. Plus, there’s no warrant to your argument that a neighborhood ‘name’ somehow makes a bigger connection to where you live.
I think you have a bit more work to do with this in order to make some kind of causality between planning and “demise.” It’s more likely that racial issues from the 40’s to today are what caused planning to happen the way it did. Shoot, FHA is a great example of that as well if you look to the history of urban renewal programs.
Craig Hennigan says
Oh, and BTW, the ward system is a way to get a white person who is in approval of gentrification policies onto the city council. And I now wish I hadn’t have voted for it this past election..
John Morris says
This is a pretty typical example of some of the houses of Liberty Ave, in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield Neighborhood. (Some are quite a bit better.)
Even so, the streets are walkable, there is a good shopping district. a bus line with some high quality old buildings and the neighborhood is doing pretty well.
The big problem is when one has cheap housing, combined with no locational advantage, where people have no incentive to upgrade and improve their homes.
John Morris says
Trendy, Williamsburg in Brooklyn has a lot of pretty similar housing. Of course, there’s a huge locational advantage now and folks are building up, adding on and building condos.
I would also question some of the assertions for number 2. Do you know for sure that these homes were built after World War 2? They look like a friend’s house in Ferndale that was built in the 20s. Don’t assume that brick SFR = post-war.
“But it also has many more homes that simply don’t generate the demand that higher quality housing would. That is a major contributor to the city’s abundance of very cheap housing.”
Might I suggest that high crime rate and lack of jobs are the major contributor to the abundance of cheap housing?
George Mattei says
I don’t know, I’m not sold. Except for perhaps the last two, everything Saunders said could also be true of L.A. L.A. has nondescript commercial corridors with tract housing. It’s neighborhood identities are weak at best. It lost its transit network except buses. It had massive freeway development. It had substantial racial tension. heck, it even has quite a few industrial areas spread throughout the region.
I think maybe those things had a role in the downfall of Detroit, but if it still had a strong economy, like L.A., it would be better off. Plus, Detroit seems to have been exceptionally poorly managed over the years. Cleveland in many way is not THAT much better off, but they got their act together to really give it a go and try to redevelop the City, and it shows.
John Morris says
I really think, the structure of the neighborhoods, lack of local jobs, business districts etc is a bigger factor than how cheaply houses were built.
Way out in Queens-Jamacia, Springfield Gardens, Saint Albans, one has spraling neighborhoods of low quality housing with no locational advantage.
It’s ground zero for NYC’s foreclosure problem.
Craig Hullinger says
Excellent article. Explains a lot.
One interesting study that the urbanophile could do easily with your new data package. My guess is that a lot of the perceived terrible decline of some central cities is an accident of annexation limits. Does the central city have most or all of the
Craig Hullinger says
Does the central city have most or all of the poor neighborhoods? And how great a part of the metro area is the city.
Compare a few cities – say Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Milwaukee, LA. Compare the populations of the central city to the overall metro, and the per capita income of the central city and overall metro.
It may be that our perception of how bad the Detroit’s are is magnified because it has all the poor folks in the metro area and few of the middle and upper income. It would be interesting to see the output. Perhaps Chicago’s success relative to Detroit is in large part because it has a larger percentage of good intact higher income neighborhoods.
John Morris says
More from the Times article.
“A dozen miles from Midtown Manhattan, the foreclosure belt stretches across the heart of black homeownership in this city, from Canarsie and East New York in Brooklyn, to Springfield Gardens and St. Albans, Queens, where Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald once owned handsome Tudor-style homes.”
These are the places in NYC, that remind me of images I see in Detroit.
Harlem, and Bed Stuy are also black neighborhoods, but their locations and housing stocks are totally different. There was a lot of mortgage fraud that happened in Bed Stuy and people who took out bad loans, but a big problem never developed, because new buyers were willing to pay who liked the neighborhood.
Deep in South east Queens, there is just no reason to pay a lot for these homes.
Aren’t those observations true of a lot of cities? The same thing was true of Chicago.
Matthew Hall says
Some of the comparisons here to cleveland, pittsburgh, and St. Louis are misguided. Despite their troubles they are in a parrallel universe compared to Detroit. Detroit if far worse than anywhere in the U.S. That is the point. It is uniquely unsuccessful. St. Louis’ metro has continued to grow and while Pittsburgh and Cleveland have lost more than 3% of their population in the last decade, they have promising large development efforts in some central areas. Detroit would have hundreds of thousands of people more than it does if had equaled St. Louis’ demographics in the last decade alone. Detroit is entirely on its own.
Aaron M. Renn says
@Matthew Hall, yes, I’ve noticed that if you lump in Cleveland, St. Louis, etc. with Detroit, the boosters in those cities will take exception. Clearly, the people who are in those cities and trying to bring them back do not believe their problems are in the same class as Detroit.
Matthew Hall says
The comparisons to L.A. say more about L.A. than Detroit. L.A.s economics are surprisingly bad and it does seem to be taking a similiar path to Detroit. L.A.’s lost it manufacturing to the South, I.T. to the Bay area, and never had much in the way of finance or business services outside of show business. Not a good indication for L.A.’s future.
John Morris says
Wow, I’m a bit negative on LA but it really doesn’t compare at all.
Wow. Thanks for all the interesting and insightful comments. Aaron has a top-notch readership here and the quality of the comments is amazing. Thanks to all who commented on my piece. I’ll try to take on a few now and others later.
Many of you have commented on how this analysis could be written for any number of cities — that others have poor neighborhood identification, poor housing stock, poor public realm, etc. I say, yes. But no other city I know of was ringed by an arc of factories that had the same kind of impact on the landscape. That’s the point I wanted to get across.
Also, several noted that maybe the housing stock isn’t so poor in Detroit, but that other factors (race problems, crime, schools) had as much to do with decline. My point here is, once a 1960s-era factory worker in Detroit outgrew his 3-bedroom, one-bath home — for whatever reason — what were his options? They likely did not include Detroit because the city is inundated with similar homes without much else. Also, where is the flexibility in the SF home design of the homes there? One thing that could be said of Chicago, for example, is that the traditional bungalow, 2-flat or 3-flat was flexible, expandable and provided residents with options not typically available in Detroit.
Side note — even now, after losing two-thirds of its population, Detroit is fairly dense compared to other US cities. According to the 2010 Census, on a people per square mile basis Detroit is still more dense than 11 of the 17 cities with a greater population.
Commuter rail in Detroit? I was aware of rail connecting downtown Detroit with Pontiac and Ann Arbor through the early ’80s, but can anyone say they compared with the system in other cities? Look at Philly, for example — similar in size with Detroit through much of the 20th century, but a vastly superior commuter rail network. Detroit never had that.
Comparing Detroit with East St. Louis or Camden (or Gary, for that matter): I’d say the comparisons are not quite apt, and that, if anything, the decline in those cities has been even greater because they aren’t the core cities of their regions.
One commenter said an interesting “what-if” would look at what would’ve happened if Detroit had either expanded annexations post-1915, or stayed at its pre-1915 limits. Interesting question. My guess is that the more annexation route was taken away from Detroit by 1925; it was surrounded by other towns (Grosse Pointes, HP and Hamtramck, Dearborn, River Rouge, Ecorse) that weren’t going anywhere. If they stayed at the 1915 boundaries, I could see the city being very similar to St. Louis — a much smaller city surrounded by inner-ring suburbs that are pretty urban in character.
Last point — I do not want to give the impression that race tensions, job loss, crime, poor schools and the like did not play a role in Detroit’s fall. They most definitely did. But land use patterns and decisions made decades earlier made those problems worse in Detroit once they did occur.
I’ll have more to say later.
Matthew, you’re off the mark describing L.A.’s trajectory. We’re not the next Detroit, and we have gone through our Detroit phase and rolled with the punches many times before and never ended up Detroiting.
You’re not going to get a good picture of L.A.’s economy if your source material is “Southland,” “Boyz N The Hood” or “Colors.”
L.A. has deindustrialized. It coincided with the Rust Belt’s decline. The difference is that L.A. had a broader-based economy to withstand some of the shock. That is why L.A. continued to grow in population whereas irreversible decline set in elsewhere.
Even more recently, L.A. had a Japan-style Lost Decade from 1987-1997. It started with the 1987 Wall Street crash, which set in motion a wave of bank failures that took out the West Coast’s second-biggest financial sector (behind San Francisco). The banking sector disappeared or was absorbed into other cities. Then came the 1990s and the collapse of the aerospace and defense sector. This surely would have been the beginning of the end, as it was the largest and highest-value employer in the region — yes, much larger than the entertainment industry, which has only a single-digit share of economic output.
The 1992 riots were a watershed moment, because it marked the retreat and abandonment of whites as a political and economic force in Los Angeles. The fear was that once the whites disappeared, the riots would be the New Normal that would fill the vacuum.
In 1994, you had the Northridge Earthquake that caused widespread property damage and also caused key freeway networks to collapse.
The early 1990s recession had lifted from the U.S., but L.A. was left to stagnate. The federal aid from the riots and the earthquake had dried up, leaving no other activity to replace it.
L.A. wasn’t going anywhere, but the burning and looting did not resume.
So then why was 1997 such a magic number?
Well, that was the year another financial crisis began, this time in Asia. Most of the money that had come in was from South Korea, which saw the U.S. as a “flight to safety.” Because L.A. had a large Korean community, many Koreans came here and brought with them money to start businesses, invest and buy real estate.
It also brought a new wave of Japanese, Chinese and Thai investment as well. It happened because of diaspora ties.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If L.A. hadn’t had these ethnic communities, there wouldn’t have been anything to replace what we have lost.
