Friday, March 1, 1996

The Death of Detroit

© Camilo José Vergara 2003

db - deutsche bauzeitung, March 1996, pages 12 - 14.
© db, David Cohn. All rights reserved.

There is no obvious economic reason why Detroit is a dying city.  It is the center of the sixth largest metropolitan area in the United States, with a population of over 4,650,000, up 2.5% regionally since 1980.(1)  While manufacturing has declined nationwide, it is still headquarters of the American automobile industry, once again booming, and ranks as the third largest industrial producer in the country.  The region is home to a dozen other Fortune 500 corporations, including giants such as Dow Chemical and Whirlpool. The University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor is a center for high-tech research and industry, a promise for future growth.  A 1990 survey of 100 cities world-wide by the Population Crisis Center in Washington ranked the Detroit region as sixth in quality of life, citing factors such as its good housing, low infant mortality, high education levels, low cost of living and lack of traffic jams.(2)

But the city at the heart of this apparently healthy region has lost nearly half its population since 1950, falling from 1,850,000 to 1,028,000 in 1990; residents continue to leave at a rate of 20,000 a year.  According to photojournalist Camilo José Vergara in his book The New American Ghetto, entire neighborhoods have been abandoned and demolished, leaving behind 40 square kilometers of vacant land, blocks of empty streets lined with a resurging forest of saplings and shrubs, home once again to wildlife and game, their once-thriving shopping districts reduced to a pair of heavily-armored convenience stores, their substantial parish churches and schools left in splendid isolation among the weedy fields.  Over 200,000 jobs have been lost in the city since the 1970s, and 25% of the population lives on public welfare.  The decline of business has crippled the central office district, leaving behind 5,000 vacant commercial buildings, including the nation's largest collection of abandoned skyscrapers.  Before the 1930s Depression, Detroit boasted the third largest concentration of towers in the world, after Manhattan and Chicago; today most are empty and derelict, including the 29-story, 1,200 room Book-Cadillac Hotel of 1924; the 35-story, red marble and limestone David Stott office building of 1929, modeled on Eliel Saarinen's 1922 Chicago Tribune competition design; the 34-story David Broderick; the full-block Hudson's Department Store of 1924; and the 16-story Michigan Railroad Station and office building of 1914 by Warren and Wetmore, architects of New York's Grand Central Station.  Too expensive to demolish, they stand in semi-ruin over a downtown populated by non-profit caretaker centers for the poor and empty lots.  Demographers hope that Detroit's population will stabilize at 200,000, comparable to small neighboring cities such as Grand Rapids or Warren.(3)

Detroit is the most dramatic example of a nationwide crisis, particularly in the older cities of the deindustrialized Northeast.  A host of midsize northern cities such as Gary (Indiana), Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Newark have lost more than 40% of their population since 1950.  Larger cities have also suffered staggering losses: Philadelphia has declined in the same period by half a million to 1,585,000, and Chicago by 837,000 to 2,783,000.  New York is not on this list for the simple reason that its hundreds of thousands of departing residents have been replaced by immigrants from abroad.

Departing residents that have not relocated to the growing "sunbelt cities" in the south and west have left for the suburbs, the sprawling peripheral rings of single-family houses which grew exponentially after the Second World War with federal highway construction and home mortgage guarantees.  By the mid 1970s, these developments had produced large but low-density concentrations of business, commerce and entertainment around highway interchanges and along former country roads, which became full-fledged alternate destinations to the old downtowns.  Journalist Joel Garreau dubbed these amorphous, nameless conglomerations "Edge Cities" in his 1991 book of the same name.(4)  Detroit has five such concentrations, with three more in embryo, defined by Garreau as areas containing more than half a million square meters of office space and 60,000 of retail, and marked on a rough map of the region with tags such as "Troy/Beaver Road", "Northland Mall Area", "Interstate I-696 and Telegraph Road".  The suburban crossroads of Southfield already has more active office space than Detroit's old downtown.

Garreau argues that the death of Detroit was foreshadowed in its birth, when Henry Ford, building on the local carriage and stove-making industries, introduced the first mass-produced Model T at the beginning of the century.  While Detroit boomed with the automobile, quadrupling its population from 285,000 to 1,000,000 in the century's first 20 years and attracting workers from around the world, at the same time it pioneered in the democratization of car ownership, the creation of ring roads and the location of the industry's factories and offices outside city limits.  According to Garreau, the concentrated American city is an ephemeral product of the Industrial Revolution and mass transit, condemned to obsolescence by the dispersed developments spawned by the car.  He "optimistically" sees this process continuing indefinitely into the future, with new sources of energy perpetuating the dominance of individualized transport beyond the exhaustion of fossil-fuels.(5)

But Detroit and other cities are as much victims of racial discrimination and social conflict as casualties of technological change.  Again the statistics are dramatic: while blacks make up over 75% of Detroit's population, 92% of the residents in the surrounding communities are white. Provoked in part by wartime shortages of industrial workers, a large-scale migration of blacks from the poor rural south to the industrialized northeast during and after the Second World War filled declining urban neighborhoods as white residents fled to the suburbs.  But most of the economic wealth, growth and jobs left with the whites, in a systematic disinvestment in the city, accompanied by falling property values and a general loss of economic "confidence".  This white exodus left behind a captive ghetto population, barricaded from the suburbs by poverty and discrimination and trapped in a deadly web of drugs, crime, welfare and social fragmentation.  At the same time, government relief efforts and harmful policies in many cases only perpetuated or worsened urban problems.  As political scientist Douglas Rae told a 1994 urban affairs conference, "We talk as if we want to save our cities, and yet we ensure their destruction with price supports for illegal drugs, a free-market distribution of hand guns, and a maintenance policy towards poverty."(6)

The savagery of this conflict is reflected in the city's physical decline, particularly in the brutal mutilations inflicted by the five urban highways cut through residential neighborhoods in the 1950s and 60s, destroying more than 20,000 homes, and by the 1967 race riots, with a toll of 43 killed, $1,000 million (7) in property damage and an important retail corridor burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt, an incident which already marked the point of no return for the city.

Heavily-financed efforts to pull Detroit back from the brink came too late.  The 1,300 million DM Renaissance Center by John Portman (1972-77), backed by the Ford Motor Company, with five towers topping out at 73 stories, was designed as a self-sufficient mirror-glass fortress overlooking the river, isolated across a highway from the city and with direct drive-in access by car, a unabashed embodiment of white suburban fears.  Not surprisingly, it has only served to drain tenants out of existing downtown buildings.  And the federally-financed People Mover, a three-mile, 376 million DM monorail through the downtown area finished in 1987, remains an expensive and ineffective "gesture".

The drama of Detroit's present condition was the subject of an exhibition last May at The Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, with photographs by Camilo José Vergara and urban studies by students from Columbia University and The Cranbrook Academy.(8)  Like several other critics, Storefront Director Kyong Park draws a parallel between the ravaged face of Detroit and bombarded Sarajevo, and speaks of the "Balkanization" of American life into competing ethnic groups, regions, and interests.  For while causal analyses in macro-economic, structural, demographic and technical terms "explain" the plight of Detroit, they leave out the psycho-social dimension of its tragedy, which is only suggested by terms such as "disinvestment" or "the loss of confidence":  the essentially untamed psychic drives of mass desire, fear, hatred, rejection and simple omission and denial which, manipulated by the media, consumer advertising and popular ideology, and liberated by and channeled through the flight to the suburbs, are the dynamic psycho-social motors of the Detroit disaster. 

The obverse face of the American "love affair" with the car and the single-family house is this destructive fear and flight.  To the abandoned towers of Detroit we should counterpose the rows of flimsy speculative houses replacing desolate stands of pine 40 miles from the city, the lonely hotel rooms overlooking a highway interchange near the airport, or the acres of asphalt parking lots surrounding a suburban shopping mall.  Where is the attraction in these new places?  What irresistible force impelled those with a choice towards these hostile frontiers, in apparently self-imposed exile from the human culture and interchange the city once represented?  If it is true that economic competition and mass migrations have begun to replace wars of invasion in the struggles between peoples for survival and hegemony, Detroit proves that the effects of these apparently benign forms of conflict can be equally devastating.


1.   These and other figures calculated from data in: John H. Wright, General Editor, The Universal Almanac, Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, 1995.
       The population of the Detroit metropolitan area declined 2% in the period 1980 - 1990, but subtracting larger losses in the city proper reveals net growth in the outer regions. Statistics here and below based on United States Census Bureau figures.

2.    Joel Garreau, Edge City, Doubleday Anchor Book, New York, 1991, page 117.

3.    Camilo José Vergara: "Detroit Waits for the Millennium", The Nation,  May 18, 1992, pages 660 - 664;
        Vergara, American Acropolis or Vacant Land? The Future of Detroit's Pre-Depression Skyscrapers, unpublished manuscript, January 1995;
        Vergara, unpublished photographic documentation.

4.    Garreau, Edge City.

5.    Garreau, Edge City, pages 103 - 138.

6.    Thomas Fisher, "Bosnia in America?", Progressive Architecture, May 1994, pages 25, 32.

7.    This and other amounts in rough 1995 figures.

8.    "Post-Industrial Landscape: Detroit is Everywhere", The Storefront for Art and Architecture Newsletter, New York, May 20 - July 1, 1995;
        Camilo José Vergara, The New American Ghetto, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995;
        Peter Lang, editor, Mortal City, The Storefront for Art and Architecture / Princeton Architectural Press, New York 1995.

December 10, 2014 

Nearly 20 years after I wrote this article,  The New York Times has published a series of aerial photos of the devastated city and its prosperous suburbs. The photographer Alex MacLean zooms in on community gardens, the ruined Packard plant, houses in Grosse Point:

Alex MacLean
Detroit by Air
The New York Times 
December 7, 2014

Update II
June 3, 2015

What Detroit is doing with its empty lots: turning them over to the neighbors at modest cost:
John Gallagher
What's Next for Detroit's Empty Lots and Who Decides?
The Detroit Free Press
May 31, 2015