Tag Archives: Detroit

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:


In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

Everybody’s doing it

When Richmond was debating whether to construct an urban highway, one argument used in favor of the highway was the citation of other cities with urban highways. Here are two prime examples from June 4, 1950:

june 4 1950-eight cities with highways say they're good-news-propoganda

june 4 1950-First ad-Forward Richmond Highway Committee in favor-Political ad

To read an opinion article related to this topic, click here.
For more artifacts like this, check out my page, “Highways in Richmond?

The Detroit Institute of Arts

When people ask me why I planned a vacation to Detroit, I think about my night at the DIA:

A Bonjour concert

I do my best to talk about my experience, but it’s hard to describe this setting in words: 1920s Beaux-Arts building, 1930s Diego Rivera murals, and an experimental stringed ensemble from New York led by French expat Florent Ghys. It was everything I’d imagined Detroit could be: cultured and complicated.

Built in 1927, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a fine example of Detroit’s grand past and it’s one of the few world-class institutions in this city that has maintained its status. The building itself is a beautiful example of twentieth century beaux-arts and the American City Beautiful movement. It’s a symbol of a time when wealthy residents and cities boldly invested in their culture and their future. In the spring,  you might find tulip trees  blooming and the sun shining on manicured lawns.

This is not how most people picture Detroit:

Of course, I immediately fell in love. When we first walked in, my dad and I ate dinner at CaféDIA then settled into our seats in Rivera Court just past the main entrance to the museum. Every Friday night, the DIA exhibits a musical guest for a free live performance. For us, the museum hosted the modern stringed music of Bonjour. In this old stone hall of Diego Rivera murals, the New York chamber music ensemble played Thursday Afternoon and other innovative stringed arrangements.

The museum, in large part funded by the wealth of the automobile industry, has also fiercely defended the Rivera murals which depict faceless humans and infinite assembly lines.

The infinite assembly line and anonymous worker

It’s one of the artist’s greatest surviving works in America and it’s ironic to be associated with the family and fortune of Henry Ford. Ford, the icon of the American automobile revolution and Rivera, a Mexican artist associated with communism and the revolutions from below. The murals are both grand and subversive. In Detroit, they’re perfect.

Today, the future of the DIA is in question. When the filed for bankruptcy, creditors began eyeing the art at the DIA and scheming its potential sale. Everything that is great about this museum also makes it one of the city’s most valuable assets. If all the art were seized and sold, it would certainly be a chilling moment in museum history. What’s incredible about the current spirit of Detroit is a “nothing to lose–nothing to hide” attitude. Unfortunately, in the case of the DIA, the city does have something to lose. The question is whether to hold onto an institution from the past or fully embrace a new and more innovative future.

The future of the DIA is the future of Detroit.

For more, check out my “Places” tab for Detroit.

Labor Lost

There is something that’s been bothering me since I left Detroit. It’s a lingering question: What would America be like today if auto workers throughout the Twentieth Century had rioted and protested against the American government rather than corporations for benefits and a fair wage?

What if the corporation was the wrong target all along?

Today, many people look to Detroit as a failure of unions demanding too much of corporations: health care, pensions, company cars. I disagree with this opinion, but I do see the point: residents on that frontier town were struggling too locally. This made Detroit a formidable industrial town for corporations looking to do business. But their struggle didn’t benefit or protect the rest of their nation with federal policy.

I think one reason workers demanded help from their employers was their perceived permanence. From the nineteen teens to the 1950s the auto industry in Detroit seemed as permanent as the nation itself. I think that it was also a matter of proximity for disgruntled employees: Workers in Detroit could march down the road to Ford’s River Rouge plant more easily (even with the fire hoses and armed guards) than they could drive 10 hours or so to D.C. Unlike Paris and London, our nation’s Capitol wasn’t the heart of industry and labor reform.

