By Ian Leahy
Detroit has morphed in recent years from an international punch line that would burn every night to a symbolic frontier for those enamored with the revitalization of cities. In what has become a rite of passage, urbanists fly in from the coasts and all over the world to take it in and send back tales of new bakeries, yoga studios, and the gritty brick exteriors of tech start-ups amidst the overwhelming industrial ruins that define the Middle Western and beyond.
In contrast to New York City, Detroit has become the crown jewel of raw urban potential: if we can make it happen here, we can make it happen anywhere. This reputation exists despite the fact that even with a loss of over 200,000 residents since 2000, more people still live within the City of Detroit than live in Boston, Washington, DC, Miami, Seattle, Denver, and many other major cities. Nevertheless, its reputation as a destination for decay is not without reason. While many parts of Detroit are far more functional than the worst of perceptions, one cannot overstate the frequency with which an older middle class suburban dweller of metro Detroit can point to an open field where an entire neighborhood once stood and say, “I grew up in there.”
The problem is that these visitors always seem to approach Detroit from the inside out. They go straight downtown and focus on the newfound energy surging in its core. They talk of Detroit as if it were ever a traditional city and perpetuate the narrative that American cities collapsed from the center out. The implied solution, therefore, is simply to begin rebuilding from the center again. But that was never the case in Detroit.
Sure, there was once a decent banking industry downtown and even a commuter rail from the suburbs. There are nostalgic photos of massive post-war holiday shopping crowds and fond tales from my own mother and grandmother’s trips to the Hudson’s department store downtown. Even in its most blighted days there were any number of big-ticket reasons that gave the aura of a central urban core: arenas, a convention center, a world-class art gallery, and events from auto shows to electronic music festivals that have always kept the region at least tangentially connected to the city’s core as a destination for special events, if nothing else.
Yet when my father moved to the Detroit area in the early 1960s, before the real economic tailspin took hold, he initially worked in real estate out of the Michigan Central Railroad station, now a towering icon of decay just west of downtown. One of the first things he asked after moving to the area was: why does this city even have a downtown?
Part of the reason the actual city of Detroit fell so hard and so fast is because the bulk of what we think of as Detroit’s economy, and consequently its tax base, was never actually downtown or even inside the City of Detroit, even in its heyday when it was the Silicon Valley of the twentieth century’s industrial era. I find out-of-town journalists too often lazily speak of Detroit as the home of the Big Three automakers, when in reality only one of those three corporate headquarters is based inside the city itself.
Ford built its world headquarters along with its massive mile-and-a-half wide by mile long Rouge Factory in Dearborn, a suburb just west of the city. “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler was originally headquartered in an anomalous suburb-surrounded-by-the-city called Highland Park toward the outlying northern edge of Detroit and, in the early 1990s, moved to the quintessential office park suburb of Auburn Hills about 30 miles north of downtown, where the Detroit Pistons professional basketball team plays. Highland Park was also home to Henry Ford’s original Model T plant; the car that started it all was not even built in Detroit. Even General Motors, which has been providing tax revenue and a corporate workforce to the actual City of Detroit all along, was headquartered for many decades a few miles north of downtown in the New Center area before moving downtown in 1996. GM’s engineering and design operations, however, have been based at the GM Tech Center in the suburb of Warren since the 1950s. Its headquarters recently came within days of moving there as well.
Each automaker’s manufacturing facilities have likewise always been spread throughout various cities of the region, including Pontiac, a smaller industrial city that once stood distinct about 30 miles north of downtown Detroit before suburbia consumed it. The Detroit Lions professional football team also played in Pontiac until they moved to a new downtown stadium in the early 2000s. So, the concept of downtown as centrally relevant is relatively new to the area. Once Detroit completed its evolution from a Great Lakes fur trading post born from a fashion craze in Europe into a global industrial powerhouse, it was never structured around a central city like Chicago or New York.
One friend of mine, having never been to the Detroit area, was fascinated by my tales of just how brutally devastated many parts of the city have become. His eyes glistened with visions of the potential such urban decay holds to explore new ways of living and utilizing our land. He was actually visibly disappointed when I went on to explain that such areas of decay are surrounded by a large suburban metropolis where the bulk of the population lives relatively comfortable lifestyles with all the amenities you’d expect from any major metropolitan area. Vibrant small suburban cities like Ferndale, Royal Oak, Rochester, the Grosse Pointes, and Birmingham are full of shopping, restaurants, art-house cinemas, and/or nightlife; subdivisions of large subdivision homes stretch unhindered north and west, often abutting beautiful lakefront properties; there are world-class public schools and private schools that can feel more like New England prep than rust belt decay; Somerset Collection (don’t call it a mall!) is one of the most profitable private shopping centers in the country with luxury retailers from Armani and Gucci to Louis Vuitton and Saks Fifth Avenue.