L.A. has long been an international city, and our multiethnic and multicultural populace turned out to be a saving grace. L.A. serves as a gateway city; this is the area where immigrants arrive and establish themselves. gateway cities like L.A., Miami, New York and San Diego offer a value proposition: It gives immigrants the chance to create a middle class that they cannot in their homelands. In the U.S., they have access to capital, access to markets, and stable government and business institutions.
L.A. also has longstanding “wide moat” assets: The busiest seaport complex in the U.S., tourism based on inimitable natural amenities (beaches, mountains, calm weather), world-class higher education, an apex predator industry (entertainment), the largest manufacturing sector by employment in the U.S.*, and a fully integrated international logistics trade sector spanning the entire value chain.
* This was in an infographic published in the Los Angeles Times in fall 2011. Southern California remains the No. 1 employer of manufacturing careers in the United States. Guess what is No. 2?
Wad: great points on LA. I’ve always thought the city’s diverse demographics, diverse economy and natural amenities helped to slow any slide and led to revitalization. Two of those three should figure into Detroit’s future.
One more thing. I wrote this piece because I am a D booster. But we cannot make it better without a thorough understanding of the roots of its problems. I will write about possible prescriptions in the future too.
RJ Koscielniak says
in response to matt hall – st. louis county experienced its first population ever in the last census, and the city lost another 8.5%. For most of the last half-century, st louis has led all cities in percentage loss – only in the most recent did detroit inherit that title. including the central core, metro detroit lost 3.5% total in the previous decade. regardless, i don’t think it does anyone any good to compete over which city fell the hardest. east st. louis is a product of a region that disavows its cities – just ask to see cahokia.
aaron: in terms of rust belt boosterism, i think avoiding the conversation is the more unproductive tact – recognizing the degree of flight, the vacancy, the unemployment, the obsolescence, and the poverty gives reason for committed individuals to consider their contribution to these obdurate social problems. we can rebuild a downtown – kind of – but what does that mean for the majority of residents? what is actually happening in these neighborhoods? what kinds of everyday practices are interpreting the decline? the more we imagine there’s one kind of urban, the less likely it is that we’ll respect how our cities are changing. the new urban revolution is not about density, it’s about networks of individuals, civil society actors, informal institutions, and local anchors.
in any case, these are ideas that planners, social workers, and public administrators have been afraid to pose for fear of obstructing progress. we’ve been stupefied by imagining ourselves to be openings through which the city is interpreted – we have a panorama complex, a romantic idea of authority and directionality that makes it nary impossible to suggest bold ideas, different forms of organizing ourselves, and a sensitivity to emergent results. detroit, cleveland, and st louis will never be anything like portland and seattle – and that’s perfectly fine. they can privilege the diversity of urbans and understand how population growth isn’t the only metric of success.
RJ Koscielniak says
by the way – i grew up in cleveland, akron, and st louis, went away to school in pittsburgh. though i’m away for my phd, i study and practice in these places now – an entrepreneur, neighbor, community developer, advocate, bricoleur. i have every right as any ‘booster’ to speak assiduously about my homeland.
CJ Jenkins says
Please forgive this rather impassioned response…
but I did find the article and comments fascinating and informative. As a native Detroiter, I often felt a sort of love/hate relationship with my hometown. Of the comments and info I’m familiar with here…I agree about 95%.
However, the author mentions he was from Detroit, too, but doesn’t seem to realize that there were many, many choices of larger home-neighborhoods within the city for a 1960’s factory worker who had prospered, to have moved into. My own neighborhood of 8-Mile and Meyers bordered on the West Outer Drive area vacated by the professional Jewish citizenry once red-lining was relaxed and Southfield and parts north were made available to them! Google earth that area right now and you’ll find many large, well-built homes, many of them one-of-a kind (including a Frank Lloyd Wright home on 7 Mile Road across from our neighborhood library, the Sherwood Forest branch). These homes were well available to families in my immediate neighborhood to “move-up” into and many of our neighbors did just that – this began in the mid-1960’s.
Also, one respondent reacted favorably to the large number of single-family homes in the city. In fact, Detroit had more single-family homes per capita than any other city in the country. That used to be something to aspire to. People seemed to like living in neighborhoods that were more like gardens than densely populated apartment buildings. And gardening was very widespread in my experience…neighbors grew fruits and vegetables in their yards and exchanged them with each other. That also contributed to the feeling of community. The system of block clubs was also very strong at that time. (My old neighborhood block club still exists, I understand.) In my opinion, the configuration of the neighborhoods fostered these positive activities, strengthening neighborhood bonds. Also, street vendors of all types cruised the streets daily, so the need to venture outside of home was less of a necessity!
I also, remember growing up in the 50’s and 60’s that Detroit was a city that worked! We had U.S. home mail delivery twice a day and three daily newspapers (the Times, News and Free Press). World class museums, concert halls and parks and let’s not forget Motown! And no, that’s not cliche. Motown brought a lot of positive attention and credibility to Detroit. Not to mention the City-wide physical fitness program called the “Junior Olympics” in which all of the city kids competed each year! Free concerts for public school children to the Ford Auditorium to hear The Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by Valter Poole were something else I’ll treasure in my memories of Detroit…as well as trips to the Bonstelle to see Shakespeare.
I also liked the spoke-like layout of the downtown area. It had a traffic calming effect and focused the eye eventually to the most striking natural element of the city…the riverfront. It was also my experience that there was a lot of commerce going on in Downtown Detroit in those decades. Banks and insurance companies were prevalent as well as about 10 large movie theaters (or “palaces” as they would now be referred to), the Opera House and many large department stores.
I guess what I’m really saying is that the Detroit of the 1950’s and 60’s for me wasn’t just a few little houses near factory outlets. It was a walkable city with a myriad of businesses in close proximity to each other and private homes. Places such as theaters (and drive-ins), libraries and recreation centers, bowling alleys and record stores – all within walking distance. Something, I would think, a planner would want to strive for in a city.
I don’t doubt the explanations of decline offered here, I Just wanted to remind (or inform) the readers of how much was lost when this once-great city declined. So much was lost…
When I go back to Detroit to visit family and friends I can’t help feeling sad about the place. I’m a San Diego, CA resident now…and have been for longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I love it here…the place and people are wonderful, but as wonderful as my current hometown is, I have to say that there was more culture, history and neighborhood involvement in the Detroit of my youth than ever seemed to have existed here. And I’m not knocking San Diego, but it’s very vast and has residents from so many places, I marvel that there are as many community programs as there are. There was corporate generosity towards Detroit at that time which enabled so many public buildings, parks and works projects to exist that seem to be largely lacking in my current home.
I don’t have any solutions or know how to get the vibrancy back, but I think that many of the people who still live there would be gratified to know that so many wonderful ideas and suggestions and well-reasoned articles such as this one are being offered. I know I am.
I look forward to more insightful comments and opinions…
I agree totaly with Wad’s take on LA. It is still avery dynamic city that takes in a feeds out tons of people and ideas.
The asian immigration and money flow waves are pretty much the way he describes them since one saw the same wave in Flushing, elmhrst and other Asian communities in Queens, NY.
Money flowed in and out, right about the time of the Hong Kong handover to China, and ebbs or surges with events and fears about Taiwan.
John Morris says
Wondering what you thought about my links about Brooklyn and Queens. A very high percent of NYC’s most troubled areas also have limited business districts, low diversity in housing stock and density, and poor neighborhood identification.
I am hardly an expert on these places-because, I never drove in NY and had no particular reason to roam around them, but there are very large areas of South Queens and deep Brooklyn, that are a pretty generic sprawl-Flatlands, Canarsie, East, NY, South Jamacia, Springfield Gardens, Saint Albans that suffer from a lot of the problems described here.
John Morris says
A great relative contrast in Queens is Flushing vs. Springfield Gardens. Flushing, is at the end of a transit line, has an LIRR station and is served by perhaps a dozen bus lines. For those reasons, it always had a big shopping and business district. A fairly short walk away, one has blocks of single family homes–but they have a huge locational advantage.
You wrote that Detroit had “no history” of a commuter rail system and now you claim that you did know, but your point about not having commuter rail still stands? I’m sorry but you are still wrong.
You also wrote ” I do not want to give the impression that race tensions, job loss, crime, poor schools and the like did not play a role in Detroit’s fall.” But you also wrote a 9 point +1000 word essay on Detroit’s decline without mentioning crime. Not once. I can only conclude that you did want to give the impression that crime played no role. The only impressions you give are the ones you wrote. Thus far they are not good.
“But land use patterns and decisions made decades earlier made those problems worse in Detroit once they did occur.”
Detroit is not unique. Many other Rust Belt cities suffered decline. Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, the list is familiar. Detroit isn’t even unique in Michigan. Flint suffered a similar decay, and the decline started at the same time. Metro Flint, like metro Detroit, never suffered a decay or population loss. Doesn’t that invalidate your thesis that Detroit’s geography was, in any way, unique?
“an unapologetic black leadership assumes control”
Black leadership is a pitfall? Yes, Detroit’s leadership has been shitty, but does that have anything to do with their race?
Rod Stevens says
A very detailed, well-written post. Thank you for this. It is good to simply lay out the factors in one place, to recognize the size of the challenge that Detroit and other places like it face.
One thing that makes me wonder is the number of factors. Seven. That’s a lot, and some of these are not unique to Detroit. I believe it got hit by a confluence of problems, so I then have to wonder what made it uniquely vulnerable to change. Other places like L.A. certainly have had urban challenges. Look at the loss of the Red Car lines there and the freeways that mauled the individual communities.