Ford was close and he was rich. The businesses in the city also had the most to lose and so it was here that employees felt they had the most leverage. With sit ins and riots they demanded their humanity and their health. And won. As their employers rose to global prominence the quality of life for middle class residents of the city continued to increase.

And then Martelle writes that two things happened: globalization and vertical integration. New factories were increasingly being built abroad and auto parts were increasingly being manufactured on site rather than purchased from suppliers. Neither of these is the fault of Detroiters. And then there was the flight to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, encouraged by federal policy and grants to decentralize defense industry and connect the nation with highways.

In sixty years, the city flipped in every way imaginable.

Today, the Big Three have taken their factories elsewhere and acquired or driven out many of their parts suppliers. With their departure went their jobs and salaries as well as their accompanying healthcare and other benefits. The classic quick-one-two jab of American unemployment.

We’ll never know what America would be like if we had demanded more security from our national government as we industrialized. Perhaps we’d be falling like France or maybe we’d be rising like Great Britain.

While we benefit from the labor struggle in Detroit, we continue to blame the city for demanding more. When really I think they should have demanded differently.

The Wayne County Government Building

Believe it or not, this building is for sale:



Wayne County Courthouse from the back

If I were Bill Gates, I’d make this my second home.



As I descended into Detroit, I realized I’d lucked out with my window seat. As we flew west, I looked north to this view of the city of Detroit and nearby Windsor:


When I looked out the window to take this picture, I put down my book, Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle. I had literally just finished the astounding story of alcohol being smuggled across this river during Prohibition. Martelle writes:

“…providentially it must have seemed, wartime prohibition laws across the river in Canada ended on January 1, 1920, a little more than two weeks before the American booze spigot was officially shut off” (Martelle, 104).

Powerful forces across this area of America looked to Detroit and the potential for illicit trade just across the Detroit River. There is no estimate for the extent of this underground empire, but both sides of the river saw a new market for rapid growth. And then I read about how this market, artificially created by a constitutional amendment, began to change the lives of locals.

Martelle writes,

“The smuggling business was so good that Canadian farmers gave up spring planting in favor of rum-running, letting their fields on the south side of the river lie fallow as they moved booze across the river in small launches.”

Everything changed in two weeks for the liquor export business in Windsor and the traditional way of life was left for new enterprise. And then I thought, this whole city has become like a fallow field: left for new opportunities and markets.

Detroit was planted, the city was carefully nourished and developed, and then it was left with no regard for heritage or tradition. The money ran dry (or ran away) and the people left with it. I guess, as much as you love a place, you have to feed yourself and your family. Even if you had a job you might have feared for your life. Detroit became a loser, a bad bet, and an unstable place to live:

“In March 2011, the US Census reported that the population of Detroit…had dropped to 714,000 people, down by a quarter-million since 2000 and by more than 1.1 million people from its peak of 2.8 million residents in 1950…” (Martelle, XII).

As Windsor plodded along at a casual, Canadian pace, Detroit rose to global fame and fell to national shame.

Today, people are overcoming the stigma that descended upon Detroit all those years ago and realizing there is still much to love. I’m amazed by the beauty and drama of the buildings and the potential of the space around them. And I’m not just squinting my eyes and using my imagination.

I don’t know what’s next for Detroit, but I’m glad to be here to see it unfold. The descent has been devastating and has left a shell of a place. I don’t know what Detroit can become without heavy industry, but creative citizens here are working to figure it out.

I’m just a tourist inspired by a story.

Detroit Preflection

“Have fun in Detroit!” a friend said to me today. Then added, “I never thought I’d say that.” I laughed and thought, “I never thought I’d hear it.”

In one week, I’ll probably be eating lunch in that infamous American place: MoTown, The Motor City, The D, former home to the Arsenal of Democracy, and the historical heart of the global automobile revolution. Today, it’s a bleeding heart, to be sure, but it’s a crazy American story and I’m ready to see it for myself.


