Turning Points: The Detroit Riot of 1967, a Canadian Perspective
Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?
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Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country.
And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II in and Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
Turning Points : The Detroit Riot of 1967, a Canadian Perspective by Herb Colling (2003, Paperback)
Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not quite fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty. So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? Here they are below. Poor neighborhood identification. Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context.
Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. Poor housing stock. 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 truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.
Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Or like this, from the northwest side:. True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices. A poor public realm. Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping.
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Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:. And another corridor a short distance away:. And yet another from the opposite side of town:.
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Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring. But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure. That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline. A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown.
Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs. Freeway expansion. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.
The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By , the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April The kind of lobbying coercion?
However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems, in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the afore-mentioned cities.
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Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit.
In , a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents.
Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.
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The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.
llumir.tk Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable — producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes. Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa was faced with a critical decision — how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World?
To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time — the railroads. By a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit.