Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
[ Here's another nice entry from Pete Saunders, a Chicago urban planner. If you haven't checked his stuff out before, be sure to pay a visit to his blog Corner Side Yard - Aaron. ]
Most Americans take it as an article of faith that there’s a strong connection and relationship between the major cities of the East and West coasts. Indeed, there may be 3,000 miles separating New York from Los Angeles, or San Francisco from Washington, but psychologically the cities each seem to be more connected to each other than, say, Dallas to New York or Atlanta to San Francisco. Of course, in the minds of the coastal crowd, the rest of the nation has become “flyover” country. That wasn’t always the case. How exactly did that happen?
Lots of factors helped to develop America’s west coast. Certainly the pioneer spirit that initially brought settlers west led to a strong sense of individualism and entrepreneurism that pushed development forward. The allure of the weather brought many transplants west. But I think the West Coast benefitted much more from the kinds of connections identified by Jim Russell at Burgh Diaspora (and now at Pacific Standard) – the West Coast had an effective talent attraction strategy, created strong bonds with the East Coast, and never let them go. It’s a lesson that the shrinking cities of the Rust Belt should heed and practice.
I’m no historian, nor am I the ultimate authority on the development of cities. But it’s clear West Coast cities did some things that Rust Belt cities did not. As we all know, the settlement of California was kicked off with the Gold Rush of 1849. Prior to that California was a sparsely-settled former Mexican territory with no physical or institutional infrastructure. The Gold Rush propelled Eastern financiers to provide the money to develop San Francisco as the financial center that would open up the west, and give it the physical and institutional resources to deliver its goods to the rest of the nation. San Francisco never relinquished those ties.
Further south, Los Angeles used its fabulous and consistent weather as a means to attract parts of a budding film industry previously based on the East Coast. The growth of the film industry ultimately led to the growth of the media industry in Southern California, and voila – the economic underpinnings of a major metropolis are established. Like San Francisco, LA never relinquished those ties. (Side note: I don’t think you can understate the importance of the Rose Bowl in luring Midwesterners in particular to Southern California. The “Granddaddy of Them All”, started in 1902, annually brought the Big Ten’s best and brightest for a few weeks of sun and fun in winter. The strategy paid off.)
The lesson here for the Rust Belt is talent attraction, and maintaining the connections over time. San Francisco was able to parlay its Eastern financial connections into the development of a strong financial center, which later served as the financial apparatus for the tech industry. Los Angeles was able to do the same with the film industry and media, and it could be argued that the city’s ties to Midwestern interests led to the growth of the defense industry there.
As for the Rust Belt? It seems that what sets it apart from the West Coast is that it remained content to be the industrial hearth of the nation, instead of seeking other avenues to leverage its advantages for even more growth. That, and the fact that West Coast cities understood the importance of maintaining strong connections with East Coast partners, and East Coast cities understood the financial upside – for their own cities – of staying close to those on the West Coast. Can the Rust Belt do the same?
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 3, 2013.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don't forget to check out his blog - Aaron. ]
The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect
Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way. Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City. Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit. The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement.
But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go. America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy.
Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England. I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:
They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.
Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again (emphasis added).
If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.
I grew up in Detroit. Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family. I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams. I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet. And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city. I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.
I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path. As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix. I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings. I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion. And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”. That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better. I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.
It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did. The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape. It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.
In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions. The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit. The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling. The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother. And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise.
Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit. Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings. Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing. Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse. On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”. The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy. At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.
There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America. You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.
Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?
The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here. City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure. By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city? We could become like Detroit!
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities. I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip. No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit. Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it. Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions. Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing. Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions. Or the Big Three. Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters. Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption. And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people. We are not you, they say, because we made better choices. But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives. This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.
Detroit needs a reprieve. It needs a second chance. Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future. There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them? There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products. There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick. There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back. Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.
More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique. It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large. America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city. Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.
By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems. There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership. Dealing with foreclosures. Crushing income inequality and economic disparities. Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads. Crumbling infrastructure. Unsustainable sprawl development. The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.
