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Detroit: Then, Now, The Future

DetroitPlanner

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Yea, until the mid 1920s, there were essentially no controls at all along either of the USA's land borders and crossing between Canada and the USA was much like crossing borders in modern-day 'Schengen' Europe. The 18th Amendment changed that all.

:(

Mike
I grew up with a lot of people whose grandfathers claimed to have run booze during those years! I would have thought the Purple Gang would have had em slaughtered!

The Canadian Side of the River has a lot of major distilleries (Seagrams, Canadian Club) even still.
 

WSU MUP Student

Cyburbian
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9,239
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28
Anyhow ...



It goes on, and on, and on ...
Hey, I know that spot!



We looked at a house in that neighborhood a few years ago and two more houses just to the south and east of that spot (off to the right hand side of the photo). It's weird seeing the area not all built out - the oldest aerials that we have in our office are from 1963 and everything in that area is totally built out by then.
 

jameshansenbc

Cyburbian
Messages
53
Points
4
I don't have a lot to add to the thread - other than it's been a very interesting read, the 100abandonedhouses.com website was very interesting, and I'm definitely watching the "Requim for Detroit" documentary later!

That super highway plan is very cool - one of those pieces of design you look at and just get excited about because of the progression it represents. I also have a random question regarding the above image - those multiple crescent shaped roads inside each other - is there an urban planning term for that design? I've seen it done in one older area of town near me and only there and it works really well to bring more interest to the grid.
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
Messages
3,081
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26
I've been thinking of the Detroit bankruptcy quite a bit lately, and my mind circles around this question - what if it woks? What if in 10 years the City is growing and it becomes hip and attractive, like Pittsburgh was 20 years ago? There are so many people in this state who have given up on the City, it almost feels like that no matter what happens in Detroit, the City will always be a decrepit hole. That's the conventional wisdom, it seems. But what if that's all wrong? Will we know what to do with Detroit? Will we stop looking back at the post-war "glory days" and actually have a realistic view of the City?
 

jsk1983

Cyburbian
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23
^^
I agree that Woodward, as well as some of Detroit's other major 'radial' streets, could stand to be narrowed, perhaps down to two lanes in each direction - they were their era's (1920s/1930s) versions of the mid to late 20th century freeways, which supplanted those streets, and to simply maintain all of that pavement for so little traffic is absurd.

Mike
Of course that would involve putting in new curbs, moving the street lights and probably a few other things. I think just paving over what is already there is cheaper in the short run. And then what do you do with the land where the road was removed? Really wide sidewalks, grass that probably wont be maintained?
 

DetroitPlanner

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^^
I agree that Woodward, as well as some of Detroit's other major 'radial' streets, could stand to be narrowed, perhaps down to two lanes in each direction - they were their era's (1920s/1930s) versions of the mid to late 20th century freeways, which supplanted those streets, and to simply maintain all of that pavement for so little traffic is absurd.

Mike
Not every street is too wide though many are. We looked at peak hour and found that this is true throughout the region. In many cases we are recommending road diets, bike lanes or rain gardens (being an older City we still have some CSO issues). The issue we are facing is taking this infrastructure and making it an asset. We also need to be cognizant that this area still has to deal with big trucks and narrowing may not be a good idea. We have more than our share of trucks for two reasons: we are still very much a manufacturing center (in fact our regional GDP is still as large as the UK's!) and that we are a very important trade node for N America (over $1 billion in commerce flows over the bridge to Canada in Detroit everyday).

Now you may wonder how the heck we can be in such bad shape if we have all of these assets? We used to have a lot more. It used to take tens of thousands of people to work in an auto factory, now the same production can be done by less than 2,000 due to automation. We may sell 15 million cars this year, but the Detroit area only accounts for about ten percent of those sales where in the past it accounted for closer to fifty percent or more.
 
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jameshansenbc

Cyburbian
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53
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Not every street is too wide though many are. We looked at peak hour and found that this is true throughout the region. In many cases we are recommending road diets, bike lanes or rain gardens (being an older City we still have some CSO issues). The issue we are facing is taking this infrastructure and making it an asset.
I like the idea of dedicated separated bike lanes, more and more cities are expanding with that idea, in addition to daily affordable bike rentals. All the abandoned houses with street frontage could also be replaced with pleasant outdoor malls that are within cycling distance of residential property, provided there are enough people around willing to go there.

We also need to be cognizant that this area still has to deal with big trucks and narrowing may not be a good idea. We have more than our share of trucks for two reasons: we are still very much a manufacturing center (in fact our regional GDP is still as large as the UK's!) and that we are a very important trade node for N America (over $1 billion in commerce flows over the bridge to Canada in Detroit everyday).
Surely these trucks would be limited as to what streets they use, or be permitted to use?

Now you may wonder how the heck we can be in such bad shape if we have all of these assets?
I think the reason why narrowing was suggested is because the maintenance of these roads - even though they are valuable - sounds like a huge burden on the city budget. It is probably costing a lot more money than it needs to since a lot of these areas are now abandoned. Additionally, continuing on from the truck traffic issue, limiting the roads trucks are allowed to use would limit the wear and tear to those specific routes, which may also help reduce city expenditure (if something like that isn't already in place).
 

DetroitPlanner

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I like the idea of dedicated separated bike lanes, more and more cities are expanding with that idea, in addition to daily affordable bike rentals. All the abandoned houses with street frontage could also be replaced with pleasant outdoor malls that are within cycling distance of residential property, provided there are enough people around willing to go there.


Surely these trucks would be limited as to what streets they use, or be permitted to use?


I think the reason why narrowing was suggested is because the maintenance of these roads - even though they are valuable - sounds like a huge burden on the city budget. It is probably costing a lot more money than it needs to since a lot of these areas are now abandoned. Additionally, continuing on from the truck traffic issue, limiting the roads trucks are allowed to use would limit the wear and tear to those specific routes, which may also help reduce city expenditure (if something like that isn't already in place).
A. Not every parcel in Detroit is abandoned. The most common thing you will see are empty lots or abandoned buildings sticking out like missing teeth. I doubt that you could get enough green space to make this possible. One thing that is happening though is the use of old rail corridors for biking. The Dequindre Cut is one of the more successful projects and it is currently being expanded to a city-wide system. One thing that is has become obvious is that bike travel is a lower cost alternative to car ownership due to the exorbitant price of car insurance (I have heard stories of people with few violations paying over $5k per year). Add to this the City/Region has woefully underfunded transit systems and cannot raise the dollars needed for Operating making bike travel almost a necessity.

B. Yes we have truck routes, but in general we have a lot more truck routes than most places as dictated by the amount of land devoted to industrial space is unusually large.

C. As mentioned previously, we just can't take out every road. That too is a major expense. What you are finding in some places is a lot of deferred maintenance. Eventually some of these roads may return to gravel, but there are still homes that need access.
 
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Dan

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A question for the Detroit/SE Michigan crowd:

Buffalo's urbanatti/armchair planner crowd generally have a passionate hatred for chain businesses. National chains are very slow in expandin to the region, and they're usually met with little enthusiasm. Panera Bread recently opened a location in the heart of the gentrifying Elmwood Village neighborhood, and the buzz online was largely negative.

What about Detroit? From what I've seen, it seems like there's not the same animosity towards chains, and folks there get quite excited when they locate in the city; Whole Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc.
 

WSU MUP Student

Cyburbian
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A question for the Detroit/SE Michigan crowd:

Buffalo's urbanatti/armchair planner crowd generally have a passionate hatred for chain businesses. National chains are very slow in expandin to the region, and they're usually met with little enthusiasm. Panera Bread recently opened a location in the heart of the gentrifying Elmwood Village neighborhood, and the buzz online was largely negative.

What about Detroit? From what I've seen, it seems like there's not the same animosity towards chains, and folks there get quite excited when they locate in the city; Whole Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc.
I used to frequent a Detroit-centric message board that had a lot of armchair planners and Whole Foods was talked about quite frequently, along with Trader Joe's, as being absolutely needed in the city. :r: However, the biggest one that they always seemed to be clamoring for was a Cheesecake Factory. Somehow, it is an absolutely travesty that Detroit was the only major American city without a Cheesecake Factory. And we are probably about the only major MSA in the country without a Cheesecake Factory anywhere in the region.

Well... all that will change come next Tuesday when a Cheesecake Factory finally opens up just off of Grand River Avenue!!!................and 12 Mile Road in Novi. (I never knew this until it was announced that a Cheesecake Factory was actually coming but the founders are originally from Detroit and got their start in the dessert business here)

FWIW, while I wouldn't want a downtown absolutely full of national chains, I can definitely see their importance when marketing a city (to tourists, conventioneers, other firms, and residents) and feel that the nearly complete lack of full service chain restaurants downtown and in the city in general is not a good thing by any measure.
 

btrage

Cyburbian
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A question for the Detroit/SE Michigan crowd:

Buffalo's urbanatti/armchair planner crowd generally have a passionate hatred for chain businesses. National chains are very slow in expandin to the region, and they're usually met with little enthusiasm. Panera Bread recently opened a location in the heart of the gentrifying Elmwood Village neighborhood, and the buzz online was largely negative.

What about Detroit? From what I've seen, it seems like there's not the same animosity towards chains, and folks there get quite excited when they locate in the city; Whole Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc.
I would agree that there is not that same animosity. Maybe it has to do with the degree to which sprawl occurred in SE Michigan. Sprawl = chain restaurants. Lots of sprawl = lots of chain restaurants.

The City went crazy with excitement when Bdubs opened up their downtown location last year. FWIW, it's the largest Buffalo Wild Wings in the country, at least when it opened.

http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/detroit/index.ssf/2012/12/photos_look_inside_buffalo_wil.html#incart_river_default
 

Clu

Member
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What about urban farming? I heard thats growing in detroit.

How bad is the crime situation in Detroit?
 

DetroitPlanner

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What about urban farming? I heard thats growing in detroit.

How bad is the crime situation in Detroit?
Police response has been cut from 55 minutes to less than ten under the new Police Chief. In addition many of the drug haven areas are getting hit hard these days. Crime is turning around but it is still much higher than it is in most parts of the United States.

Urban Farming has been discussed to death. There is no shortage of it, but the City Council has shown resistance to it. The only commercial farm that has been allowed has been one that grows trees for forestry. Not exactly a hot commodity in a State full of Northern Jungles.
https://www.google.com/search?q=Michigan+Forests&espv=210&es_sm=93&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=MoS9UszBAc_ukQff4oCIAg&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1280&bih=898
 

Clu

Member
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1
It must be really hard to figure out what to do with all the land.
Its a really interesting case though, the possibilities of what the city could be re born as is endless. Well not really but a lot of interesting things could happen.
 

Yenni

Member
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5
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Police response has been cut from 55 minutes to less than ten under the new Police Chief. In addition many of the drug haven areas are getting hit hard these days. Crime is turning around but it is still much higher than it is in most parts of the United States.

Urban Farming has been discussed to death. There is no shortage of it, but the City Council has shown resistance to it. The only commercial farm that has been allowed has been one that grows trees for forestry. Not exactly a hot commodity in a State full of Northern Jungles.
https://www.google.com/search?q=Michigan+Forests&espv=210&es_sm=93&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=MoS9UszBAc_ukQff4oCIAg&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1280&bih=898
Its so funny you mentioned the Urban Farming bit, there was no end to it when I was doing my Masters in Urban Planning. Just about every group solution to an impoverished area that has a seriously bleak future was... a community garden or farm. It drove me crazy.
 

hilldweller

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Bumping this thread in light of the sad news of DetroitPlanner's passing, as reported to Cyburbia by mendleman today.

DetroitPlanner (Jeff) was a lifelong Detroiter and one of the city's greatest advocates. We know from his postings on Cyburbia that he was a brilliant planner and intellectual with a keen awareness of his city's ups and downs, as well as the capacity for its rebirth that is now being realized. He unique and honest perspectives on living and working in the Motor City were always something I enjoyed reading about on these forums. He will be missed, and may he rest in peace.
 

michaelskis

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Over the weekend, I watched a 2013 Anthony Bourdain docu-show about Detroit. It was very interesting but one thing that he kept saying that bugged me was "This city is screwed." He even refered to it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland that with the exception of Chernobyl, is unlike any other City on the planet.

It got me thinking, is it?

