Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline by Pete Saunders

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.

Emphasis added.

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:

Or like this, from the northwest side:

Note that these images come from the more intact parts of the city, not the “returning-to-prairie” areas that have brought the city notoriety. True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices. 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.

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:

And another corridor a short distance away:

And yet another from the opposite side of town:

Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring. But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure. That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.

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

Several railroad interests came together, including the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk lines, to address the issue of industrial expansion and congestion in Detroit. They elected to establish a new railroad – the Detroit Terminal Railroad. It was indeed an “outer belt line” that connected the Michigan Central Line with the Grand Trunk Western, arcing from the southwest side to the northeast, but also created a spur on the east side that would link to the Detroit River and allow for the development of additional industrial land. The DTR was constructed between 1904 and 1911. The line is illustrated on the following map with a dotted black line:

Source: detroittransithistory.info website

The land use dynamic changed when Henry Ford constructed his Highland Park assembly plant, which opened in 1908. In 1906 he bought 160 acres of land along Woodward Avenue in the small village north of Detroit, next to the crossing of the DTR at Woodward Avenue (the main roadway that extends through Highland Park in the above image). He was well aware of already-underway efforts to construct the “outer belt line” that industrialists had called for, and Ford put himself in position to benefit from it. Shortly after the opening of his new factory, an almost unbroken arc of industrial land lined the DTR – occasionally split by major arterial roadways that connected the city to its hinterlands, but largely occupied by the industrial supply and small assembly businesses that would serve each other. The DTR encircled and constrained the city’s dense urban core.

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.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy
Cities: Detroit

147 Responses to “The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline by Pete Saunders”

  1. James says:

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. Dan says:

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. Dan says:

    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.

  6. James says:

    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?

  7. 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.

  8. Dan says:

    And yet another blog not linking to Cyburbia.

  9. 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.

  10. 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/

  11. 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.[12]

    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.[13]

    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.[14]

    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.


  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. gene says:

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. James says:

    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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    Also no investment banking, despite auto companies’ huge appetite for capital, bonds, and loans.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. John Morris says:

    @Chris Barnett

    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.

  24. James says:

    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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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…

  27. 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. ”



  28. Wad says:

    @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.

  29. renmenw says:

    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.

  30. Wad says:

    @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.

  31. 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.

  32. James says:

    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)?

  33. 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?

  34. 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)

  35. John Morris says:

    @Chris Barnett

    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…

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. Wad says:

    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:


  39. Allen says:

    “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.

  40. @Allen,

    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.

  41. 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?

    Marc Sims


  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.”

  45. 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.

  46. Wad says:

    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.

  47. Nathanael says:

    “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.

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