The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 9

Detroit residents participating in a cleanup of the Brightmoor neighborhood, 2014.  Brightmoor was annexed to Detroit in 1925, but development did not take place until nearly three decades later.  Source:

Origin Post

In this penultimate installment to the series (an epilogue will follow soon), I’ll explain how an ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy had disastrous consequences for Detroit.
Explosive growth presented unique challenges to Detroit.  Detroit circa 1890 was a midsize Midwestern city, comparable in size and scale to Milwaukee or Minneapolis/St. Paul and without the auto industry Detroit would like have followed a growth path similar them.  Detroit shared little with some of the era’s biggest cities, like Chicago or St. Louis, and likely viewed cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh as aspirational at the time.  But the growth of the auto industry changed that and the ramifications of decisions made a century ago reverberate today.
Start by looking at the year 1915.  Detroit is in the middle of a nearly unprecedented population boom due to the exploding auto industry.  In 1900, just one year after the opening of the city’s first auto plant, Detroit was a compact city of 286,000 residents.  In 15 short years, the city’s population grew 2.6 times to nearly 730,000.  Detroit would double its population again by 1930, getting to nearly 1.6 million.  There are only three other American cities that exceeded one million residents that grew at the same pace or better — Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix.  
Beginning in 1899 with the startup of the the Detroit Automobile Company, the auto industry took off and immediately started making demands for more space and more labor in Detroit.  Henry Ford, who founded the DAC, learned from its failure in 1901 and started the Ford Motor Company in 1903.  Ford started production at his Piquette Avenue plant northeast of downtown Detroit in 1904 but quickly outgrew the space.  He moved production to his modern Highland Park plant by 1910.  Part of the reason for the move presumably was to take advantage of the efficiencies provided by the Detroit Terminal Railroad (detailed earlier here) which would more directly connect Ford to the growing number of suppliers located on the rail line, and offer easier transit in and out of the city for his product.  The DTR opened in 1911.
What does this have to do with annexation policy and city collapse?  Two things.  First, we already established that the DTR had the effect of encircling the city’s core with industrial uses.  This map illustrates how the DTR, shown in red, surrounded old Detroit:
Also take note of the annexation timeline in the map above.  Over a 13-year time period, between 1892 and 1905, Detroit did not annex any new land to the city, all while undergoing explosive growth.  Detroit in 1892 was a city with approximately 230,000 residents within the roughly 30 square mile area seen above in white.  By 1915 Detroit managed to annex an additional 17 square miles to accommodate its 500,000 added residents over the period, but as you can see they were still firmly bound by the DTR.
It appears this was the time that Detroit leaders took notice and decided to become more aggressive in their annexation approach.  Over the next 11 years, between 1915 and 1926, mayors Oscar Marx (1913-1918), James Couzens (1919-1922), John C. Lodge (1922-1924) and John W. Smith (1924-1928) presided over the tripling of Detroit’s physical size.  The city grew from 47 to 139 square miles, its present size.  Interestingly, of the 92 square miles that were added over the period, about half was added in 1925 and 1926 alone.
Unfortunately, Detroit’s aggressive annexation policy was undone by two factors — one brought on by city leaders themselves and one perhaps unforeseen at the time.  First, as noted earlier the DTR constrained the city’s core as growth exploded; the city sought new lands for expansion, but they didn’t pan out.  Why?  Because the DTR that was constraining the core was also a blight on the adjacent, recently-annexed outer areas, prohibiting growth that helped the core.  The very areas that could’ve developed as streetcar neighborhoods, in the same fashion as in Chicago or Los Angeles, were prevented from doing so because of the spread of manufacturing uses or the blight they presented to residential uses.
The second reason — the Great Depression and World War II.  Perhaps no city was more impacted by these events than Detroit.  Again, Detroit gambled on its Roaring ’20s annexations with the hope of having them developed over the next 5-10 years.  The city spectacularly lost its bet.  Depression and war halted real estate development and set the scene for rising tensions in a grimy city for much of the middle of the 20th century.
This, in fact, was the side effect of the DTR and failed annexation policy.  The period between 1915 and 1945 in Detroit was bleak and tension-filled, in part because of the city’s physical structure.  The bleakness and tensions, I believe, made outward movement far more desirable after World War II than in most other cities nationwide.  People wanted to escape the factories for manicured green spaces, but they also wanted to escape the prospect of reduced property values as the city’s slums expanded, and settle in more homogeneous settings.  The failure of the city’s annexation strategy initiated its downward spiral.
Let’s go back to the Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix comparisons.  I identified 50-year time horizons of growth spurts for the four most prolific cities in U.S. history.  Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Detroit are the only U.S. cities to start from a base of about 100,000 and achieve more than 10 times more residents within 50 years.  You can see their growth spurts below; the data is from the U.S. Census.
I also did some research to examine annexation activity for each city during their most prolific periods.  Each city’s annexation strategy was slightly different and created different outcomes:
  • Chicago more than quadrupled its size between 1870 and 1890 in response to growing demand for city services;
  • Los Angeles also quadrupled in size between 1910 and 1930, partly to secure access to water for present as much as future residents;
  • Phoenix began a persistent, incremental annexation program in the ’60s, also in the name of city service provision;
  • Detroit appears to have adopted an annexation strategy as a release valve reaction to the city’s rapid growth.
The amounts of land added through annexation during the most aggressive phases for each city are highlighted below in a table:

If you align the periods of greatest annexation with periods of greatest population growth, it becomes apparent how Detroit differed from the others — and failed in its attempt.  You can see this by examining the table below.  The decades of greatest annexation activity during their respective high-growth periods are highlighted in green.  In the case of Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix, aggressive annexation activity occurred in the early stages of each city’s growth spurt, allowing for more controlled, if still very rapid, expansion.  Detroit’s aggressive annexation activity, however, starts well into its growth spurt, perhaps starting a decade later than in the other three cities.  

This difference in timing means all the difference between a city growing organically and a city feeling constrained by its growth.

The differences between Detroit and Los Angeles deserve closer examination, since both cities were most aggressive at annexation at roughly the same time.  Both were aggressive between 1910 and 1930, but with big caveats: LA annexed nearly two-thirds of the 352 square miles it would annex over that period by 1917, in the San Fernando Valley and west LA.  This makes the second factor in Detroit’s failed policy, the Great Depression and World War II, loom large.  LA’s early annexation work meant it could create communities in the Valley and in west LA during a period of prosperity in the ’20s.  Just as Detroit tried to do the same with its recently annexed lands the economy collapsed.  Much of it sat undeveloped until the ’50s, when a new development form — Levittown-style suburbanism — began to emerge.

Detroit’s collapse starts here.  The city’s fall from grace became clearer with each subsequent negative event — riots, auto industry decline and job loss, political corruption and municipal bankruptcy — but the seeds were sown here.

Everything we associate with Detroit’s economic, social and cultural legacy was shaped by the volatile years between 1900 and 1930, when the city failed in its attempt to grow itself out of problems it could not manage.  Frustrations with overcrowdedness and the grit and grime of the industrial landscape had their beginnings here.  Mounting racial tensions started here.  The push to escape the city started here.

5 Responses to “The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 9”

  1. Alon

    One thing about this analysis bothers me: even pre-annexation Detroit was not a very dense city. In 1915, it was marginally denser than Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, all of which had annexed extensively. It was less dense than New York, which had recently made an enormous annexation and was only starting to fill the Bronx and Queens. If people were clamoring to get out of city center, it had to come from different causes. I like the explanation of the DTR choking streetcar-suburban growth, causing the suburbs behind it to be developed at lower density, but given how much space there was even within the DTR, I don't think delayed annexations could be a major cause.Another point: Boston and Philadelphia both followed unique annexation paths. Philadelphia stayed within its colonial borders and then made one giant annexation with the city-county merger, which at the time gave it the population density of modern-day Dallas and Houston. Boston followed organic annexation and land reclamation, like other cities, but only in specific directions: expansion to the north and northwest was blocked by Cambridge, and expansion to the west was blocked to a lesser extent by Brookline. Philadelphia's history as far as suburbanization and decline go doesn't seem to stand out – it looks to me as an average of the histories of New York, Baltimore, and Washington. New England's Balkanized local government is legendary, and this can be connected to the Brookline annexation controversy, but for present-day local governance the separation of Boston and Cambridge is more important (for example, Google could play the two cities against each other when deciding where to site its offices), and, more broadly, Boston's history of suburbanization and decline is again in line with what you'd expect for the Northeast.


  2. D Holmes

    Your post reminds me of a topic I hope to explore someday, which is the correlation between periods of very high growth rates in cities, the extent to which the rapid growth correlates with lower quality development, and the areas subject to blight 40 or 50 years after the high growth rate period. My working hypotheses are that slow growth is much more likely to produce development of durable quality; that a lot of the blighted neighborhoods in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh correlate to the boom periods with huge influxes of working class residents; and finally that the high growth cities of the past 30 to 50 years are destined for similar levels of blight and abandonment (although not as severe as Detroit, which as chronicled in your article series, had multiple other significant contributing factors for neighborhood abandonment and decline).


  3. Pete Saunders

    Alon, I'd agree but I think we view density a little differently. My belief is that density is an outcome of geographic, historical and cultural factors, and that you can't compare East Coast cities with cities elsewhere in the country. One could argue that New York's island geography and Boston and San Francisco's peninsula geography made them as dense as they are, coupled with the timing of their development. Midwest and Southern cities did not have such restrictions since they arose later and with the cultural imperative to move outward rather than upward.That being said a Detroit in 1915 that was marginally more dense than Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago was likely perceived to be far more dense, because Detroit never intended to build itself at those densities. Again, Detroit before the auto industry was a city much like Milwaukee or the Twin Cities, and absent the auto industry it would've grown similarly. The auto boom pushed Detroit closer to East Coast-type densities and development, and it simply wasn't ready for it.


  4. Pete Saunders

    I think that's a great subject worthy of study. I don't think rapid growth correlates with lower quality development necessarily, but that different development eras correlate with lower quality development. For example Chicago blew up between 1860-1910, but the quality of development was pretty strong. That was probably due to codes put in place after the Fire.I think the Los Angeles/Detroit comparison is instructive. It seems weird to say but LA and Detroit had their growth spurts at very nearly the same time, but timing allowed LA to establish a better development pattern than Detroit. LA's annexations of the San Fernando Valley and west LA by 1917 allowed it to build the moderate-density streetcar neighborhoods that it became well known for. Meanwhile Detroit's late '20s annexations did not materialize into development until the late '40s and early '50s. As a result Detroit ended up with one of the highest concentrations of post-WWII Levittown-style development of any city in the nation, which I noted in Part 2 of this series. I think we can all agree that was a period of poor development construction, of limited utility and lifespan, and Detroit's paid the price for it.


  5. Alon

    I don't think there was such a big difference between East Coast and Midwestern densities. The second largest Midwestern city at the beginning of the 20th century, St. Louis, had 4,300 people per km^2 in 1910 and 4,800 in 1920 (its boundaries were fixed when it seceded from the county in the 1870s). Detroit had 6,000 in 1915, on the eve of the annexation wave – more than St. Louis, but not that much more.



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