They showed both the good and the bad of Detroit. They showed Brush Park, Downtown, NE side, the fire houses, Greektown, 8 mile, and the area around the old Tiger Stadium. He showed pop-up businesses, spoke with locals that have been involved in everything from real estate, to community activism, and even a gourmet chef that left the possibility of a phenominal career to return 'home' to Detroit and set up in the garage of an art gallery.

During the show, they attributed the decline to the political corruption that has plagued the City for 50 years and how good people can't make it in Detroit politics. They talked about how the citizens are setting fire to vacant abandoned homes because a burnt out house is better than a crack house. They talked about the red tape it took to open up community gardens, and of course, they talked about the urban decay that unfortunately has become the image of Detroit that we think of. By the end of the show, they indicated that it is more or less the shadow of a once great metropolis being occupied by bohemians who want to be different and poverty who can't escape, and that is all it will ever be.

Personally, I don't know. I think it will make a comeback, but I don't think it will be like it once was and I don't think it will, or can, follow the same rejuvenation models that other Cities like Chicago or New York used. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to do something unique. One thing that I can see happening is it becoming a post-industrial agrarian city where most of the city land is used for some type of farming. It could be crops, it could be aqua-farming, it could even be animals. I also see it being an epicenter for small businesses, micro-industrial innovation and manufacturing, utilizing some of the facilities have have been there for a century and utilizing flex spaces where different craftsman can learn from each other in a synergistic format.

But before the good things can start happening, one major important thing needs to happen. The culture needs to change. Politicians don't just become city leaders. Society has to put them into that position. A person does not just become Mayor, he or she needs to be elected. Once the criminal element is pushed out of the City and the good people fill in, then those who are voted into office will be there to help the City, and not their own selfish needs.

What are your thoughts on Detroit. Can it come back? If so, what does the future of Detroit look like?
 
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DVD

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We're talking a city that went from 1.8 million in the 50's to 700k today. Just looking at the last couple decades the city lost 300k population. Of course there's urban decay. I think the first thing for Detroit to do is figure out it's equilibrium population. You can't have a city infrastructure designed to support 1 million people when only a fraction of that lives there. The taxes would never support it. I'll avoid all the political stuff. Obviously that needs to be fixed, but it's easier when you're not funding a supersized infrastructure. From there they can start to design the city around a normal population number and do the fun things that might be possible. Close neighborhoods and streets where you can. Cut out some of the unnecessary water lines, etc. Easier said than done, I know. Somehow Detroit needs to consolidate the dead parcels of land and sell them off to developers, businesses, or whoever so that it can be renovated into something. I would just say bulldoze it and put up something new, but that's unimaginative and boring. If nothing else the consolidation of dead land makes it easier to cut more services and balance the budget a little.

I picture Detroit as pockets of good places, poverty stricken areas, and absolute blight areas. I would like to see the good places stay that way. Then start to clear the bad and turn it into something cool like a farm, a giant park, a nature preserve? It doesn't do much to boost the economy, but it makes Detroit a cool place while it starts to find a balance.

Last thing, I have no idea about the actual layout and real problems of Detroit so ignore everything I say.
 

Planit

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Just saw an article that the Packard Plant Bridge over East Grand Blvd collapsed yesterday. There were no reported injuries.

Certainly was a landmark in the region.
 

WSU MUP Student

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Just saw an article that the Packard Plant Bridge over East Grand Blvd collapsed yesterday. There were no reported injuries.

Certainly was a landmark in the region.
I've done plenty of runs and bicycle rides along that section of East Grand Blvd over the years and passed under that bridge many times. It always looked rickety and I'm honestly surprised it lasted as long as it did. I was reading one of the articles in the Detroit newspapers this morning and I was really surprised to read that the bridge was still open to pedestrian traffic between the two buildings into 2015!

It's still sort of sad to see the thing come down.


(Photo courtesy of HistoricDetroit.org)
 
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mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
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The entire Packard complex (what's left of it) should have been completely demolished 10-15 years ago. It was never going to be rehabbed 15 years ago and it certainly is never going to happen now.
 

WSU MUP Student

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The entire Packard complex (what's left of it) should have been completely demolished 10-15 years ago. It was never going to be rehabbed 15 years ago and it certainly is never going to happen now.
A "developer" bought it a few years ago but everybody here is pretty skeptical that anything is going to happen with it under his watch. He's announced big plans for it on more than one occasion each more pie in the sky than the last. I'm pretty sure he's just holding on to the land (that he got pretty cheap, even by Detroit standards) for speculative purposes. If that's the goal, he's going to be holding on to it for quite a while.
 

michaelskis

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A "developer" bought it a few years ago but everybody here is pretty skeptical that anything is going to happen with it under his watch. He's announced big plans for it on more than one occasion each more pie in the sky than the last. I'm pretty sure he's just holding on to the land (that he got pretty cheap, even by Detroit standards) for speculative purposes. If that's the goal, he's going to be holding on to it for quite a while.

I am just super excited about Ford's intentions for Central Station.
 

mendelman

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A "developer" bought it a few years ago but everybody here is pretty skeptical that anything is going to happen with it under his watch. He's announced big plans for it on more than one occasion each more pie in the sky than the last. I'm pretty sure he's just holding on to the land (that he got pretty cheap, even by Detroit standards) for speculative purposes. If that's the goal, he's going to be holding on to it for quite a while.
Sounds about right. A story as old as time in late-Capitalist Detroit.

Story time: During my MUP capstone in 2002, I was doing some on-ground research about neighborhood conditions in the surrounding neighborhood of the Plant - probably somewhere around Chene and E Warren. 16+ years ago that neighborhood was already almost completely empty, but there was traffic light and I had the red. Well, it was timed much too long for my side of the intersection and there was literally no cross traffic, so I just treated it as a 4-way stop sign intersection instead and ran the red.

It doesn't appear to have changed in the intervening years - https://www.google.com/maps/@42.3658203,-83.0408339,3a,75y,153.94h,78.83t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sxbR2W-CnFsE568-3iQuHgw!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

People really tout the "resurgence" of Detroit. The amount of area where its happening is great, but it is a tiny fraction of the vast land area of the City, which is emptying fast of people and buildings.
 
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Maister

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People really tout the "resurgence" of Detroit. The amount it happening is great, but it is a tiny fraction of the vast land area of the City, which is emptying fast of people and buildings.
The process that's been playing out in Detroit for years has been painful but at the same time inevitable. Ford and GM's assembly lines are now largely staffed by robots. Those hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs are never coming back and those workers replaced by machines have been permanently displaced. And yes, a smaller fraction of those jobs were also off-shored to developing countries with lower labor costs. Naturally, that means that tens of thousands of mortgages got foreclosed upon and entire working class neighborhoods have been vacated. But the ongoing consolidation of population and services is resulting in lower infrastructure and operational costs too. My read is they already bottomed out a few years ago and have nowhere to go but upward at this point. SE Michigan still has a number of things going for it. Not least of which are its' important geographic location, a well educated population, and vast experience with industrial development. There is guarded cause for some optimism here.
 
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mendelman

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SE Michigan still has a number of things going for it. Not least of which are its' important geographic location, a well educated population, and vast experience with industrial development. There is guarded cause for some optimism here.
Absolutely, but the actual City of Detroit is a shell of a shell of itself at this point.

There are still billions of dollars present in Metro Detroit and still being made everyday. It is still the head (as in where the brain is) of the auto industry in the USA. That still means alot for MI and the nation.
 
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michaelskis

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Absolutely, but the actual City of Detroit is a shell of a shell of itself at this point.

There is still billions of dollars present in Metro Detroit and still being made everyday. It is still the head (as in where the brain is) of the auto industry in the USA. That still means alot for MI and the nation.
This is what is so frustrating for me. I have 3 generations before me that were born in that once great City, including my mother. My grandfather risked his life on a regular basis as a house chief for the Fire Department in the 50's 60's and early 70's, and I have several ancestors buried in the local cemeteries. What has happen in the past 20 years in the core of the City is terrific, but once you get outside of that core, the urban decay is almost apocalyptic. We drive through every time we get back to the midwest and it has such a long way to go that I question if true revitalization of the City will happen in my life time.

On a side note, my kids have been watching Motown Magic on Netflix. If you haven't seen it you should check it out.
 

Maister

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I could do a 'The Rise and Fall of the Great City of Detroit' thread split, but something tells me we already know that story and how it ends all too well.
 

Whose Yur Planner

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I could do a 'The Rise and Fall of the Great City of Detroit' thread split, but something tells me we already know that story and how it ends all too well.
In fairness, it's no different to other cities in the post industrial Midwest. Some cities managed to reinvent themselves, others didn't. They became shadows of themselves. Even though, I come from one of the states immediately to the South of Michigan, we managed to go to Detroit once a decade or so. I saw the decline over the decades.
 

Dan

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I could do a 'The Rise and Fall of the Great City of Detroit' thread split, but something tells me we already know that story and how it ends all too well.
I think we should have a split. Detroit fell so much harder than other Rust Belt cities. Every armchair urbanist has their theory about how it declined, but do they have any merit? Lots of American cities experienced riots in the 1960s, decline of heavy industry, neighborhood ethnic and racial transition, and poor urban planning, but few struggle in the same way as Detroit, except maybe the minority-majority across-the-river industrial satellite towns of some major cities.

Beruit managed to rebuild itself after years of brutal civil war that made Detroit's riots seem like a street festival in comparison. Despite what its boosters say, I don't see much hope for recovery.
 

Whose Yur Planner

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I think we should have a split. Detroit fell so much harder than other Rust Belt cities. Every armchair urbanist has their theory about how it declined, but do they have any merit? Lots of American cities experienced riots in the 1960s, decline of heavy industry, neighborhood ethnic and racial transition, and poor urban planning, but few struggle in the same way as Detroit, except maybe the minority-majority across-the-river industrial satellite towns of some major cities.

Beruit managed to rebuild itself after years of brutal civil war that made Detroit's riots seem like a street festival in comparison. Despite what its boosters say, I don't see much hope for recovery.
That begs the question. Are there cities/town that are too far gone. We have a never ending thread about Cairo, IL. There is Gary, IN. Can places decline so far that there is no coming back?
 

Doohickie

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What has happen in the past 20 years in the core of the City is terrific, but once you get outside of that core, the urban decay is almost apocalyptic. We drive through every time we get back to the midwest and it has such a long way to go that I question if true revitalization of the City will happen in my life time.
A couple of thoughts: I lived in the Detroit area (Troy, Auburn Hills, finally bought a home in Dearborn) from 91-97. There were already apocalyptic neighborhoods in the city. (We occasionally discovered them by accident, then quickly circled back to the freeway). I'm sure it's even worse now.

As a Buffalo area native, I totally get where you're coming from about hoping for revitalization. Pretty much my whole life, Buffalo's been on a downward trend. It's good to see it's recovery in recent years, but there's still so much further to go.
 

Dan

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Growing up in Buffalo, it seemed like everybody had their one pet reason why the region fell on hard times. The favorite targets of blame among armchair economists include:

* The St. Lawrence Seaway.
* The Thruway and local expressways.
* Suburbanization.
* New York state taxes.
* Greedy unions.
* The cold climate.
* Air conditioning.
* Subway construction.
* Locating the University at Buffalo campus in Amherst.

Most of these targets are way off the mark, though. There's a nuanced, complex combination of forces that converged on Buffalo after WWII. I call it a "convergence of suck".

Likewise, it seems like everybody has their pet theory about why Detroit fell so far and so hard. Decline of the auto industry, race riots, and suburbanization seem to be common themes. They definitely played a role, but I think there was far more to the "convergence of suck" that Detroit faced. Pete Saunders (once active on the Cyburbia Forums as pete-rock) posted an essay on his blog, The Corner Side Yard, with his theory about the fall of Detroit. He touches on some issues that others who studied and wrote about Detroit's decline ignore, and I think he makes a lot of sense. Pete's list doesn't include the auto industry or the riots, but it does call out:

* Poor neighborhood identification
* Poor housing stock.
* Poor public realm.
* A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
* Freeway expansion.
* Lack of a transit system.
* Local government organization.
* An industrial landscape that constrained the city's core.
* Ill-timed annexation policy.

Many American cities prospered despite facing some of those same issues. In Detroit, though, they joined forces, and became a convergence of suck, the likes of which were unmatched by any other Rust Belt city. Except maybe Youngstown or Gary

Buffalo is a city of neighborhoods, and although they often don't have clear identification, they usually have a distinct form -- a busy commercial core along an unimposing street that once was part of a streetcar line, surrounded by tightly packed detached houses and duplexes. Houses in Buffalo near good, walkable commercial and mixed use nodes sell for a healthy premium.

When I've visited Detroit, one thing that strikes me is the lack of what I think of as neighborhoods. A defining feature of Detroit's built environment seems to be the mismatch of low-end mechanical commercial sprawl with middle- and upper-end housing. When I look at Detroit, I see endless stretches of one-story taxpayer buildings along wide mile roads, and an endless grid of side streets lined with single family houses and urban prairie. Even where there's pockets of high-end housing -- Palmer Woods, Boston-Edison, Indian Village, East English Village, and Rosedale Park -- there doesn't seem to be any sign of neighboring or anchoring middle- or high-end commercial development nearby, either past or present. The closest I've seen to Buffalo-like neighborhood centers south of Eight Mile are Campeau Avenue in Hamtramck, which technically isn't in Detroit, and parts of Vernor Highway in Springwells These are exceptions to the norm, though.

All the auto plant, mortgage company, and hipster watch assembly jobs in the world won't save Detroit if it can't get its neighborhoods right.
 

Dan

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More from Corner Side Yard:

A Personal Segregation Story

CSY at Forbes: Turning Vacant Land and Buildings into an Asset

Can Detroit's Suburbs Survive the City's Rebirth?

Anyhow, a couple of years ago, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles. A week of that was in her old stomping grounds, the San Fernando Valley. I've said it before, as have others online -- before the 1960s, not only did Detroit and Los Angeles grow at about the same rate, but also a similar form. It's very noticeable in the Valley, with major arterials every mile, one-story taxpayer-style commercial buildings, a prevalence of entry- to middle-end single family houses, and enclaves of more expensive housing. Both have extensive freeway systems. The Valley, like Detroit, was even the setting for speculative premature subdivision in the 1920s.

So, why did the Valley (and Los Angeles as a whole) prosper, while Detroit declined? Just a few wild-ass guesses, while I have a few minutes to spare:

* LA is LA, duh. Los Angeles was dominated by growing industries -- entertainment, aerospace, logistics, and skilled manufacturing. Detroit was the base for declining industries -- auto manufacturing, auto parts manufacturing, machine tools, and general heavy industry. The Detroit metro continued to grow after the 1960s, but not at the rate of LA. Unlike LA, Detroit wasn't a city that anchored an entire region; for the Great Lakes, Chicago took that role. Detroit wasn't a gateway to the United States, and it has little tourism to speak of. LA was also one of America's first "lifestyle cities" -- a place where people moved because of the lifestyle, not because of easy employment.

* Los Angeles has geographic constraints to growth that limits land supply close to employment centers -- mountains, government-owned land, military bases, and so on.. Southeast Michigan is flat, and there's no constraints on urbanization except the St. Clair River.

* Blacks displaced whites throughout Detroit, where there was already a culture defined by tension -- poor labor relations, ethnic tensions, previous race riots, racial covenants, hostile neighborhood improvement associations, and the like. Detroit had few barriers to define the kind of "east side/west side" or "black-and-white cookie" form found in many other Rust Belt cities, and the tension and effect of racial transition was felt almost citywide. In Detroit terms, Los Angeles' black community was concentrated in the equivalent of Downriver. Working-class blacks settled at the south end of the city, and ts lower middle class southern suburbs. There were several barriers to northward expansion -- the wealthy Baldwin Hills area, even more expensive Westside neighborhoods, the Inglewood Oil Field, LAX, and the Santa Monica Mountains. Few people north of the 10 or Ballona Creek were afraid their neighborhood would "turn", and homeowners continued to invest in their properties.

* Detroit strip-zoned most of the mile roads for commercial development. There was an oversupply of commercial alnd, resulting in low land prices, and low end development. In LA, land along many of the section line roads was zoned residential, Commercial land was more concentrated, and its scarcity compared to Detroit led to higher land values. Development along Van Nuys Boulevard through a working class part of the Valley has the exact same form as a Detroit mile road, but there's a big difference -- all the storefronts are full, they're not dominated by mechanical commercial or exploitative businesses, and there's people on the sidewalks.
 

Dan

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Moderator note:
Merging some of the general Detroit growth/decline/future threads into a larger thread that Bear started a while back. :)
 

mgk920

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One thing, too, with Detroit is that such an incredibly high percentage of the residential areas of the city was developed as detached single-family, compared with other cities. When the worst of the 20th century's post-WWII 'perfect storm' hit Detroit (and there is blame to go fully around here), demand for such houses in the city tanked and a large percentage were literally abandoned due to there being no market for them.

Mike
 
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Dan

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One thing, too, with Detroit is that such an incredibly high percentage of the residential areas of the city was developed as detached single-family, compared with other cities.
It's also the kind of single family housing that was built by the millions in the Rust Belt in the late 1940s and through the 1950s -- small 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom Cape Cods, intended for then-lower middle class factory workers. There was huge demand for this housing at the time -- very few housing units were built between 1930 and 1945, returning WWII vets were living with their parents, there was massive internal migration from the South and Appalachia, and birth rates were high. There's entire suburbs of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo with a monoculture of this housing, and their civic leaders know the future is less certain because of it.

I wonder if the housing is another reason why Detroit experienced racial transition of a scale not seen in other cities. By the 1960s and 1970s, after the post-WWII housing shortage, when wages were higher, fair housing laws were in force, and racial covenants were voided, these houses must have had a lot of appeal for black and Appalachian households. Solid, affordable, close to work, and not in the ghetto. Those little Capes must have seemed like castles for families that had their roots in the Mississippi Delta, or eastern Kentucky.
 

Doohickie

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There's entire suburbs of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo with a monoculture of this housing, and their civic leaders know the future is less certain because of it.
Our Dearbon, MI, house was exactly that: just under 1000 sq ft (over a basement so there was overflow room down there), 3 BR, 1 bath. I noticed it sold last year for about $25k more than we sold it for 20+ years ago, and that it was extensively updated and the basement finished, including a second bathroom. Taking improvements into account, I don't think that house appreciated at all over the last 20 years.
 

WSU MUP Student

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I've long thought that our extreme prevalence of affordable single family detached housing was definitely a positive thing and something that really drew residents and families into the city (and the inner ring suburbs) when times were good but that same stock was a detriment when times got tough.

Over the past couple of years, there has been quite a bit of new multifamily housing coming online in Midtown and Downtown (as well as a little in Corktown) but I don't know what the vacancy rates are like or if the units are selling. That said, things must be going well enough now that the land and buildings are getting expensive enough to finally start pushing redevelopment out to other neighborhoods as I've seen more news about new work going on in places like The Avenue of Fashion, University District, the West Village, and Grandmont-Rosedale. Those are all still relatively dense neighborhoods and have a bit of commercial activity going on in them but if the trend continues it will only be a matter of time until development from one of those neighborhoods spills over into one of the truly bombed out places like Brightmoor or basically anywhere along Gratiot on the Eastside. Those are the areas with huge swathes of vacant residential land and the type of places I always dream that somebody will come in and do some land assemblage and basically build a new Detroit neighborhood from the ground up.

It's not like new multifamily housing has been happening out in the suburbs either; besides a few pockets around places like Oakland University or near downtown Ferndale or Royal Oak, new apartment buildings have been basically nonexistent over the past 20 years or so. There are always a few new small attached condo or townhome developments popping up but they are generally totally new typical suburban/exurban greenspace developments. But that trend is starting to change too. There are a couple of large apartment developments underway in Royal Oak and a few more in front of the planning commission and city council. There are 4 or 5 multifamily developments going on in Birmingham as well and there are always efforts to build more whenever a large enough parcel becomes available.

However, all of these developments are on the higher end of the price spectrum (most of the units in the new Birmingham developments are well over $1 million) and there's still plenty of unfilled demand for rental units for young professionals at the lower end. There have been more than a few instances of developers wanting to build some small, more affordable, apartment buildings as infill development in places like Berkley and Dearborn and Northville only to be met with a lot of resistance from local residents who don't want to see a 6 or 8 unit apartment building come into their single-family neighborhood.
 
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