The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 2

A scene from Sorrento Avenue in Detroit.  There are thousands of blocks like this in the D.  Source: Google Earth.

The series to date:
Part 1

So I’m providing more detail on the nine reasons I outlined as factors behind Detroit’s decline.  Today, I’ll discuss the quality of Detroit’s housing stock.

First, here’s what I said about this in February 2012:

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.

Most observers seem to acknowledge that Detroit’s decline over the last 60 years is exceptional, even among Rust Belt cities.  But the same is true about its growth in the first half of the twentieth century, and that growth shaped the type of housing that would emerge in the city.  The timing of Detroit’s growth spurt is unique in the Rust Belt.  Most Rust Belt cities, like Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, had their greatest growth rate between 1870 and 1900, with the expansion of the railroad network and the industrial economy.  Detroit, however, grew at similar rates over the same period, but is the only Rust Belt city whose growth rate between 1900 and 1930 exceeded that of the 1870-1900 period.  In fact, the only other city whose 1900-1930 growth rate exceeded its 1870-1900 growth rate?  Los Angeles.

This is not a trivial difference, and can be best seen in this chart.  Whereas most Rust Belt cities had one initial, template-forming growth spurt to contend with, generally at the end of the nineteenth century, Detroit had two — extending all the way until the start of the Great Depression:

The ten cities shown here are the ten of the top 50 cities in 1870 by population growth rate, through 1930.  You’ll notice that this was the period of accelerated growth for the Rust Belt, particularly in the first half of this period.  Growth rates slowed down after 1900, even for exceptionally fast growing cities like Chicago and Kansas City.

But not for Detroit.  The Motor City, in pink above, earned its nickname during this time as the growth of the auto industry fueled growth beyond what happened previously.  In fact, Detroit and Milwaukee were similarly-sized and similarly positioned cities in the American urban hierarchy until 1900.  That year, Detroit had 286,000 residents and Milwaukee had 285,000.  Their populations had paralleled each other for the previous three decades.  But once the expansion of the auto industry took hold in Detroit, the city experienced a second growth shock.

This exceptional growth pattern for Detroit means it grew under two distinctly different development templates.  A growth spurt between 1870 and 1900 meant that a city was organized around and aligned with pedestrian traffic, horse carriages and an emerging rail network, serving passengers and freight.  It also meant that neighborhoods were clustered around those connections, and that they developed at densities that were suitable for more mixed transportation networks.  A growth spurt between 1900 and 1930 meant that neighborhoods oriented around pedestrian and horse carriage travel fell out of favor, and that communities oriented around streetcars, and eventually the automobile, emerged victorious.

Related to this, Detroit was one of the first cities to develop an industrial working class and middle class that was able to afford goods and amenities that earlier generations could only dream of, and a city was being built to match their preferences.  Other cities, like Philadelphia and Baltimore, developed rowhouse neighborhoods.  Some, like Chicago, developed a mix of 2-3 unit homes interspersed with courtyard apartment buildings and single family homes.  Detroit fell early and hard for the single family home.

If anything, it could be said that the model for suburban Levittown-style communities was created in Detroit.  The city is full of small, Cape Cod-style homes with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, usually with a basement but sometimes without.  They were constructed to provide ownership opportunities to a burgeoning middle class, flush with money from the plants, who wanted to create their private slice of the American Dream.  There has always been a somewhat disposable quality to the city’s homes, probably to facilitate continued upward mobility.  Just like the automobiles.  There were no large areas of diverse housing types that were ripe for renovation; it was often a single family home starter model or nothing else.

What remains of the city’s housing stock may work as preferences change.  Today, we are witnessing a shift away from large homes on the urban periphery, difficult to maintain and far from amenities, to smaller homes that have greater connectivity.  This, plus a greater desire for affordability, could play a role in revitalizing housing in Detroit.  But Detroit must recognize what is distinctive about its housing stock, and plan to save what can be salvaged.  If the city can find ways to contemporize what it has, and make it attractive to younger residents, its housing stock has a future.

4 Responses to “The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 2”

  1. ArizonaVelo

    Great article. I've never been to Detroit, but I've found myself fascinated in it's direction lately. I'm especially growing fond of the city with their connections to Shinola & Detroit Bike. I think the city does have a future in manufacturing, but it needs to look past automobiles to find it….


  2. Anonymous

    Those kinds of houses are all over the southern and eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Average home prices in the Pittsburgh area keep gradually increasing, but it's just the average of two extremes: old tract housing that's not increasing in value because it lacks the amenities of newer houses, and newer $250K+ housing that there's a major shortage of across the metropolitan area.


  3. Pete Saunders

    ArizonaVelo and DBR96A, thanks for the comments. I realize that many metros have a second-generation housing type that's similar to Detroit's. DBR96A mentions Pittsburgh, but many other Rust Belt cities come to mind also. In most cases it's a relatively disposable housing type that almost encourages and facilitates easy movement. The one Rust Belt city with sound and adaptable second-gen housing in my mind is Chicago with its Bungalow Belt ( ). Even though, as this cited article points out, the Bungalow Belt has fared worse than the gentrifying parts of the city, I think the existence of the Bungalow Belt helped the city sustain itself during the lean '70s and '80s decades for cities. If Chicago had a second-gen housing stock as disposable as other Rust Belt cities, it likely would have sunk faster and farther.Lastly, I think this is where East Coast cities have an advantage over the Midwest. In most cases pre-WWII housing types and the resulting mix and densities extend up to and beyond the city limits of most East Coast cities. This type is increasingly becoming a preference, and East Coast cities that have more of this, coupled with stronger economies, have something to build on that Midwest cities can't emulate easily.They just don't build them like that anymore.


  4. smb biel

    Our home in Detroit on the west side is no longer on Military street. We moved to the suburbs in 1958 and my parents rented the house until the 1970s when it was sold. Small, frame house with a crawl space where I only lived there until I was 4. My mom had saved all her earnings working in the factories while my dad was in WWII and purchased it for about 2,000 dollars. We lived just a few blocks from my Polish grandparents who came to Detroit in 1910 for work in the car industry. After it was sold eventually I guess it just fell down from neglect. When we visit Michigan we usually go to the old neighborhood where my brother lived there the longest until he was 15.It is so sad what happened to Detroit. Were houses in Detroit built cheaper than other single family homes in other large industrial cities? I know having a basement was very important in the Detroit area with my grandparents even digging their own basement under their Detroit home. Our home in the suburbs had to have a basement because one on a slab or crawl space were seen as only as starter homes.I know live in middle TN and was very upset I couldn't have a basement but majority hones do not have because of rock. Hope Detroit can make a come back as a great city again. And I hope I see that in my lifetime.



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