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. 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.

  2. James says:


    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?

  3. Stuff says:

    “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?

  4. 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.

  5. Justin says:

    You really missed the mark. Read Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Joel says:

    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.

  11. 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.

  12. John Morris says:

    Exactly, Jane Jacobs saw this comming.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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. . . .

  18. James says:

    John Morris,

    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.

  19. 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.

  20. James says:

    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.

  21. 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.

  22. John Morris says:

    @ James

    “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.

  23. Valerie says:

    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.

  24. Dan says:

    Excellent article.

    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?”

  25. Dan says:

    Typos. Sorry.

  26. renee says:

    “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.

  27. pete-rock says:

    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.

  28. James says:


    I don’t understand what you are trying to say about Detroit and universities.

  29. James says:


    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.

  30. 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.

  31. James says:


    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.

  32. 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.

  33. James says:


    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.

  34. James says:


    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.

  35. Bruce says:

    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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. James says:

    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.

  40. 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.

    It’s warped.

  41. 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

  42. 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.


  43. James says:

    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.

  44. 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.

  45. James says:

    “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.

  46. 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.[3][4] 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,[9] 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.

  47. James says:


    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.”

  48. 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?


  49. 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.

  50. 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.”


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