The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 1

The house I grew up in, in Detroit’s Pembroke neighborhood, or so I’m told.  Still looks good.  Area still looks good.  Source: Ben Saunders

This blog has been a pretty free-flowing venture for me.  An idea occurs to me, and I write about it.  As much as I’ve tried to add structure, it’s often eluded me.  But I think I have something now I can sink my teeth into.

My work here was catalyzed by a piece I wrote called Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline in early 2012.  It originally appeared at the Urbanophile website, and within a few days I started my own blog by posting it there.  In it, I demonstrate that the seeds of Detroit’s current condition were planted more than 100 years ago, due to governing and planning policy decisions made in the first third of the 20th century and an unwillingness to reverse or address the decisions in the middle third of the century.  What happened in the latter third of the century, I maintain, was almost a natural outflow of the earlier decisions.

In that initial piece I outlined nine reasons I saw as contributing to Detroit’s fall from grace, going well beyond the tired “auto-industry-jobs-left-and-people-did-too” narrative.  They were:

  • Detroit’s poor neighborhood identification
  • The city’s poor housing stock
  • A poor public realm
  • A strong downtown that was allowed to become weak
  • Extensive freeway expansion
  • Lack of/loss of the city’s transit network
  • Ineffective local government organization
  • An industrial landscape that choked and constrained the city’s core
  • An ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy
I gave summary explanations for each in the piece, but it’s now well past time to expand on those nine reasons, and offer updated thoughts based on new observations.  I’ll try rolling these out once a week or so for the next several weeks and see how things go.  I’m starting today with the first reason cited, poor neighborhood identification.
Back in 2012, I wrote:

“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.”

 This is still largely true.  I spent the first 17 years of my life in Detroit, and I go back frequently, yet I could never identify where I grew up with a neighborhood name.  Most people I knew felt the same way, in other parts of the city.

Poor neighborhood identification in Detroit is not universal, however.  I mention Midtown, Indian Village and English Village above.  There’s also Corktown, Woodbridge, the Cass Corridor, Mexicantown, Lafayette Park, and the Marina District.  There’s also New Center, the North End, Boston-Edison, Delray and Chandler Park, to name more than a few.  Detroit definitely does have neighborhoods.  With names.

But what I’ve found is that Detroit’s strongly identified neighborhoods generally hew closely to downtown, and that the further one goes from the city center the less identifiable city neighborhoods become.   You go a little further from downtown, and neighborhoods are often known as an intersection or the main thoroughfares (Dexter-Linwood, Grand-Meyers, Jefferson-Mack).  As you might guess, people whose neighborhoods are referred to in this manner rarely refer to their neighborhood at all.

In some respects Detroit shares more commonalities with Sun Belt cities than it does with its Rust Belt neighbors.  Detroit grew so fast, literally from nothing to urban core in a generation’s time, that what would eventually become neighborhoods never had the chance to have communities develop in a more organic fashion.  By organic, I mean that the outskirts of many cities had rail junctions or farm trading centers that were settled by pioneers or immigrants, gained a community name, whistle stop and a post office, developed with a small commercial center and later had a real estate speculator construct a small subdivision that met the needs of the inhabitants.  A community pattern was established that set the tone for future development, even after being subsumed by the big city.  This pattern is consistent for much of the Northeast and Midwest — small rural communities being overtaken by a rapidly growing city.  Sun Belt cities in the South and West are better known for having small rural communities or small cities that nearly burst whole cloth into large cities.  Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas are well known for becoming major cities out of practically nothing that previously existed.  Detroit fits that pattern.

Chicago is generally known for having the kind of explosive growth in the 19th and early 20th century that Sun Belt cities were known for in the post-WWII period.  But Detroit grew even faster.  Between 1870 and 1930, Chicago grew from 300,000 to 3.4 million, or a factor of eleven over 60 years.  Detroit, however, grew from just 80,000 in 1870 to 1.6 million in 1930, twenty times its size just 60 years earlier.  Whereas Chicago had whistle stops and farming centers that would later develop into Jefferson Park or Roseland, early Detroit went almost directly from forest to large city.  Detroit never developed a sense of itself as a constellation of interrelated communities, only as an amorphous urban landscape disconnected from the people who inhabited it.

But since I started this I’ve since evidence that this is changing.  Perhaps spurred on by hitting bottom over the last decade, Detroiters seem to be reclaiming and even creating neighborhood identity where none previously existed.  The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, which undertook the incredible task of identifying structural blight and abandonment in the Motor City, recently released its report on its findings.  The task force also introduced an interactive map of their citywide survey results, and included a map illustrating blight by city neighborhood.  It wasn’t until I saw this map that I found out that I used to live in the Pembroke neighborhood on the Northwest Side.

Just as Chicago has been collecting data by its 77 Community Areas since the 1920s, Detroit is now beginning to collect data organized by recognized neighborhoods.  This map below has the neighborhoods with names (click to make big):

Simply looking at this map you can see where neighborhood identity is strongest and weakest.  It is strongest going north-northwest of downtown, generally following the main thoroughfare that is Woodward Avenue; neighborhoods there occupy a smaller footprint, and have distinctive and descriptive names like Milwaukee Junction and Arden Park.  Further east or west, however, neighborhoods lose their distinctiveness, and begin to have names like Seven Mile-Evergreen, or Berg-Lahser, or Greenfield-Grand River, all of which are major intersections.  Maybe it’s just me, but neighborhoods shouldn’t be named after major intersections.

One anecdote: on my last two visits to Detroit, in March and just last week, I noticed a number of neighborhood signs scattered along West Outer Drive.  The signs were generally in the area that the above map would identify as the Greenfield, Bagley and Belmont neighborhoods, but none of the signs I saw had those names.  The signs appeared to have the logo of the Detroit Medical Center on them, which does have a hospital (Sinai-Grace) on West Outer Drive.  It’s totally possible that the DMC has a community affairs or community relations office that is working with neighborhoods in the area, helping to raise the area’s profile, and by extension the DMC.  That’s a positive move and quite a departure from previous institutional or corporate involvement in the city.

Neighborhood identity in Detroit is important, and integral to its revitalization.  Detroit must do away with its image as a post-industrial, apocalyptic landscape, since it tells only part of the story.  It needs to be viewed as a mosaic of diverse neighborhoods, each offering a variety of perspectives on Detroit living, because that’s far closer to the truth.

3 Responses to “The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 1”

  1. Chris Andrews

    Pete, very interesting and informative stuff. Having grown up in the suburbs, I can say I knew only a few neighborhoods, like Indian Village and English Village. Otherwise, as you say, I only knew \”east side\” and \”west side\”. Can any of this be attributed to the media? On the news and in the newspapers, areas are always described as east and west. For example, just from some articles this week on Freep:\”east side\”, not Morningside\”east side\”, not \”St. Jean\”And finally,\”east side\”, not \”Denby\”I'm glad to see there's a desire for some differentiation. Detroit Future City is using neighborhood names in their project areas, which hopefully might help establish some of the names. It's certainly better than east and west sides. Looking forward to more on this as the time goes on.


  2. NickD

    I would say much of the Toronto area is similar. The core neighbourhoods will have more of a distinctive identity (The Annex, Little Italy, Riverdale, Chinatown, The Beach) but much of the post-war (and some early 20th century) don't. It doesn't help that they were never really independent small communities, and developed as nothing more than an extension of the city. For example, Scarborough, which is now part of the Toronto city proper, was basically a giant municipality of hundreds of thousands of residents (650k today) for most of its history. Occasionally you'll have neighbourhoods in Scarborough that people know by name, like Malvern or maybe Guildwood or Birch Cliff, but mostly residents just associate with Scarborough and not a specific neighbourhood name. The situation is similar with North York and Etobicoke, which were big suburban municipalities before being amalgamated into Toronto. The situation is also similar with the next ring of development around Toronto – Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, Markham… big municipalities with hundreds of thousands of residents.


  3. NickD

    Pt 2Toronto also has a similarity to Detroit where it has a grid of arterial roads. This means that if you're using an intersection name to describe a location, people will know where it is. Even if they've never been there, if they're crossed those arterials while driving through the city (which they most likely have) and will now how far east/west the N-S arterials are, and how far north/south the E-S arterials are. Since the arterials are on a rigid grid, it's pretty simple to visualize. So no-one will say, not even to a local, that's they're from Willowridge, they'll either say they're from Etobicoke or from Martin Grove and Eglinton. They won't say they're from Lundy's Village, but rather Chingacousy and Bovaird, or just Brampton. Markham and Lawrence, or Scarborough, instead of Woburn.I think this is becausea) lack of a sense of place, when there's an old town centre, Woodbridge, Streetsville, Unionville, and of course neighbourhoods in Toronto's urban core, people will associate with those. However, if it's just tract housing, commie-blocks, strip malls and industrial parks, not really. If you say you live near Yorkdale Mall people will wonder if you're squatting in the parking lot or something… Toronto is relatively similar to Detroit in that there are few historic town centres, mostly just one wave of development after another.b) If people go to these places at all, they'll probably just be seeing them from the car driving along arterial roads. They're not going to venture into the cul-de-sacs and side streets unless they have a friend living there. They'll probably only get out of their car to go to a shopping centre and they'll probably just know it as the \”shopping centre with the best-buy and walmart at the intersection of x and y\”. Often, what they'll see driving along the arterials will be apartment buildings hidden behind nondescript greenspace, the back side of subdivision houses, and parking lots. It's not too hard to see how the most easily identifiable feature for a non-resident is the main intersection.c) big municipalities, as I mentioned. Detroit proper is pretty big, and unlike many other central cities, has more neighbourhoods built later on (say post-1920). The suburbs, unlike Toronto's are generally smaller though, so that might help give them more of a neighbourhood identity. If you say you're from Lincoln Park or Northville those are relatively small places, not much bigger than the size of a neighbourhood.New York City has very big city limits too, but I feel like locals are more familiar with the various neighbourhoods. Maybe because of a better sense of places, or higher densities so that \”neighbourhood sized\” areas actually contain a lot of people and amenities. NYC also has a less rigid arterial grid especially in the outer boroughs, where there is a good grid of local streets, but the various local grids mesh together at oblique angles.Looking at many sunbelt cities, the municipalities are often smaller, both for the suburbs and city proper, like with Atlanta. And there's often less of a rigid arterial grid, especially in the Southeastern cities.



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