But I look at Detroit like this. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2012
[ Pete Saunders is an urban planner, and an articulate and insightful writer on cities. He also happens to be black. The writings on his blog Corner Side Yard are a mix of great thoughts on general urbanism, and some of the applications to the black urban experience. In the piece below, Saunders asks where the black participation is in the urbanism movement today. Definitely check out his blog where he has some subsequent installments that flesh out his thoughts on the matter - Aaron. ]
African Americans have been perhaps the most urban of American populations for the last half century. With the formation of the Great Migration between 1910 and 1930, and the Second Great Migration between 1940 and 1970, blacks moved from the rural South to urban areas throughout the country – primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, many blacks are leaving Northern locales and returning to Southern spots, but they are firmly remaining
As a result of this transition, African Americans have had a profound impact within the communities they’ve moved to. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, blacks are the majority demographic in 19 of the nation’s 273 cities with more than 100,000 residents, and are between 25 and 50 percent in another 36 cities. Taken to a metropolitan scale, blacks exceed
the 13.6% national proportion of population in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas, with blacks making up 32.4% of metro Atlanta’s residents, 25.8% of metro DC, and 21.0% of metro Miami. Clearly, blacks have left a significant imprint on America’s cities.
So where are the black urbanists?
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of black elected officials who represent cities and advocate for policies and strategies that will improve them. There are plenty of black activists who passionately speak on matters such as crime, poverty, income inequality, affordable housing, and other special interests that are often perceived as strictly urban issues. And there are many black entrepreneurs who grew up in cities and make an effort to incorporate some semblance of urban policy into their corporate work.
But there is a dire lack of a black voice and perspective in the traditional channels of urbanist dialogue.
When I think of urbanists, I think of two distinct groups of people. The first group consists of intellectual types who are mostly interested in developing ideas to improve the urban form. They often have rather abstract views of cities, and focus on design as the key mover of an improved urban form. They are big proponents of things like walkability, transit use, denser development, and the like.
The second group is often less intellectually-oriented in their approach, but has a laser focus on a special interest they advocate. This group is made up of bike advocates, transit supporters, urban agriculture activists, and other urban special interests. They are also big proponents of walkability, transit use, and denser development, but they strongly feel that getting there means increased bike usage along dedicated bike networks, or heavy- and light-rail transit, or converting vacant land to agricultural use.
In either case, the groups are almost exclusively white.
This has implications on general public views about cities. As mentioned by Aaron Renn (the Urbanophile) nearly three years ago in an article he wrote for New Geography entitled “The White City,” the cities that many hold up as exemplary models for urban development have very few black residents. The usual suspects for progressive cities, like Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin and Denver, not only have small African American populations, but have not been burdened by racial tensions in the way that so many other American cities have.
About three years ago the website Planetizen developed a list of the top 100 urban thinkers. All the names were nominated and voted on by website visitors. Unsurprisingly, there is not a single African American on the list (from my recollection there are only about five that are under the age of 50, but that’s for another discussion). Surely there is some insight that some blacks have gained through our urban experience that would get us considered for this list. Why has that not happened? Is there a black Jane Jacobs? Is there a black Andres Duany? Lewis Mumford? Edmund Bacon? William Whyte? Richard Florida? James Howard Kunstler? If not, why not?
Admittedly, most of the top urban thinkers come from the fields that, you know, deal with the urban form, and there has long been a lack of black participation among those disciplines. Urbanists tend to be academics, writers and journalists, architects and designers, and of course planners (although it’s been my experience that there are fewer planners who are passionate about cities than one might think). Particularly in the case of academics, architects and planners, urbanists tend to come from highly educated professions, and there simply aren’t high numbers of blacks in those fields.
While they might not be considered urbanists in the thinker/intellectual sense, there are high-profile blacks who work to improve the urban form. Mitchell Silver, chief planning officer for the City of Raleigh, North Carolina, is President of the American Planning Association. He’s been in a position to utilize his several years of experience working in New York City to make some positive changes in Raleigh. And there’s Toni Griffin, professor of architecture at the City College of New York, former director of community development for the City of Newark, New Jersey, and private practitioner who has conducted high-profile planning work in Newark and Detroit. Admittedly, the reason that I know of them is because I’ve had the opportunity to (briefly) work directly with them through the course of my career; there could be many others who are just as accomplished that I’ve never heard of.
Simply by Googling “black urbanist”, I came across Kristin Jeffers, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro with an MPA in Community and Economic Development who blogs at theblackurbanist.com. She’s been doing the blogging for more than a year and I applaud her for her passion and her efforts. However, it’s a bit much to expect her to have much prominence so early in her career.
I think there are reasons why few if any blacks have emerged as spokespersons for cities on a large scale in America:
The almost pervasive opinion for decades that “urban = bad”. This opinion is one that has plagued American cities forever, but gained steam after World War II. Our cities were seen to be filled with “slums” and “ghettos”, and while there were many places that were in poor condition, there were places that were vibrant, dynamic and very livable.
The devastation of African American neighborhoods through urban renewal began only shortly after they were able to gain a foothold. Witness a couple examples below:
These markers are for Paradise Valley in Detroit, and Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. Both were vibrant neighborhoods that were devastated by freeway construction and urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s. Now all that remains are signs of their earlier vitality. This same tragedy occurred throughout the country.
The impact of white flight. It seems there is general acknowledgement about the economic impact of white flight but little recognition of the social impact. One often overlooked impact is that many intact city neighborhoods, with longstanding histories, transitioned so quickly and completely from white to black that there was no effective transfer of neighborhood knowledge that would provide a foundation for new black residents. When white residents left they not only relocated their homes and businesses, but their institutions and social networks. Struggling new black residents were often unable to bridge that gap.
Gentrification and the new notion that “new urban = white”. I mentioned earlier that one group of urbanist is the type that advocates and supports things like transit, biking, mixed-use development, open space and trail networks, and other amenities that can make urban life more vibrant. Unfortunately many of these amenities have developed a “white” identity in the minds of many blacks, often being identified as the “things white people like” in their cities. You’ll often hear of this from community activist types whose major thrust has been to focus on the crime and poverty issues that plague so many of our urban neighborhoods, and simply see bikes/transit/parks/mixed-use as the tools that will be used to displace them.
A FUBU (for us, by us) mentality put forth in urban neighborhoods, when collaboration is key to community revitalization. Related to the above point, there is huge desire by many community activist types to revitalize neighborhoods on strictly African American terms. Improve conditions, they say, and the black middle class will jump at the chance to move back to the community they grew up in. There is quite a bit of truth to that, but in most cities the black middle class is not large enough to support the revitalization of entire sections of cities. Activists will have to realize that revitalization will happen only when you include groups beyond your own.
If there’s going to be real and long-lasting revitalization in America’s heavily black urban neighborhoods, the elected officials and community activists who represent them are going to have to shift their priorities. They will have to let go of their visions of neighborhood past and start thinking of a new community paradigm – one that may not be exclusively African American. They must move away from the debilitating notion that they want enough of the new amenities to serve the needs of current residents, but no so much that they are eventually displaced. They must join hands with the numerous groups that are engaged in improving cities, recognize them as allies and stop thinking of them as the urban enemy.
If our communities are to be saved our leaders must embrace new thinking around cities.
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 21, 2012.
Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
[ You may remember Pete Saunders from his piece on the reasons behind Detroit's behind. I've long found Pete's insights provocative. I'm glad to report he is now blogging himself on his own blog called "The Corner Side Yard." Today he graciously shares another Detroit piece for us here, this time a review of Scott Martelle's new book, "Detroit: A Biography" - Aaron. ]
When I first got my review copy of Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, I did the unthinkable: I started by reading the epilogue. I wanted to know right from the start where the author stood on the future of Detroit. Did his research suggest that revitalization is approaching, or even possible? Admittedly, my first reading of the epilogue seemed to be a repudiation of Detroit, that the city’s legacy has condemned it to failure.
Such is the defensive posture of a native Detroiter.
Reading the book from start to finish is an entirely different experience. Martelle constructs a well-detailed and finely crafted narrative of Detroit’s history, from its founding as a French outpost in 1701 to the present day (although Martelle glosses over much of the last decade or so, likely believing that the city’s die had been sufficiently cast). The book reads a lot like Detroit’s history – slow yet building over the city’s first two centuries; fast-paced and chaotic after the introduction and rapid growth of the auto industry; slower-paced, exasperated yet reflective as decline sets in. The historical narrative is interspersed with chapter interviews of native Detroiters who offer their insight on the past, present and future of the city. Martelle brings liveliness to the narrative, and his meticulous research is evident. It truly is a biography.
Detroit’s early history was really no different from its Great Lakes peers of Buffalo, Cleveland and Milwaukee, which all had varying degrees of French settlement, British rule and American growth. There is a lot of discussion about the French role in the creation of development patterns in Detroit – the ribbon farms – that led to a highly privatized riverfront. Once the French were gone and the British took over, there is similarly a lot of discussion about the contemptuous and oftentimes violent ways the British military elected to engage southeast Michigan’s Native Americans. The French and British did more to shape Detroit’s character than most realize.
Detroit, like the others, transitioned from regional trading center specializing in iron ore and lumber, to becoming a craftsman’s heaven building horse carriages, stoves and other metalworks. Interestingly, the author notes that late 19th and early 20th century Detroit was known as a top cigar-producing center. Who knew? But the number of skilled workers in the carriage-building and metalworks industries set the stage for the development of the “horseless carriage” industry in Detroit.