To ignore all of these aspects of the Detroit economy in favor of a simple narrative about a collapsing industrial core that never was is to miss the real power of the Detroit narrative. Metro Detroit, taken together, has long served as a raw example of American development patterns played out in an extreme nature with little to buffer the spread of suburbia or the physical collapse of the city. As such, the region has served as a point of refutation against purely economic arguments for suburban sprawl such as urban centers being too expensive or too crowded. Detroit, with suburban-style single family homes adjacent to its urban core, had none of those problems yet residents still sought auto-centric suburbanization with just as much gusto as elsewhere. Even if one were to argue that people fled the actual City of Detroit due to social issues, one generation has continued to leapfrog the prior from one suburb to another further out in spite of a relatively stable or declining regional population. It all suggests that we sprawled because we were compelled to for a deeper reason than simple economics or a lifestyle trend.
Humanity’s thrust for thousands of years had arguably been an incremental, chaotic march toward liberating the individual. The twentieth century saw Democratic self-governance grow to dominate globally; capitalism emerged as the most effective, if imperfect, way to generate wealth the world has ever known. Family structures streamlined through the industrial era from multi-generational to an efficient nuclear structure whereby the people who bear children became almost solely responsible for raising those children. Technology advanced through the industrial era to create the automobile and, most importantly, make it affordable to the common person in a way that aircraft and spacecraft have yet to achieve. The confluence of all these systems on the wide open, natural resource rich American landscape provided people a unique opportunity in all the world to experience unprecedented individual liberation.
This individuation manifested on the landscape in the form of detached single family homes, large yards, automobility, and separate commercial, residential, and industrial land uses. We see even today a sometimes tumultuous crossing of paths as largely white populations raised in the suburbs move into urban settings while largely minority populations, long blocked from taking part in that first wave, escape urban settings to fulfill their own suburban individuation when they emerge into the middle class. While many berate this lifestyle today, it was and is the manifestation of extraordinary human achievement that should be celebrated. We could not fully advance without it.
Yet, advance we are. The educated, mobile, creative class first raised atop that individuated fulfillment we call the American Dream may have, unwittingly, begun to close out one great epoch of human development and initiate the next. Many now seek integration, not separation. This shift is most obviously manifest on the landscape in the resurgence of urban lifestyles that mix residential and commercial, multi-modal transportation networks, and natural systems. But, like the quest for individuation that came before, the built landscape may only be a symptom of a deeper compulsion.
Here, again, metro Detroit’s raw and defused development pattern provides insight that more stable, diversified, and growing metropolitan economies simply cannot. For example, while one can argue that the resurgence of urban Washington, DC neighborhoods and ongoing transformation of its adjacent suburbs into dense, walkable urban centers is a logical result of notoriously bad traffic, extensive investment in mass transit, and skyrocketing property values in an area where many jobs remain in the downtown core, Detroit has none of these circumstances. Yet still, Detroit’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods surge with new life, driven not out of necessity but out of a deeper desire to live in an integrated landscape. New tech companies are choosing reclaimed industrial buildings; corporate headquarters are abandoning suburban office parks for downtown high-rises; residences are being carved from old warehouses; and even new small-scale manufacturing is taking root.
Turning within to invigorate once abandoned urban landscapes with more depth and texture than they may have ever before had could just be a passing trend. This shift may also reflect a deeper cultural desire to experience psychological integration with life in the same way prior generations used built landscapes to experience a psychological separation. If so, we could be on the forefront of a significant evolution in our political, economic, social, and technological systems. Integration prior to that process of separation is forced by external circumstance; it is limiting. However, a conscious effort to seek integration after one has fully experienced that phase of separation, as we are seeing happen today, may provide the opportunity to harness the best aspects of individuation in order to create systems that simultaneously fulfill both individual and collective needs. Specifically because current systems have so fundamentally failed in Detroit and the Rust Belt in general, such cities could be perfectly positioned to incubate new systems and become the frontier within that so many want them to be.
Bio: Ian Leahy was raised in metro Detroit and has since lived between Michigan and Washington, DC. Beginning with studies at Cornell University that focused on urban natural resource management and writing, he has worked as a business owner and in non-profit, and government focused on urban revitalization in the form of brownfield remediation, green collar workforce development, and urban green infrastructure management in various cities. He is currently helping to develop an environmental education center in Detroit.