I don’t remember the first time I heard about Detroit. I don’t think it really factored into my elementary, middle school, or high school educations. If it did, it wasn’t a prominent stop along the way.

Actually, I think my first connection to Detroit was in the movie, The Jungle Book (1967). As King Louis sang “I wanna be like you,” the rhythm of Motown filled my young ears. It’s a somewhat dubious scene in the movie, but a good example of Disney capturing the musical genre that Detroit sold to the world. It would be most of my life before I would even begin to consider it’s context or implications.

I didn’t grow up dreaming about Detroit, but I’ve always been interested in cities. This particular city has been calling my name since I first read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis for a class five years ago. As I read Sugrue in horror, I learned about the racism and violence that ruined the city in the twentieth century. My classmates and I watched a moving documentary, “Goin’ to Chicago,” that introduced the story of the Great Migration and its role in changing many northern cities (definitely click the link to watch the video if you’ve never seen it). The following summer, I had a layover in the Detroit airport and talked to a woman who told me that she was proud of Detroit despite it’s national perception, but then added that she preferred to live in “nearby” Windsor. I remember the airport was pretty cool too.

That same summer, my boss at Partnership for Smarter Growth gave me a copy of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape as if it were a coming-of-age ritual. She said that someone had given it to her and now it was time for me to have it. Around that time (or earlier), my parents enthusiastically told me about the documentary “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” and I later watched and was amazed. Here’s a link to the trailer. What a place! This music changed the world, but many of us forget it or were never taught in the first place.

For the next few years, I spent almost all of my time learning about Richmond and New York City. But last summer I watched (and really enjoyed) Eminem’s movie Eight Mile and was reminded of my fascination with the city. More overcoming, more amazing music, more fight, more attitude. I have to go there.

Last year, I started to read the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and once again I became incredibly interested in the story of the Great Migration. The title is not hyperbole. The story is epic. It’s a huge book and I had to put it down, but I’ll finish it some day. It’s impossible to understand race in Detroit without understanding where everyone came from. This is the story of African American migration from the rural south to northern cities such as Detroit.

I have seen three brief videos that have connected me to Detroit in different ways. First, the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Imported from Detroit.” I was totally moved by the gospel choir, dramatic shots of the city and phrases such as, “you see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” It was bombastic, yes, but you can’t deny that attitude. It is unique. You could not make a video like that about Richmond, or Austin, or San Francisco. More recently, I watched the trailers for the documentaries Burn and Detropia, both jarring insight into the reality of Detroit’s profound decay and loss. I continued to feel the drama of this city from 1,000 miles away.

I recently stumbled upon one last video that I have grown to love over the past year. It’s a beautiful piece about the Michigan Central Station in southwestern Detroit titled, simply, “Michigan Central Station.” I like this video and I choose it to conclude this post because it’s not sad, but it’s a real portrayal of an abandoned place. It’s also connected to a Web site, “Talk to the Station,” where we’re encouraged to share “ideas and love” for the dilapidated structure. The ideas are great and the energy is exciting. Fifteen ideas in the last two weeks!

As I look forward to my visit, I am most excited about this kind of creativity and stubborn ingenuity in the face of a raw and bitter history. My pilgrimage has been brewing for almost five years and I’m ready to see the place for myself.

Detroit, I’m on my way.

Detroit! Books! Adventure!

I’m going to Detroit. In preparation, I’m putting together a reading list, calling interesting people for advice, and working my network to put together a legendary survey of this monumental city. I will likely post about Detroit in advance of my trip, potentially during the trip, and certainly after the trip. For now, here’s my reading list:

When I was in college, I loved to plan trips like this so I’m beyond excited to get back into the fun. Can’t forget about fun 🙂 Maybe one day I’ll have a job that encourages me to plan trips to places that have a story to tell, lessons to learn, and a creative vision for the future. Until then, Detroit awaits.

Underperforming Asphalt

Looking through Google maps I spotted this section of downtown Detroit, almost completely erased for a highway and parking lots: