Whether or not you've been to Detroit, it seems that everyone has an opinion on the Motor City, with its desperate urban blight, the ruins that still define much of the inner city, and the eternal hope for urban renaissance. Detroit is dead. Detroit is back. Detroit is no place to raise a family. It is these familiar tropes that have recurred over the years since the last car plants shut down and moved out of town, leaving what was once the fifth largest city in the United States, with a peak population just shy of two million in the 1950s, as the dilapidated shell of its former self with just 680,000 residents holding onto the hope that one day their city will come back to life. This edition of Cityscape will take a ground-level journey through the ruins of inner Detroit, beginning downtown and moving outward through what little remains of the once grand neighbourhoods and boroughs of the Motor City, terminating at the border of Grosse Pointe, the wealthy suburban enclave that rests just outside of the ruin and urban blight that has become a visual stand-in for American disparity and civic unrest.
Founded as a Great Lakes region fur trading post by French explorer and colonist Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701, what became known as Detroit was named after the strait, or d'etroit, that bounded the small colony to its surroundings via the St. Clair River, thus making the outpost's riverside location the ideal spot for importing and exporting goods. Following the Revolutionary War, Detroit came into American possession, with the brief exception of the War of 1812, during which the city surrendered without a fight to the British before ultimately being returned along with all other captured territories following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent at the end of 1814.
During the twentieth century, Detroit emerged as the automobile manufacturing capital of the United States following the arrival of Henry Ford in 1903, who brought his innovative, assembly-line, mass-production model of automobile manufacturing to Detroit, thus cementing the city's future as Motor City, or Motown. Before long, all of the so called 'Big Three' auto makers had moved into Detroit, along with a parade of since-failed brands such as Packard and American Motors, which fell victim to the breakaway success of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.
By the time of the 1950 census, job-rich Detroit's metro population had swollen to 1.8 million inhabitants, more than enough to support a wildly vibrant metropolitan centre, replete with grand hotels, theatres, banks, and office towers, built throughout the boom years of the early twentieth century and supported by the local population well into the Motown heyday of the 1960s.
However, by the late 1960s, and continuing into the 1970s and 1980s, the ravages of urban sprawl, accompanied by unbridled suburbanization thanks to the postwar construction of a network of downtown expressways that tore up and divided the city centre, had taken their toll on metro Detroit, accelerating the sharp decline of the once bustling metropolitan centre. This, in tandem with the mass exodus of automotive assembly plants and other forms of manufacturing and heavy industry from Detroit during these years, worked to effectively decimate the downtown population, leaving all but the poorest, most vulnerable residents with no choice but to flee the city centre in search of greener pastures either in the suburbs or elsewhere in the country.
Following the infamous Detroit Riots of 1967, in which several blocks of the inner city were burned to the ground over five days of violence and destruction, the so-called 'White Flight' to the suburbs began in earnest. The city centre hollowed out over the next two decades as the population fell by roughly two thirds. By the 1990s, with little in the way of employment, and only the poorest, most marginalized segments of the population remaining in the core, the fate of metro Detroit was sealed. The city was deemed a lost cause by many, with only a few staunch city boosters remaining hopeful that one day prosperity and urban life would return. The financial crisis of 2008, followed by the City of Detroit's bankruptcy claim in 2013, saw to it that such hopes would remain on the back burner, as the city moved to demolish more than a quarter of a million homes in the core — ten times the number of homes destroyed during the infamous Bombing of Dresden in WWII — leaving the once sprawling city of nearly two million people to dwindle to 680,000. The city itself is sometimes referred to as an 'urban prairie,' as the vast expanses of empty lots, since grown over, appear more like empty grassland than a major city.
The abandoned husk of the 1914-built Michigan Central Station remained a fan favourite and urban explorer's dream location to gain illegal access and take photographs. Long held vacant by the Moroun family — who also own the Ambassador Bridge that carries drivers across the border into Windsor — the station can't be written off yet. It began 2016 with a full set of new glass windows.
While its future remains uncertain, the ghostly remains of the massive, Beaux-Arts station, long left to the elements, are certainly a must-see for anyone thinking of taking a trip to Motor City.
Moving into the Brush Park Historic District, what remains of the once grand Victorian-Era neighbourhood can be found just outside of the downtown core. Scores of vacant lots and dilapidated mansions spread out into the distance, and a few salvaged homes have been saved by private restoration efforts. Built up in the 1880s and 1890s, Brush Park was once home to some of the wealthiest inhabitants in Detroit during America's Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century.
Walking distance to Cobo Hall at the heart of downtown, Brush Park would have been a premier address during Detroit's heyday. Centrally located, yet far enough removed from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Financial District, it was the ideal model of the streetcar suburb that popped up across North America at the turn of the last century. Below, a somewhat different reality has taken hold in the neighbourhood, where the mansions of Brush Park have all but vanished, demolished by neglect.
While the majority of historic homes and estates found within Brush Park have been demolished, there have been a handful of local preservation battles fought over the years to save homes of importance. One such example is the 1894-built William Livingstone House, designed by famed American architect Albert Kahn, for Livingstone, President of the Dime Saving Bank in Detroit. Though ultimately unsuccessful in saving the estate, the effort was well publicized, and has been credited with helping kickstart the preservation of nearby homes that would have otherwise met a similar fate.
Below, a row of three Brush Park estates, surrounded by several vacant blocks within the heart of Detroit's urban prairie, have recently been bought, and restoration efforts are now well underway. While some critics would suggest that such an effort is much too late in the game to save the neighbourhood, these urban pioneers have staked a symbolic claim in what will likely be a very long road to recovery for Detroit.
A little further afield, on the northeast side of downtown Detroit, the long-celebrated Heidelberg Project straddles several residential blocks of demolished or abandoned homes. For the past 30 years it has survived as one of the largest permanent outdoor public art displays in the United States.
Begun in 1986 by local resident and artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather, Sam Mackey, the Heidelberg Project transformed a significant portion of Heidelberg Street into an outdoor art exhibit. Several homes that are either abandoned or inhabited by local participants, have been completely covered from top to bottom with various items and trinkets, made up largely from debris and belongings salvaged from nearby demolished homes.
Created by its founders to make a statement about the permanence of neighbourhoods, the relics of the people and families of the neighbourhood have been affixed to the homes that remain. In many instances, these have been formed into statues and abstract art placed upon the footprints of former homes, adding a colourful presence to the area's many vacant lots.
A visit in the summertime will find locals more than happy to let passersby onto their property to take photographs and chat about the project and the neighbourhood, while regular neighbourhood barbecues and other events have been a draw for locals and tourists alike. At the heart of the Heidelberg Project, a makeshift shop and visitor's centre is open to the public, with volunteers within happy to explain all of the work they have done with local school children in an effort to bring art and creativity to the youth of inner city Detroit.
Moving further east, just outside of Detroit proper, the wealthy suburban enclave of Grosse Pointe is situated along the shores of Lake St. Clair. Just a 20-minute commute to downtown Detroit, this neighbourhood is home to the last remnants of Motor City's well-to-do. Separated from downtown Detroit by a ten-mile stretch of decimated inner city residential neighbourhoods, Grosse Pointe reflects the sharp contrast of poverty and wealth that seem to define much of American life. Alter Road, the boundary between Detroit and the suburb of Grosse Pointe, is captured in the aerial view below which highlights the stark divide between the city's rich and poor.
Home to The Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, The Country Club of Detroit, and Grosse Pointe Academy, along with an ample collection of exquisite 1920s-era Tudor and Craftsman style homes, not to mention the lavish millionaire's row along the waterfront, Grosse Pointe is truly in a class of its own.
Famous for its natural and manmade beauty, and home to the top tier of Motown's wealthiest residents during Detroit's early twentieth century Golden Age, Grosse Pointe includes the Edsel Ford Estate and Dodge Mansion, both of which are open to the public for tours.
Beyond the historic landmarks and famous estates, a drive through Grosse Pointe, especially along Lake Shore Drive, reveals the extent of wealth in this exclusive corner of suburban Detroit. The shores of Lake St. Clair and the bordering neighbourhoods are dotted with one impressive abode after another.
Pictured above, the 12,000-square-foot Ralph Harmon Booth House was built in 1924 for the U.S. Minister to Denmark, a wealthy philanthropist who was closely associated with the Detroit Institute of Arts. Below, the similarly sized lakefront estate known originally as the J. Bell Moran House, or 'Belmoor,' was built in 1928, and is the centrepiece of a stately row of 1920s-era mansions that line the coast of Lake St. Clair along Windmill Pointe Drive.
Back downtown, signs of life among the ruins and urban decay are beginning to sprout, the city itself ever so gradually breathing new life into its long-neglected landmarks, neighbourhoods, and homes.
While the time has long since passed to save the countless homes, historic landmarks, and other structures fated for demolition, progress has been made in recent years to saving at least some of the most significant buildings and districts within the city centre. Downtown, new residential construction is underway and the streets are becoming activated again. Below, the view of the Detroit skyline as seen from across the St. Clair River in downtown Windsor, Ontario, reveals what appears to be a vibrant urban centre.
Whatever one may think about America's most beleaguered city, there is no substitute for actually stepping foot in downtown Detroit, the many sights and sounds of the eminently driveable Motor City easily accessible by car, making for the perfect weekend trip for urban explorers and photographers alike.
Cityscape will return soon with a new installment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come. Got an idea for the next issue? Let us know!