I have to think, however, that this being America, a place of relative flexibility and growth, that Detroit would have adapted to and overcome these problems if there weren’t a few major factors working against it. Other places in America have grown and changed. Why didn’t Detroit.
Racial differences and bad urban leadership were certainly part of the problem, but where did that bad urban leadership come from. Was it simply the fact that Detroit, like Denver, was surrounded by other cities, and the urban leaders simply quit caring? I’m not so sure about that, for there was a somewhat similar situation in Hartford, and the “insurance barons” there didn’t give up. Their redevelopment efforts may not have succeeded, but at least they tried, in Hartford.
To me, the most important book for understanding Detroit’s plight is David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning”, nominally the history of Ford and Nissan, but really an accounting of the decline of American manufacturing. It’s important to know that this was written in 1987, about 25 years ago. It traces the decline decades back from that date.
You really missed the mark. Read Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
John Morris says
I agree, Pete should have mentioned race and crime as factors in what happened–along with the quality of city government and yes he should have mentioned the commuter rail system.
It seems, generally like the commuter rail failure supports rather than undermines his arguement in that the city never supported enough density or a strong enough downtown business office base to make the rail system work. Why is that?
He also made it pretty clear, he was talking about, “major cities”, which Detroit, at least measured by population, certainly was, and not smaller cities like Toledo or Flint.
Rod Stevens says
(continuation; for some reason my computer sent my earlier reply before I had finished it.)
The single most important factor I’d cite would be industrial hubris, dating back to that quote from “Engine Charlie Wilson”, partially taken out of context, that “What’s good for GM is good for America”. Maybe I am wrong in this, but my sense is that the people running the Big Three thought they could do no wrong, that they would forever have market share, and that the colossus they thought of as Detroit would never go wrong.
That was a very dangerous attitude. It kept them from looking ahead, to making investments in new kinds of cars. It made them insular in their attitudes, haughty about their ability to change.
And Detroit was, for better or worse, a company town. Three companies really, but all in the same industry, basically making the same products with the same features. That hubris kept them from thinking ahead, about how they not only needed to update their companies and their industry, but the skills and technology of the place itself. That kind of forward thinking often comes to communities only when they are hungry and worried about the future, the kind of hunger and worry that caused Chattanooga to update itself, that caused Portland to turn away from its wood products past, that caused Pittsburgh to realize it could no longer rely on steel. When people have to change, they do, and yet for many years the auto industry in Detroit has been in denial about its loss of market share. It’s been in decline since the 1980’s, but it was so big that GM could ride down the curve for 30 years before it had to declare bankruptcy. During that time the main community response to decline was building mega redevelopment projects like arenas and casinos. There doesn’t seem to have been a fundamental response of trying to improve the skills and education of the people living there, something that other cities in decline turn to, at least those that successfully turn themselves around.
Bottom line: I think the corporate governance of Detroit, and the sway it held over the city, may have had a lot more to do with the community’s decline than it’s physical development. Again, we’re a wonderfully dynamic society here in America. Something kept Detroit from evolving, and I think that “something” was an overly dominant auto industry leadership that did not look ahead.
DaveOf Richmond says
James, other cities had racial problems, industrialists who just wanted to make money and abandon the city, labor strife and corruption. But the other large rust-belt cities also had elites who built lasting institutions. I also haven’t heard too many stories from other cities where fascist gangs actually gained influence in important companies to the extent that I have with Detroit:
You might also read up about Harry Bennett’s “Ford Service Department” if you’re unfamiliar with it.
Other companies in other cities employed similar tactics at times, but it seems Detroit business leaders were simply worse, and more importantly, didn’t offset it with anything positive. Andrew Carnegie called in the Pinkerton’s in the 19th century in Pittsburgh (Homestead actually), but Carnegie also built libraries and universities. Where is Detroit’s great university?
So my point in comparing Detroit to East St Louis and the like is still valid in my opinion, in respect to the outlook of its business and political leaders – they had the mentality of small industrial city leaders, but were running one of the largest cities in the country. The more I read about Detroit’s history in the 1920 – 1950 period, the less surprised I am about its subsequent fall.
John Morris says
That’s sort of the thing-Detroit, was or should have been a major regional center and by size, it was a major city.
But, in many ways, it really wasn’t. It never fully fuctioned as a city, just as place to work, for three companies and their suppliers. Something happened and the business base froze and failed to generate diversity or new growth.
Even if we describe Detroit as a car town, it doesn’t explain why other car companies never brought production there.
Jane Jacobs, in her book on the decline of American cities written in the early 60’s, criticized Detroit’s density repeatedly. She predicted its decline largely for that reason.
John Morris says
Right. Where is Detroit’s great university? Why didn’t anyone see that as something worthwhile? Why does the University of Michigan STILL NOT see the value in putting programs and annexes in Detroit?
BTW–Detroit’s business base really froze from the 1930’s, on so let’s count unions and many governemnt officials as at least partly responsible.
They treated the companies like trees that didn’t need much water and would always be there and focused on picking as much fruit as they could get their hands on.
John Morris says
Exactly, Jane Jacobs saw this comming.
Matthew Hall says
Wow, I struck a nerve suggesting that there are inidications of possible decline in L.A.’s future. Individual incomes, levels of education, and property values have been bad in L.A. in the last decade compared to other major U.S. metros. Nothing is inevitable, but it would be foolish to ignore these signs of stagnantion in L.A. and to compare it to any insights about Detroit.
DaveOf Richmond says
John Morris: “It never fully functioned as a city, just as place to work, for three companies and their suppliers”
Yes, exactly what I’m trying to get across in my two comments above. It was like a company town that grew far too large. Comparing it to Flint as some commenters are doing simply underlines the point.
Another example of a Detroit leader ignoring the needs of the city: Alfred Sloan, perhaps the greatest auto exec in Detroit history, did help fund a great business school: The Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, at MIT in Cambridge, MA. He also help found the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute – in New York City. No one here needs the help, but I’ll offer it anyway – Cambridge and NYC are not near Detroit. He did, however, fund an automobile museum in Flint. So there it is, New York gets a world class medical institution, Boston gets a world class business school, Michigan gets an auto museum.
John Morris says
“Compared to other major U.S. metros.”
Right, well a lot of Metros are starting to quite well, so that LA looks relatively bad.
Also, looking at income levels in a city that draws in so many new immigrants and poor immigrants is bound to create skewed statistics. Pittsburgh, looks pretty great in that kind of stat, partly because it draws in so few new people.
That’s not a great thing for a city to do.
Not saying LA, doesn’t have serious problems but people looking for links with Detroit would be better off looking at a place like Las Vegas. Single industry town, boom growth, cheaply built housing, poor educational attainment, no important colleges and very powerful unions.
John Morris says
Even so, Vegas is also a much more dynamic city, where the business of the city is about attracting visitors, so I wouldn’t make too many assumptions there either.
Vegas, Pheonix etc…could become like Detroit.
Matthew Hall says
I had no idea L.A. had such passionate defenders. Where have you all been all this time? And why do you think L.A. needs defending in the first place? Very interesting. . . .
Your question of why the rail system didn’t work in Detroit is a difficult one to answer. I don’t really know, but I suspect there are two parts to a successful commuter rail system. One is downtown worker density. A downtown full of office buildings like Chicago’s Loop or downtown Manhattan needs a way to get all those workers into town. There isn’t a way to have enough parking and still be dense. The two seem mutually exclusive. So things like trains are necessary. The other thing needed is political support. No transit system in America exists without government subsidies, be it airports built by governments to support the airlines, highways built by the government that buses use, or rail lines supported with government subsidies. Chicago’s Metra recently raised rates to cover operational expenses, but capital expenses are dependent on government patronage.
If Detroit has neither the incentive to take the train because downtown has plenty of cheap parking, uncongested roads and there isn’t political capital to fund trains, then trains will die. I don’t know if this is the story of the end of commuter rail in Detroit, because information on SEMTA is hard to google and I don’t really have the time to do this sort of hard research.
Many Detroit observers lament that Detroit never built a subway. The city had plans to build one in the 20s but for political reasons the subway never got started. I suspect that a subway would not have helped. Other cities in America built subways and shut them down: see Cincinnati and Rochester. Wouldn’t subways in Detroit have been yet another abandoned ruin?
However, I have never seen a more dysfunctional metro region anywhere in America. There is a visceral hatred of the city by its suburbs, and likewise a hatred of the suburbs by the city. Regional cooperation is very low, and you can see this in the lack of cooperation over regional infrastructure like the airports, the zoo, the aquarium, the sports stadiums, etc.
John Morris says
I think all we are saying is it just doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Detroit or at least that there are just too many differences to draw many links at all.
The vast, surging and changing immigration flows from both inside and outside the country are just so different. The diversity of the economic base is also very different.
Where is Detroit’s great university?
Detroit has a few. The University of Detroit-Mercy is in the city, as is Wayne State University. I believe Ransom Olds donated money to nearby Michigan State’s engineering college and may have named something after him. Is it important that the University of Michigan isn’t in the city limits? Is it important to San Francisco that Cal is in not too far away Berkeley or that Stanford is in nearby Palo Alto?
Detroit had some great civic institutions, but as you would expect from a declining city there hasn’t been much added in many years.
John Morris says
I think all those things support the basic arguement that Pete made about the city’s basic design playing such a huge role in it’s fate.
“No transit system in America exists without government subsidies.”
Yes, in America. Hong Kong’s transit system is run by a private corporation and makes huge profits–while keeping fares pretty low. Mostly, iy makes money as a land developer, building offices, retail and apartments by it’s stations.