Of course, the singular power behind the founding and growth of the auto industry in Detroit is Henry Ford. Martelle is quick to make the well-known point that Ford did not invent the automobile; there were a number of “tinkerers” around the world, even others in Michigan. But he was in a position to take advantage of the local capital and skilled workforce to get the Ford Motor Company off the ground.
Martelle also alludes to the fact that as Ford the company grew, Ford the man’s flaws took root as pathologies to Detroit’s character. Ford’s aggressive business policies were well known and emulated; his racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic leanings are acknowledged; his staunch anti-union sentiments led to bloody battles between the company and workers; his unwillingness to leave lasting institutions in Detroit, like an Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh, set the template for other Detroit industrialists.
The author paints a picture of Detroit breezing through the first third of the 20th century as the Silicon Valley of its time. Most people likely believed that economic growth alone would solve whatever underlying problems may exist, and there were many. Tensions grew as southern and eastern European immigrants competed for assembly line jobs with longer-established Scotch-Irish and German immigrants. Tensions further grew as African-American migrants moved up from the South for jobs, particularly during and after World War I.
Job competition intensified as the Great Depression emerged, and the rigid but informal segregation patterns in the city led to housing competition as well. The boiling tensions made Depression-era Detroit one of the most brutal places to be in America. The tremendous population growth of the previous decades was not supported by similar housing growth in Detroit, which made the city’s Depression housing shortage one of the most acute in the nation. The collapse of the auto industry at the same time made Detroit’s unemployment the worst in the nation. And the union battles of the time made the labor situation one of the most contentious in the nation.
This was Detroit’s second critical moment, after the explosive growth of the auto industry. City leaders and industrialists elected to let the economy sort out the city’s growing pains when things went well, and they again elected to let the economy do its thing as the city faced its first existential crisis. They were right – in the short term. Detroit emerged as the “Arsenal of Democracy” that built the armory that saved America and Europe. However, the lack of action by city leaders and industrialists had long term impacts that became evident after World War II.
It is at this point in the book that a fascinating set of what-ifs are implied by the author:
• What if there had been better early cooperation between the auto industry and unions?
• What if the industrialists like Ford had established enduring local institutions?
• What if the housing and overcrowding issues had been dealt with differently?
• What if Detroiters had had local representation (i.e., wards or districts) that could have represented the wishes of diverse residents and forestalled or diffused tensions?
• What if Detroit had become a defense contracting center that could’ve led post- World War II growth?
Unfortunately, Detroit’s leaders did not appear to be asking themselves these questions at the time.
Martelle then argues that Detroit’s path after 1950 is one of social and economic decline. Detroit becomes the epicenter of a Supreme Court legal battle on housing racial covenants; efforts by white residents to violently intimidate blacks from moving into all-white neighborhoods become commonplace. White flight has its start in Detroit well before it does in other major cities. The Auto Big Three (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) decide to control more of the manufacturing process themselves and put the squeeze on auto parts suppliers. They begin to shift manufacturing jobs first to the suburbs, then to the South, then out of the country. Finally, the riot of 1967 begins to solidify the image of Detroit as being out of control.
The author is clear about the challenges that face Detroit today. Racial animosity and mistrust, usually couched in city vs. suburbs terms, is at a level virtually unmatched in the nation. Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, is often viewed as the wedge that widened the divide between white and black in Detroit. However, Martelle portrays him as someone who wanted Detroiters to directly confront its racial legacy, but was still nurturing the resentments of his segregated upbringing. Meanwhile, he paints many whites as believing that past indignities experienced by blacks are indeed past, and are resentful of the management of the city after they left it. But who can manage a city when jobs and middle class residents flee?
I read the epilogue again after reading the rest of the book. The second time around it read like a lament, a cry of sorrow and anguish for the city that gave us not only the automobile, but the idea of a stable middle class. Martelle clearly demonstrates that Detroit was uniquely impacted by national and global trends and policies, and that any city established in the same fashion would have suffered the same fate. Sadly, however, he says that the nation has left Detroit behind, and wonders if the nation will ever repay the debt it owes to the Motor City.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all types to gain insight into the Motor City’s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?
Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.
Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit’s fall. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. And there’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and 1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
But here’s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And Detroit certainly hasn’t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.
So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (don’t laugh – Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
Detroit’s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city’s lack of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled “Decline in Detroit” from 1961 – yes, 1961 – had the following to say in its opening paragraph:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.
So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City’s current state. Here they are below.
1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.
Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument can be made that’s been lacking in Detroit for decades.
2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.
The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit’s residential areas look pretty much like this, from the city’s northeast side:
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.