It’s pretty reasonable to imagine NY’s system being privatised and run that way, at a profit. The basic difference is urban design.
Ever been on the New York Subway?
IRT = The Interborough Rapid Transit Company
BMT = The Brooklyn—Manhattan Transit Corporation
IND = Independent Subway System
Two of the three were founded and operated as private companies.
John Morris says
“Is it important to San Francisco that Cal is in not too far away Berkeley or that Stanford is in nearby Palo Alto?”
LOL. Most people think the relative closeness of those schools to San Francisco made a huge difference in the city and region.
I know, Ann Arbor is not too far, but it does seem like they are very happy about being in their little world worried about themselves and Big Ten football.
In the case of Pittsburgh, without a doubt, the location of the colleges was the biggest single factor in how things have worked out.
Thanks for the well written piece– you’ve certainly addressed many key issues. Much of my own research supports your arguments, although, I will add that lack of regional vision is a key factor that was not thoroughly addressed. Some of the early 20th century work of Arthur Comey (1915 Detroit Suburban Plan and 1929 Birmingham Village Plan / Regional Vision) is very enlightening.
Also, I have found David Rusk’s comparison of ‘Zero-elasticity’ cities to be quite interesting. Detroit’s long-standing inability to act as a unifying element in the metro region, due to poor annexation or otherwise, has certainly taken its toll on regional planning.
My hometown, Buffalo, has suffered from most of the same planning gaffes, though, and like you said, it never declined to the level of Detroit.
1) Poor neighborhood identification – some areas have a strong neighborhood identity (North Buffalo, Parkside, Allentown, Kaisertown, Lovejoy, South Buffalo, Riverside, Black Rock, Elmwood Village), others are just known by te nearest prominent intersections (Kensington-Bailey, Delavan-Bailey, Broadway-Bailey, Broadway-Fillmore, Fillmore-Leroy). Catholic parish names were sometimes used in real estate listings to conduse black renters.
2) Poor housing stock – there are entire suburbs of Buffalo whose housing stock is comprised primarily of small 3/1 Capes and ranches; Cheektowaga is the largest. Buffalo still has tens of thousands of examples of the workman’s cottage, also called the telescoping house because its footprint resembled a telescope. Most were built before WWI, and most have awkward floorplans and no individual room heating (a large space heater in the living room that heats the entire house is the norm for most) that make renovation economically impractical outside of all but a couple of desirable neighborhoods. Buffalo was about 95% built out before WWII; it’s the uncommon block on the fringes of the city that is lined by post-WWII housing. Detroit’s housing stock is a mix of brick and frame; Buffalo is a mostly frame.
3) A poor public realm – same as Detroit, outside of the “gold spike” neighborhoods north of downtown.
4) A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Same as Detroit, with the added handicaps of there being little office employment, no major corporations, very strong neighborhood retail strips complete with full-service department stores that rivaled those of downtown, and essentially no neighborhoods from west or south from which to draw customers to downtown stores. Buffalo’s downtown is, for all practical purposes, off in a corner of the developed area, not in the geographic center.
5) Freeway network: didn’t affect Buffalo as much as Detroit. Still, the Niagara Thruway (I-190) blocked off access to the waterfront, and a portion of the Kensington Expressway (NY 33) destroyed a parkway that was an integral part of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park and parkway system, and bisected Hamlin Park, one of the few middle-class neighborhoods on the city’s East Side.
6) Lack of/loss of a transit network – the International Railway Company never upgraded its rolling stock to PCC cars, instead depending on battered 1910s-era Peter Witt cars until the last trolley rolled into the barns in 1950. There was also no commuter rail network to the northeast, where the bulk of urbanization and growth took place since the city’s foundation.
7) Local government organization – same as Detroit.
8) An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core- worse than Detroit, with most industrial areas being established long before the Buffalo adopted zoning in 1920. Industrial facilities, often multi-story buildings on very small lots with little room for expansion, were scattered around the city, and railroads fragmented the East Side and South Buffalo to a fine granularity not seen in Detroit. The first zoning map reflected then-existing underlying uses, solidifying them as a permanent part of the landscape.
9) Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy – worse than Detroit. Buffalo’s current city limits are largely unchanged from the mid-1800s. The city passed on the opportunity to annex then-cash starved Amherst and Tonawanda in the 1930s.
So, maybe a question that should be asked is “How did Buffalo manage not to decline as far as Detroit?”
“I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.”
I can totally believe that statement. This may seem a little off-topic, but when I moved from Michigan to North Carolina, my auto insurance SKYROCKETED. I have always suspected that the presence of the auto industry in Michigan is the cause. Specifically, that the rates are kept low so that people have a low threshold to owning a car. Same thing, right? The auto-dominated economy wants a landscape that supports its values. So I don’t doubt that there is an excess of freeway miles in Detroit because it gets people into car ownership.
First let me say that I’m still overwhelmed by the number, quality and thoughtfulness of the responses here — even those I disagree with. Sometimes I think if we put our collective planning minds together on this Detroit thing we could do some good.
Couple of things. I still believe, contrary to some of the commenters, that Detroit’s fall is unique among major American cities. True, the same toxic mix that has brought the city down was definitely at work in other cities across the country, but I think something happened that made the racial tensions a little worse, the white flight that much larger, the crime that much worse. I’d argue that no other city has a poorer relationship with its suburbs than Detroit, and no other metro area’s suburbs have so thoroughly divorced themselves from the central city.
This list was never intended to be comprehensive, but to go beyond the traditional narrative on Detroit. In my investigation I saw some land use actions that seemed to play a huge part in the way the city is now and I wanted to highlight that. To those who said I neglected to mention race, crime, schools, corruption, freeway construction, etc. — we knew that already.
Lastly, I wanted to let everyone know that the response here has pushed me to do something I’ve always thought about: starting my own blog. You can find this same article at cornersideyard.blogspot.com, and I’ll be adding more stories on Detroit, urban planning, and other matters there in the very near future.
I don’t understand what you are trying to say about Detroit and universities.
I’ve been on New York’s subways. The operations started as private companies but the construction was funded by the city of New York who actually had to make large legal clearances to build them and sell such a huge amount of bonds. That model clearly does not work in America. The same was largely true in Chicago.
John Morris says
It doesn’t and can’t work here because we have decided to put all public and planning policy in favor of cars.
We also don’t allow private operators to choose and design the routes. Routes, hours and fare structures are determined mostly through politics.
We also don’t allow freedom to create and determine wage or benefit structures for employees.
Don’t give me the “it can’t be done line”. It can be done but we won’t let it.
Again I don’t understand what you are trying to say. Privatized transit systems in America all failed in the 20th century, so we should try it again in the 21st? Even though the entire legal structure of private transit systems in other countries is different? Please correct me if this is not your argument.
John Morris says
Um, yes they failed in the 20th Century. A lot of stuff failed or is about to fail in case you haven’t noticed? We now as a country have perhaps 100 trillion dollars in unfunded promises and liabilities.
Might be time to ask why and perhaps start to change our thinking about housing, roads, zoning, and a whole lot of other things.
You write here “I’m still overwhelmed by the number, quality and thoughtfulness of the responses here – even those I disagree with. ”
But on your own blog you come across as rather petulant and dismissive. It reflects poorly on you as a person and as a professional. I mean I would never hire someone with that attitude.
“I still believe, contrary to some of the commenters, that Detroit’s fall is unique among major American cities.”. Then maybe write an argument that demonstrates this?
“I’d argue that no other city has a poorer relationship with its suburbs than Detroit, and no other metro area’s suburbs have so thoroughly divorced themselves from the central city.”
You would argue that? No, you would be stealing my thesis. You neglected to write this or even think of this until I mentioned it.
“This list was never intended to be comprehensive, but to go beyond the traditional narrative on Detroit. “. Too bad that isn’t what you wrote. Instead your thesis was the following:
why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out.
If we misunderstand your thinking and your intentions it is because you did not write it. I’m sorry that you also don’t seem to appreciate any feedback, only self aggrandizement.
I guess I still don’t quite grasp your argument, but I suppose we are digressing quite a bit from the topic. I will leave it at that.
11) This was glossed over in the intro: The closure of auto factories. When good paying jobs go overseas or down south, they are difficult to replace.
12) Crime. Unbelievable overwhelming crime making it impossible to run public transport or walk to the store even if the stores weren’t long ago abandoned because of crime.
John Morris says
BTW, here is the most famous Jane Jacob’s quote on Detroit fro her 1961, book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
“Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.”
Anyway, carry on. Detroit’s urban plan was fine and would never have been a problem if the facories didn’t close.
John Morris says
Perhaps many folks in Detroit themselves felt the same way about the places they lived in, which is why they didn’t mind packing up and moving on to the next outer band of suburbs.
Lot’s of places lose jobs. Why didn’t people fight to stay? Why didn’t new businesses come in to fill the void-partcularly during the early period when the big three started moving their factories out of the city into the inner ring suburban areas. Why didn’t more offices and business servce and design firms locate in the urban core? Why didn’t a solid base of other non auto related manufacturing develop? Why didn’t awesome brands like the Motown sound develop into a thriving local music industry?
BTW–Hong Kong’s job base in it’s early years was almost totally based on Manufacturing. New York was a major manufacturing city and a major port. It lost the vast bulk of those jobs but generated new ones.
John Morris says
I mean, Detroit isn’t even home to Cambell Ewald, the big ad agency. (they are in Warren, Michigan) Agencies like that almost always locate in the core downtowns of cities.
Are there law firms downtown? There has to be some business.
Was crime out of control in the early sixties? It really seems that things were hollowing out even then.
John, you asked “Was crime out of control in the early sixties? It really seems that things were hollowing out even then.”
Is this a rhetorical question? If not then I shall be happy to assist. Yes indeed. Violent crime began a rather precipitous and unexpected surge in the 1960s. This was a broad trend across America. Violent crime began to plunge – again unexpectedly – in the 1990s. I haven’t parsed the numbers for Detroit in a long time, but remember that the late 60s saw a number of violent riots in Detroit.
“I mean, Detroit isn’t even home to Cambell Ewald”
Hell, Detroit isn’t even home to 2 of the Big 3! Chrysler was located in Highland Park for a long time and moved to Auburn Hills in the 90s. Ford has been in Dearborn forever.
John Morris says
Right. That’s a pretty weird thing that the main corporations in the area never saw enough value in being in the city. It shows that nobody exactly understood what the value being a city was in the first place.
This sort of fits with the basic motto of Henry Ford “people can have any color they want as long as it’s black”. Innovating products is and continuing creativity are not important-it’s all about the speed of the line.
Of course, nobody saw a value in having a place where lot’s of businesses and people polinate ideas-cause all the ideas were polinated. Why be in a place with a high density of jobs where one can change jobs–cause your job is locked in for life.
John Morris says
Did crime explode in the Early Sixties?
And if it did was it really “unexpected”. Already, large scale highway construction was likely tearing the city up
John Morris says
Here’s a link I found with stats for Michigan as a whole.
I have to look further for context but the early sixties figures don’t look bad–relative of course to what came later. The number do show a very steep climb but starting more in the mid sixties.
John, lots more questions you ask:
“Lot’s of places lose jobs. Why didn’t people fight to stay? Why didn’t new businesses come in to fill the void-partcularly during the early period when the big three started moving their factories out of the city into the inner ring suburban areas. Why didn’t more offices and business servce and design firms locate in the urban core? Why didn’t a solid base of other non auto related manufacturing develop? Why didn’t awesome brands like the Motown sound develop into a thriving local music industry?”
This is a really hard question to answer. Certainly I can’t answer this fully. But perhaps you will find these Detroit advertisements from 1925 illuminating.
Shipping is pretty much out for Detroit. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lawrence_Seaway
“Channel depths and limited lock sizes mean that only 10% of ocean-going ships can traverse the entire seaway.”
Lake Superior iron ore has been in terminal decline for a long time. See here as well: http://chicagourbanist.blogspot.com/2011/09/look-back-at-chicagos-growth.html
I think manufacturing has been in terminal decline for Detroit, the Rust Belt, and the US since the 70s due to the structure of things. But few people could see it at the time and put the pieces together, which is strange because in 1925 people knew exactly where the success of the region originated. Why did they forget?
I like to reframe the question as what could Detroit do that gives it an advantage over anywhere else? I don’t know what the answer for Detroit was in 1962 or 1982 and I can’t give a prescription for 2012 either.
Further reading: http://books.google.com/books?id=28PLpNLQ3x4C&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=train+stations+in+detroit+-central+renaissance+-people+-mover+semta&source=bl&ots=qvJWNaeBe6&sig=X2iawuZlIIcLZzFKOnulUumTbPE&hl=en&ei=QUDdSbCmOZXAM8K1_d8N&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=train%20stations%20in%20detroit%20-central%20renaissance%20-people%20-mover%20semta&f=false
This book (which I just started) might help answer the questions of philanthropists building stuff in Detroit. The Fords built the Ford theater (which I think is gone now but used to hold the DSO) and the Renaissance Center, which now ironically holds GM. It also answers some questions about the Grand Trunk Railroad and trains in Detroit.
John Morris says
Also, the Wikipedia shows the city population dropped from 1950-1960, which makes it even less likely crime was the major factor in the early declines in population.
“And if it did was it really “unexpected”. Already, large scale highway construction was likely tearing the city up”
Absolutely it was unexpected! Policy makers expected crime rates to decline in the 60s, not increase. They thought that the increase in social safety nets and integration would reduce crime. If you read the book Nixonland you will see how unexpected it was.
However, I see no real correlation between highway construction and crime rates.
Which is why the decline in crime in the 90s was also unexpected. I have read many a pet theory on the rise and fall of violent crime in America, all leave me unsatisfied.
John Morris says
LOL, no correlation?
At least in the case of Pittsburgh, New York, Newark etc… highway construction meant the massive forced tearing down of entire communities.
I’m adding the general “urban renewal”, stuff in the mix.
“Under the powerful influence of multimillionaire R.K. Mellon, Pittsburgh became the first major city to undertake a modern urban-renewal program in May 1950. Pittsburgh was infamous around the world as one of the dirtiest and most economically depressed cities, and seemed ripe for urban renewal. A large section of downtown at the heart of the city was demolished, converted to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena and renamed the Golden Triangle in what was universally recognized as a major success. Other neighborhoods were also subjected to urban renewal, but with mixed results. Some areas did improve, while other areas, such as East Liberty and Lower Hill, declined following ambitious projects that shifted traffic patterns, blocked streets to vehicular traffic, isolated or divided neighborhoods with highways, and removed large numbers of ethnic and minority residents. Because of the ways in which it targeted the most disadvantaged sector of the American population, novelist James Baldwin famously dubbed Urban Renewal “Negro Removal” in the 1960s.
The term “urban renewal” was not introduced in the USA until the Housing Act was again amended in 1954. That was also the year in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the general validity of urban redevelopment statutes in the landmark case, Berman v. Parker.”
I don’t know the specifics in Detroit, but things like this were happening on a large scale there, one would expect it to possibly raise the crime rate.
In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act gave state and federal government complete control over new highways, and often they were routed directly through vibrant urban neighborhoods–isolating or destroying many–since the focus of the program was to bring traffic in and out of the central cores of cities as expeditiously as possible and nine out of every ten dollars spent came from the federal government. This resulted in a serious degradation of the tax bases of many cities, isolated entire neighborhoods, and meant that existing commercial districts were bypassed by the majority of commuters. Segregation continued to increase as communities were displaced and many African Americans and Latinos were left with no other option than moving into public housing while whites moved to the suburbs in ever-greater numbers.”
Let’s just say, this is the kind of thing that just might piss a lot of people off, break thousands of business and social links, destroy jobs and disrupt people’s lives.
We are quite a bit off topic but I don’t really see how highways = urban renewal. Or how they cause violent crime. If highways caused violent crime then why did violent crime decline in the 90s? The highways didn’t go away.
Most pet theories I’ve read include the following: leaded gasoline, the cold war, baby boomers, liberal social policies, conservative social policies, and abortion legalization. Highways is a new one for me.
More answers to your question of why businesses aren’t in downtown Detroit can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/20/realestate/in-detroit-gm-begins-a-game-of-musical-chairs.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
It begs the question of why: “The fact that the company purchased the complex for little more that a fifth of the price it cost to build two decades ago reflects the market’s wariness in investing in a deteriorated downtown.”
John Morris says
Did you read the wikipedia quote? Social disruption, from tearing down thousands of people’s homes and businesses certainly could be a factor in creating a climate in which crime could increase.
Ever hear of East Tremont in the South Bronx?
John Morris says
Bleep, I had some trouble getting a good video. Anyway, it was a great, mixed middle class community before The Crodd Bronx Expressway was built but afterwards rapidly became one of the country’s poorest and most troubled places.
John Morris says
In Newark, many people consider, urban renewal to have been one of the main factors in the city’s decline and a primary cause in the 1968 riots.
“In Newark, “urban renewal” or “Negro removal” as it was referred to by local residents, would play an important role in fomenting rebellion. Plans were already in place to build superhighways which would bisect the black community. Then in the early months of 1967 the city proposed the “clearance” of 150 acres of “slum” land to build a medical school/hospital complex. Of course, this would involve the demolition of numerous homes in the predominantly black Central Ward. Given the shortage of housing in other areas, the effects of such displacement were potentially devastating. Activist Tom Hayden succinctly summarized the resident’s fears:
“The city’s vast programs for urban renewal, highways, downtown development, and most recently, a 150 acre Medical School in the heart of the ghetto seemed almost deliberately designed to squeeze out this rapidly growing Negro community that represents a majority of the population” Upon hearing of the proposal, members of the local community quickly mobilized and began to hold protest rallies. Some of the same people who attended these rallies were present at the 4th precinct house, when the riot started that summer. The city’s plan to build the medical school, while demolishing black occupied homes, helped set the stage for future confrontation.”
Yeah John, I read the Wikipedia quote. It is just a quote. It doesn’t prove anything. It doesn’t have any empirical evidence and it doesn’t explain why some places increased in crime and some didn’t. I mean here in Chicago the same expressway goes through low crime Oak Park and high crime Garfield Park. Without evidence I find highways to be the least convincing argument of the lot.
John Morris says
Do you read yor own comments.
The entry was not just about highway construction but about the disruption and community displacement so often caused by that construction. It’s also about the whole mentality of urban renewal that existed at the time.
Dont you see the contradiction between your feeling that GM’s downtown move will cause problems and distructive effects on Detroit’s downtown and your feeling that evicting hundreds of small businesses through urban renewal had no effect.
“Real estate executives here expect a game of musical chairs to ensue, as transplanted G.M. employees displace all of the 8,000 office workers who now occupy the 2.2 million-square-foot, five-tower complex. Already, First of Michigan Corporation, a securities brokerage that has been a Renaissance Center tenant since 1977, is seeking new quarters. It will remain in the city, but others may move elsewhere.”
It wasn’t just people but lot’s of businesses that were uprooted by urban renewal. Many never opened again.
John Morris> Also, the Wikipedia shows the city population dropped from 1950-1960, which makes it even less likely crime was the major factor in the early declines in population.
That could probably be attributable to both a slight decline in household size, and early slum clearance efforts. Many Rust Belt cities show a population decline in that time, even when the number of households and occupied housing units rose.
There seems to be a mistaken belief that in the early post-WWII days, when cities experienced population decline, a household that left the city wasn’t replaced. In reality, the housing unit they left was usually reoccupied by someone else, unless it faced demolition from slum clearance or highway construction. In the Buffalo area, at least, it wasn’t until the 1990s that housing units were abandoned wholesale, and urban prairie emerged.
John Morris says
I don’t have time to get into all the “evidence”, but the concept that groups and neighborhoods develop social capital, is not new.
A quote from 1916 from the Wikipedia entry on Social Capital.
“I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors”
Detroit as a rapidly growing, new city never developed a deep base of social capital and quite likely the highway construction and urban renewal helped to deplete the base it did have.
Urban renewal executed through eminent domain/eviction also creates high levels of anger and distrust of just the kind Detroit became well known.
Wad> The Rust Belt Syndrome has a unique symptom: Income dependency took away the city’s ability to transition away from factories and leverage their skills into something else. Line workers had skills limited to the context of the shop floor, but it didn’t give them the ability to start their own car line or their own supply chain.
Very true. Again, look at Buffalo, which never fully recovered from the decline of manufacturing in the 1970s and later. In Rochester, where the economy was based more “retro high tech” industries, its skilled and educated workforce were able to make the transition away from the marketing departments and laboratories of Kodak and Xerox. Buffalo’s industrial workers couldn’t do the same thing, because of their limited skill set and the very high capital needed to start another manufacturing operation.
John, you misunderstand my quote. It was not meant to highlight disruptions caused by GM’s move but rather the lack of investment in class A office space in Detroit. Do you understand now?
John Morris says
I sort of understand, Detroit has not had much investment.
Honestly, I found the whole story pretty weird. Don’t most of these people have long leases, that prevent something like this from happening all at once? All the leases came up at once?
Doesn’t GM care about the effect of this?
It seems a microsm of what you always hear about Detroit as a command and control economy that will bend over for anything GM wants.
And yet another blog not linking to Cyburbia.
John Morris says
I know some might not find this relevant but here is a good series of stories about Pittsburgh photographer, Teenie Harris and the African American communities of Pittsburgh.
Yes, a lot of the housing was substandard, but the community was pretty clearly not that way.
Today, these photos are pretty much the only comprehensive record these, “ghetto” neighborhoods. This is what social capital looks like.
Detroit Je t'aime says
It is interesting and enlightening to see Detroit’s history from an urban planning standpoint! Your article comes right on time when everybody is talking about Detroit’s revival (actually we are curious to know how you see it).
However, would have to disagree about “neighborhood identification” in the city. You mention Midtown, Indian Village and English Village, but these are not the only vibrant and defined areas in the city! What about Corktown, Mexicantown, North End etc? Not to mention Downtown, which is also coming back. We were recently in Brightmoor, taking part in some local urban gardening for our webdocumentary project @ http://www.detroitjetaime.com. The area may concentrate all the symptoms of blight but you will see that it is far from hopeless, quite the contrary! http://www.detroitjetaime.com/2012/01/03/smores-in-brightmoor-detroits-urban-farming-delights/
John Morris says
Oh, and Cleveland’s East Side black community had a lot more entrepreneurial energy than widely known.
“Arriving in Cleveland in 1958 for what was to be a brief stop-over turned out to be a detour of unexpected fortuity. Following a four-day junket with his lucky pool cue and a few games of One-Pocket, which netted the pair several thousand dollars, they decided to stay a few weeks, picking up games where ever they could to finance the planned trip to the West coast. During this time, he met and became friends with another pool-hall devotee, Carl Stokes, who later was elected mayor.
Parlaying his winnings into capital, Willis reconsidered his original plans and decided to postpone his trip out West. The acquired experience of having operated several successful small businesses led to a quick assessment of the local college community that would prove to have been very shrewd. After securing a lease on a building that was previously an automobile dealership showroom, 19-year-old Willis opened The Jazz Temple, a liquor-less coffeehouse/night club, to immediate success. Situated on a small triangular lot on Mayfield Road near Euclid Avenue and adjacent to the Western Reserve University campus, his institutional neighbors were the Cleveland Museum of Art, University Hospital, and Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The club also bordered the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill/Little Italy.
Willis approached such legendary jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and Dinah Washington and convinced them to come to Cleveland to appear at his club. Not only did they appear and perform before standing-room-only crowds, but such notable acts at the trendy establishment also attracted visits from Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, and booked performances from other notables such as comedians Red Foxx, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The popular night spot, frequently referred to as “the Jazz Mecca”, was hugely successful and became a regular hang-out for college students from throughout and around the State of Ohio. But that success was short lived. As is typical of jazz establishments — there was much race-mixing and numerous interracial couples in attendance. This triggered community wide resentment in the racially polarized community, and after months of threats and intimidation, a vanguard of vengeful racists planted a bomb in the club, thereby ending the brief history of one of the most successful jazz spots of the region.
After The Jazz Temple was gone, Winston Willis continued on his entrepreneurial path. His Hot Potato Restaurant was one of the most successful businesses on Cleveland’s lower East side. The small restaurant proved to be the cash cow that would provide the means for his next business venture.”
Of course, city leaders coveted the land for use by The Cleveland Cinic and other inside operators.
Cleveland SGS, did a nice street art to the man and his business ventures.
John Morris says
Jane Jacobs, used the bible to describe the crimes and damage of urban renewal.
“Here are the men that alter their neighbors landmark…
shoulder the poor aside, conspire to oppress the freindless.
Reap they the field that is none of theirs, strip they the vinyard wrongly seized from it’s owner…
A cry goes up from the streets where wounded men lie groaning….”
Not too surprisingly, parts of Cleveland’s east side exploded in riots in 1966.
John Morris says
BTW, I’m not trying to make this a white vs. black thing, although that often seems to have been a big factor. Many italian, Irish, Jewish and hispanic communities were cut apart by urban renewal. Also many black leaders seem to have bought into the hype, false promises of jobs, new housing or quick bucks these projects brought.
You neglected to mention the failed programs of LBJs Great Society. You can go on and on with different theory’s The real reason is the white flight after the 67 riots.
John Morris says
Fine whatever. Let’s just say lot’s of cities all over the world pretty much get the effects of bad design, central planning and car culture had on their cities which is why so many are changing their policies. Anyone who wants to learn can.
No, NY hasn’t dug up and burned Robert Moses’s corpse but it has mostly learned to reverse course.
Yes the term “smart growth” seems arrogant and
condescending but it has a huge historic basis in thousands of years of evidence.
Think the world really cares that much if the Detroit region wants to go on living in it’s dream world?
Think we are gonna keep on bailing and bailing a boat everyone knows has a hole in it?
The good news is that a lot of people are starting to get this.
John you ask an interesting question: Doesn’t GM care about the effect of this?
I would ask why GM should care? Should any company care? When Google bought new headquarters should they also have considered the tenants they displaced and wondered if they stayed in the same city or went to a suburb?
I would argue that of all the problems Detroit has that you can lay at the feet of GM this isn’t one of them. GM made a good business decision to buy the RenCen as it was the cheapest option. The lack of investment in class A office space in Detroit represents a lack of demand. No demand for office space means no new supply will be built. Demand and supply. Why no demand? I don’t exactly know.
John Morris says
This is the new bailed out GM, which is no doubt looking to get some goodwill out of moving jobs into the city. They move in by tossing other non bailed out smaller firms out. nice.
But I mean what’s the legal basis here? Did everyone have a clause in their lease that said they could be tossed out anytime GM wanted the space. Is that a normal thing in corporate leases? Who would sign something like that?
Wonder how many of the buildings that were torn down could have made great offices.
Chris Barnett says
Jane Jacobs hated planners and central planning. How odd that she is now the patron saint of the profession. She’s popular and famous mainly because time and unintended consequences proved Moses wrong, not because she was right.
(She was much better in describing the economic effects of cities than in prescribing their ultimate form or state.)
I certainly do not agree politically with Rush Limbaugh, but he has contributed an important concept to popular culture: “Follow the money”. It works in urban analysis.
It simply wasn’t cost effective for manufcturers to regenerate in place. Once that’s true, the competition isn’t the next band of greenfields out. It’s “everywhere else.”
And don’t forget the presence of GM and Chrysler in NYC. Those weren’t branches, they were the seats of financial and sales/marketing power. Hence, no ad agencies in Detroit.
Chris Barnett says
Also no investment banking, despite auto companies’ huge appetite for capital, bonds, and loans.
John Morris says
Anyway, I don’t know much about the class A space supply but this article say’s Dan Gilbert bought a bunch of buildings. My guess is he will do OK and pick up some of these tenants.
As to how Google might act. I don’t know. they have expanding offices in a large building in Pittsburgh near me and the general goal is to create a synergistic relationship with CMU and other start ups in the city.
They are exercising an option to expand, but in a normal way. I don’t think what GM is doing is normal.
John Morris says
BTW, their offices are in an old Nabisco Plant many thought should be torn down.
Their office in NYC is in a huge old warehouse building in Manhattan’s West Side.
John Morris says
Chris, with all due respect I know a bit about advertising and what happened in Detroit is not normal.
IBM, GE, Pepsico and other big firms are/were located in NYC suburbs, but few agencies put their central offices there. Suppose, you lose one account? How do you get another? The normal thing is to locate in a fairly central place where you can best serve a range of accounts.
Anyway, this supports the idea that Detroit was never a real city or any significant regional business center, but more a company town.
John Morris says
Sorry, i didn’t read what you wrote carefully. There’s a lot of truth in that.
Even so, at least one really big agency had it’s roots around Detroit
“The company is headquartered in Warren, Michigan, (just north of Detroit) with offices in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Antonio and Miami, and currently has over 30 clients.
They are the agency behind campaigns for Kaiser Permanente (“Thrive”), U.S. Navy (“Accelerate Your Life,” “Global Force For Good”), OnStar (“LiveOn”), Alltel Wireless (“Come and Get Your Love”), United States Postal Service (“Simpler Way to Ship”), USAA (“We Know What it Means to Serve”), MotorCity Casino Hotel (“A Million Miles Away, Right Down the Street”), National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (“Take Time to be a Dad Today”) and Chevrolet (“Heartbeat of America,” “Like a Rock,” “An American Revolution”). They are part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.”
Pretty sure they always had very large offices in the Detroit area–but it looks like they never located in downtown Detroit.
In other words, they just were there to serve GM and didn’t think they could pick up a meaningful base of other accounts.
John, you seem a bit confused here.
“This is the new bailed out GM, which is no doubt looking to get some goodwill out of moving jobs into the city. They move in by tossing other non bailed out smaller firms out. nice.”
No no, this happened in the 90s! GM – before bankruptcy – bought the Renaissance Center. I think the article I linked is from 1997. They were not looking for goodwill. They were looking to replace their New Center world headquarters, which were also in Detroit. GM did not move any jobs into the city. The old headquarters were built in the 20s and desperately needed renovating. The RenCen was sold to GM at like 1/5 the cost of building new or renovating.
I’m not a contract expert but having a clause saying the new landlord can terminate early seems unsurprising.
John Morris says
Yes, I was confused about what the date of that article was from. Sorry. Yes, I remember images of what that giant old Headquarters looked like.
Yes, I imagine, such a clause exists in real estate contracts, but it would be pretty rare to actually do that on any large scale to good, loyal tenants.
I read business press and just have never heard of something like that done to so many tenants.
Anyway, by 97, the divestment issues with Detroit would have been very far along. Crime, white flight, urban bankruptcty were well along by then.
The main point of the article was to look in the more distant past for the root issues.
John Morris says
Anyone know the history of business service base well. Did Cambell Ewald start in the City itself-and when did they leave for Warren? Did Detroit ever have a base of local ad agencies downtown and when did they leave? What about Law firms, banks, accounting firms? What about businesses like Breweries?
If the city was any kind of regional center, there would have been demand from other regional clients. Again, this gets back to the inability to create a good base of other, non car related manufacturing.
For such a large city, the economy seems amazingly oriented around just one thing.
I’m not an expert on Cleveland, but in a pretty small region there were makers of tires, plastics, engineered materials, Steel, Car and truck parts, Safes and ATM’s, elevators, machine tools, motion controls, office supplies, medical equipment and so on …. In addition, the region is home to a really big insurance company and a few mid sized banks.
Yes, quite a lot of this hollowed out, but it’s still a pretty diverse base.
I think Milwaukee is pretty similar-Motorcycles, beer,consumer products et…
John Morris says
Compare it to the much smaller city of Grand Rapids.
“The furniture industry has been a mainstay of the Grand Rapids economy since the late 1800s. Today the metropolitan area is home to five of the world’s leading office furniture companies: Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, Knoll, and American Seating. Several firms also produce residential furniture. The Grand Rapids metropolitan manufacturing base is among the largest county employers. Steelcase and Amway, manufacturer of home care products, along with Meijer, a supermarket chain, are the largest private companies in the county. In October 2000 Amway became a subsidiary of a newly created company, Alticor.
Grand Rapids has always thrived because of its entrepreneurial, family owned businesses. Among the national firms that began as family operations are Meijer; Bissell, carpet sweeper makers; Wolverine World Wide, makers of Hush Puppies; and Howard Miller, the world’s largest manufacturer of grandfather clocks.
Automotive parts, industrial machinery, printing, graphic arts, plastics and chemicals, grocery wholesalers, and food processors comprise a substantial portion of the economic base. International businesses also play an important role, with more than 50 foreign-owned firms in the county and many metropolitan area firms involved in international trade. Tourism is an emerging industry as West Michigan increasingly becomes a popular vacation and convention destination. ”
@George, in between facepalms I found these resources to put the notion to rest that L.A. lacks neighborhood identities. One is a straight-up map mashup with census demographics by the L.A. Times. It has L.A.’s 114 neighborhoods as well as the county’s other incorporated cities and unincorporated neighborhoods.
The other is a series LAist.com ran a few years back, the Neighborhood Project. It’s a narrative focus.
http://laist.com/tags/neighborhoodproject or find a cleaner search through Google.
Every analysis acknowledges that other Rust Belt cities had problems comparable to Detroit’s; the difference is that Detroit’s decline was far greater in both magnitude and velocity, right? But in order to explain THIS particular distinction, doesnt it seem odd that ever more specific and minutely unique things about Detroit can explain this decline? Rather it seems more likely that if other cities had comparable problems but Detroit’s uniqueness is in the magnitude and velocity of its decline, then the more adequate explanation might be how the characteristics that Detroit shared with these other cities were deeper and more exacerbated. In other words, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg, etc., all had industrial and racial crises, but Detroit’s problems with either or both of these issues was that much greater than these other, much smaller cities (Detroit was the nation’s 4th largest city at one point). Better yet, one should look at not just the specific character of the industrial and racial characteristics of these cities, but how these issues were related to each other, something this post does not consider before dismissing the “usual suspects” of industrial decline and racial tensions. This would ultimately be my explanation for the dramatic decline of Detroit compared to these other cities: the particular character of the relationship between industry and race relations in Detroit–it’s THIS RELATIONSHIP that sets Detroit apart from other Rust Belt cities. For example, from Time Magazine,
“Since 1960, the number of Detroit residents working in manufacturing jobs has dropped about 87%.” And we also know that the percentage of white people living in Detroit since 1960 also declined, meaning the percentage of black people has increased just as dramatically. So there is a clear racial character to the composition of manufacturing employment of Detroit residents. (Yes, there’s also been a decline in the percentage of white people working in manufacturing, as well, over the same time period due to the overall decline in industry…). But when one absorbs the reality of an 87% drop in employment in a sector of the economy that pays the most in this particular region (there is no major financial sector, etc.), one might very quickly wish to revert back to the argument that industrial decline, plus its disproportional impact on the black population in Detroit, are the primary causes of Detroit’s decline.
@John, Detroit not having much investment is paradoxical considering the auto industry was both a prodigious generator and voracious consumer of capital.
For one thing, all three car companies ran their own banks. GM’s, GMAC (now Ally), branched out into mortgages to dominate the full spectrum of suburbia.
Capital proved to be the asset that was Detroit’s downfall. As capital generators, the car companies had to disburse profits to their suppliers, investors throughout the world and into plant expansion. It’s the investment in the latter that allowed the carmakers to be location-independent and standardize production to plop a factory anywhere.
As capital consumers, the carmakers were Detroit’s apex predators and all but crowded out investment opportunities for parallel industries. The carmakers cast such a large shadow that they pretty much froze out any potential competitor or potential ally to take root. Carmakers also dominated their supply streams as well. There was a notoriously airtight web of suppliers that made it tough to break in or break away — until the Japanese came along.
And this might not be obvious, but what we now know as venture capital was a reaction against the industrial model of investment. Detroit had the money but lacked the vision and temperament to embrace venture capital. Instead, this primarily grew in Boston and the hinterlands of San Francisco, where a cluster of engineering companies needed money to find markets outside of governments and institutions for the applications they’ve just created. Even here it was a challenge because the finance establishment was set in its rent-seeking ways.
And the rest is history.
Chris Barnett says
Wad, I alluded to that above. The financial centers of GM and Chrysler were in their eponymous buildings in Manhattan. And their finance guys (in my time in the auto-supply chain, the whole industry was overwhelmingly male) were not “car guys”, the big criticism of Roger Smith as GM CEO.
Financial types made investment decisions. GM’s one internal “venture capital” attempt was at “a different kind of car company”, which ultimately fell victim to Old GM’s (financially-driven) badge-engineering culture.
Something not addressed heretofore in Detroit’s decline is a pervasive entitlement culture.
No, not the kind of entitlement conservative Tea-Partiers rail about (welfare, food stamps, Medicaid). The kind they practice (non-taxable compensation such as employee and retiree medical insurance, defined-benefit pension accrual, guaranteed annual leave, right down to reserved parking spaces).
Managers of Detroit’s Big Labor and Big Corporations were all about “getting theirs”. As long as the system was static (before the Big Three had Japan taking volume at the low end and Germany taking margin at the high end), all the domstic growth belonged to the Big Three and the only real issue was dividing the spoils of an insular domestic market.
This, IMO, is the social/economic description of the Detroit “system” that arose from the automotive manufacturing/UAW monoculture. Once that approach is bred into the system, the response to systemic change is “it’s always worked this way.”
When a regional economic monoculture is severely upset by external forces (either market or regulatory), the likely result is disaster and collapse. Look at logging in Maine and the Pacific Northwest. Coal mining in West Virginia. Growth/construction in Las Vegas. Cotton farming in the Mississippi Delta. Steel in NW Indiana. There are many more small examples; Detroit and Gary are particularly notable because of the continental scale of their failed monoculture. It might be useful to think of Detroit as a huge Gary, rather than comparing it to more diverse (historically) manufacturing cities like Pittsburgh or Chicago.
Follow the money. If planning as a profession has a severe fault, it is a failure to understand that notion, along with the hubris of believing that planners, planning processes, and plans will be able to guide private investment flows where they want it to go. This is true at the margins sometimes, but city planning could not have significantly affected the economic factors that led to Detroit’s present ruin.
More interesting questions John
“What about businesses like Breweries?”
Detroit’s local beer was Stroh’s. They had a brewery in Detroit. They were bought out by big beer some 20 odd years ago. The brand still exists but I doubt the plant still runs. Detroit was once the beverage capital of the Midwest with local favorite Faygo and Vernors. The local chip brand was Better Made brand. I know these brands still exist but never became players outside Michigan and I don’t know where they keep their headquarters or factories. The local shopping chain was Kmart, and there are still a few hanging around. Their headquarters used to be in Troy, if I recall correctly. I wouldn’t know about law firms and the like.
You can see a lack of investment in Detroit for many years. The city built only 4 new office buildings between 1970 and 2000. Hence the lack of office space. I suspect that the Coleman Young administration was very unfriendly to businesses, but that is really mere speculation on my part. Again I think there is a huge disfunction between the city and suburbs that is really toxic, and I don’t really understand from whence it came.
The story of Detroit isn’t all doom. A local suburban restraunteur opened a very successful new place in Detroit called Slows. I hear it is booming. The city and its residents in the 90s opposed the idea that Detroit bank on ruins tourism but here we are and ruins tourism is big in Detroit. I think largely thanks to websites like Detroityes and Sweet Juniper. So another question to ask is why are things seemingly turned around now? Is it better governance from Bing? Young people are less racist? Did the unique geography of Detroit change (haha)?
Chris Barnett says
Now let’s consider a converse argument: are the modern successes of Chicago and Indianapolis in the same region as Detroit the product of good city planning? Indy had its Kessler Plan and Chicago its Burnham Plan. Both embraced the City Beautiful.
To the extent that each city’s Plan was driven and backed by united and diverse commercial interests, one might make such an argument. Neither city developed a single-industry monoculture. Both cities’ prominent wealthy citizens endowed their own cities richly. (At the turn of this century, one of the world’s largest private endowments was the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis).
Did planning cause this, or merely reflect it?
John Morris says
LOL–Yes, GMAC, was a huge pusher of bad loans that helped create the mortgage crisis. “Ally”, was also had a huge bailout and has been kep alive so it can help GM sell cars to people who can’t afford them.
I totally agree with what you describe. Venture capital was a reaction against this type of finance and corporate culture.
“The carmakers cast such a large shadow that they pretty much froze out any potential competitor or potential ally to take root.”
Right! Can we say it? The original mergers that made GM were a very clear attempt to create a monopoly. In fact, the who expression-what’s good for GM, (UAW) is good for the country” expressed the idea that the big three had captured government policy and were given a special status and protections.
This is very similar to what happened after U.S. steel was created. Carnegie Steel had been a continous adopter of advanced technology and very heavy capital investor. After, the merger, U.S. Steel, and the American Steel Industry pretty much froze. (A slight exageration)
John Morris says
I’m not a member of the Jane Jacobs cult, but Death and Life of Great American cities doesn’t advocate-chaos or attack the concept of planning all together.
What it does explain, is why a city needs a basic structure that is open to organic synergy and a great range of social and economic, interaction.
A simple look at her chapter titles tells one she did have very specific ideas about urban design.
The uses of sidewalks: safety
The uses of sidewalks: contact
The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children
The uses of city neighborhoods
The need for primary mixed uses
The need for small blocks
The need for aged buildings
The need for concentration
In fact she was a great defender of Manhattan’s basic street grid and design (although she liked shorter blocks)
I’m also not an expert on the Garden City movement.
I think one of the central ideas of many of these planners had to do with strictly dividing land uses-creating all business and all residential areas.
Chicago, while keeping much of Burnham’s plan has done a lot to mix up the land uses, bring residential development into business ditricts, adopt some old factories for other uses etc…
John Morris says
I also think they while there is some intellectual link, you can’t compare the Burnham plan or others developed in the pre auto age and the cheap sprawling monculture Detroit created.
John Morris says
See, there are about 20,000 people who live in Chicago’s loop now.
Indy is also doing the same thing–I think you said there were now, about 10,000 people living in the downtown.
This is pretty much the trend in most cities now.
Somewhat off topic, but City Builder Book Club is having a read-along for Jacobs’ “Death and Life.”
Our very own Urbanophile has his post up:
“5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the decline of central cities, but it’s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.”
I think this one is worth chasing down. I looked quick but couldn’t find it. I’m pretty certain I’ve seen something in 2012 breaking down lane miles per capita.
Aaron M. Renn says
Getting lane miles per capita for the urbanized area is fairly straightforward. It is published by the Texas Transportation Institute. However, my impression is that what Pete is talking about is lane miles per square mile of territory in the city proper.
Marc Sims says
Integration, assimilation, consumerism, deindustrialization, ignorance, selfishness, and self-hatred has rendered the African American community to Humpty Dumpty status.
What do you think?
Brian Finstad says
I myself have considered moving to Detroit. The crime does not deter me. I actually have found a lot of the housing stock to be quite charming. I’m completely at ease with living in an environment where being white is a minority. I’ve seen some great indicators that downtown is coming back. But those photos you posted above about the “poor public realm” is for me why I can not live in Detroit. I’ve thought about it and when the elements of the city I do like are connected together with “stroad” (part street part road) type thoroughfares – I can’t imagine that it would not be soul sucking and depressing to live day to day in such an environment. It also is a problem that I see as very difficult to effect change upon. I can always organize a neighborhood around crime and housing issues. Downtowns across America are embracing New Urbanist philosophies – but the miles and miles of “stroad” in Detroit is simply ugly, depressing, and something that I do not see as easy to effect change upon by individual residents. This might not be everyone’s biggest mental barrier to living in Detroit, but it is for me.
Ben Patience says
When talking about declining Great-Lakes Rust-Belt cities, what I believe to be very relavent comparions which are often left out of the discussion are the “Northern” or Canadian Great Lakes Cities. Toronto is so much more vibrant than Detroit, and could arguably be considered the most cosmpolitan city in North America after New York. Why?! Both Detroit & Toronto are basically within the same region; the only major difference (albeit a big one) is the international boundary between the US & Canada. Also Montreal is a good comparison, owing to the fact that it’s located along the St Lawrence seaway & the same shipping routes that serve Buffalo, Clevaland, & Detroit. Throughout the 1970s & 1980s Quebec passed langauge laws which effectively forced many of Montreals’ affluent “anglo-elite” out of the province. Today Montreal is proabably the most vibrant bike & transit oriented city of its size in North America. Ahead of even cosmopolitan planning hotspots such as Portland, OR. Imagine Detroit in the sorry state that it’s in, actively passing laws intended to force educated & affluent residents out of the city ?! The US needs to acknowlege its abysmal ailures in Urban Planning and seriously look towards foreign cities for inspiration.
gideon kanner says
A prophecy fulfilled. Back in 1944, while testifying before the House Committee on Roads, Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries said:
“‘I am not sure whether bringing people into [the city] more expeditiously and quicker than they have ever been able to get in before, will not be the ruination of Detroit.’ By this Jeffries meant that the proposed highways which were designed to make the center more accessible to the periphery, would also make the periphery more accessible to the center. As a result, more people would move farther away until there is nothing left [in Detroit] but industry — a development that would bankrupt the city (and devastate its central business district).”
This quotation may be found in Robert M. Fogelson, DOWNTOWN: ITS RISE AND FALL, 1880-1950, at p. 117.
Nonetheless, as Jane Jacobs stressed, it has been government policy until today to subsidize the suburbs at the expense of declining cities, like, for example, Cleveland, Newark, Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Camden etc., etc.
Life in the suburbs is generally more agreeable, and “the housing bubble” notwithstanding, the majority of middle-age, middle-class suburbanites have also been enjoying substantial, tax-advantaged capital gains on their homes over the long run.
Add to that the high urban crime rate (particularly in the 1970s), the destruction wrought by urban redevelopment and urban freeways, forced school bussing, the destruction of intra-urban transportation (trolleys), and the outflow of population from city to suburbs was preordained. Detroit just happens to be the worst-case scenario. Somebody has to occupy that position, and Detroit, aided by the arrogant stupidity of the automobile industry and the unions that ignored foreign competition, happens to be this particular “lucky Pierre.”
John Morris says
Right, that’s my reading, that the roots of Detroit’s situation go way further back than 1967. Putting traffic engineers in charge of cities is insane. We must remember that if the goal was reducing traffic and parking problems on particular roads, Detroit might be a great success story.
I refer one to Jane Jacobs Chapter in Death and Life titled:
The kind of problem a city is
BTW, from what I have been hearing lately, I’m getting pretty bullish on Detroit. I do think some of these lessons have been at least partly absorbed by a lot of people.
John Morris wrote:
We must remember that if the goal was reducing traffic and parking problems on particular roads, Detroit might be a great success story.
In a backhanded way, yes.
But there’s a reason why medical and nutrition experts don’t recommend anorexia as a weight control method.
“Follow the money” — this phrase and concept was old in the Reagan era, when it became famous (probably not for the first time) to describe the investigations of the Iran-Contra scandal.
(The money trail led from illegal arms sales by the Reagan administration to the Iranian mullahs, to the illegal funding of the anti-government terrorist group known as the Contras in Nicaragua).
Rush Limbaugh neither invented the phrase nor did he popularize it.