The Detroit Paradox

Sun Eclipse 1963 - © WSU

Detroit is a city full of paradoxes. Once growing rapidly now determined to shrink and compact in order to meet a sustainable future, the transformation of the Motor City perfectly exemplifies the pitfalls of history and the incompetence of planning experts to combat social ills and to precede growth.
Detroit heroically leaded the American city through the path of scientific management along Henry Ford’s assembly lines, only to discover some decades later the hazards of industrialization and consumerism.

At the first quarter of the 20th century Detroit emerged as the industrial core of the whole nation, a magnet of opportunities and urban prosperity dubbed as the Motor City. When the automotive industry was rapidly converted to produce the armament and machinery for the Allies, Detroit was honored by Roosevelt as “the great arsenal of democracy”.

Detroit Tank Arsenal 1950s - © WSU

These were years of extraordinary economic dynamism fueling the growth and welfare that boosted Detroit to rank fifth on the list of America’s largest cities in the mid-1950s with its population almost totaling 1.8 million.

Nevertheless, Detroit’s development came at great cost: in terms of housing and urbanism, the lack of a plan resulted to disproportionate development between suburbs and downtown. While the construction boom in the outskirts progressively sprawled the city beyond metropolitan limits, housing in central parts witnessed an important decline as most of the old homes became apartment buildings or rooming houses. Houses were changed to flats and rented to middle or low class workers. Since most of the times low class implied blackness, inner-city neighborhoods gradually turned into ghettos.

Board of Commerce making tour of slums - © WSU

Moving to the suburb became the dream of Detroit’s rapid growing elite. As the automotive industry grew so did its bureaucratic corpus, thus incrementing the number of white-collar workers. The upgraded status of the new middle class resided in suburbia far from the shadow of the city’s plants in residential neighborhoods without the smoke, fumes and noise of the factory. The precondition for the new way of living was car ownership; the automobile became the symbol of mobility hence freedom.

At the dawn of 1950s, the process of suburbanization was further accelerated by the decentralization of the auto industry. While public policies progressively enhanced private mobility and mass transportation declined, the autoworkers’ dependence on car augmented. This time blue-collar workers moved to planned communities and entered the consumer’s utopia.

Blighted Area / Proposed Project 1930s - © WSU

This was a vicious circle and the consequences soon unfolded on the whole area. Urban sprawl did not follow a planned pattern of development, “but a kind of leapfrog nature of urban growth that scattered people, businesses, and industry over a broad landscape.”
The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 came to aliment the automobile’s “voracious appetite for land”, eventually turning the landscape into the real estate pie. The expressway construction boom opened way to previously rural areas and made possible the building of self-contained communities that became the home of the cold war family. Where these freeways intersected the urban fabric, huge parts of the city were demolished, taking apart neighborhoods and moving away people.

Expressway Construction Blueprint - © WSU
Emergence and Growth of an urban region, vol.3, fig.204-206 ©: Constantinos and Emma Doxiadis Foundation

White flight toward suburbia and hardening ghettoization in the central city became the opposite sides of the same coin rolling on the thin line of residential segregation. As Detroit’s neighborhoods assumed blackness and whiteness the city became a time bomb.

[Excerpt from the forthcoming article “Envisioning the Past: Doxiadis’ Plan for Detroit and the future of the Great Lakes Megalopolis,” author: Lefteris Theodosis]

 01 ≡ ParadoX

Black Bottom and Paradise Valley formed the core of Detroit’s African-American community: black-owned business, social institutions, jazz clubs, “black and tan” cabarets and nightclubs pulsed till the late 1950s in a vivid – and interracial afterhour- area. These neighborhoods were bulldozed and buried under the Chrysler Freeway (Interstate 75) and Lafayette Park, a residential development scheme designed by Mies van der Rohe as a part of the model neighborhood program.

Detroit East Side 1930s - © WSU

02 ≡ ParadoX

The Ford Auditorium comes as the last paradigm of the omnipresent architectural debate on preservation and renewal.  Constructed in 1955, the auditorium was designed by the firm of O’dell, Hewlett and Luckenbach and became one of Detroit’s emblematic modern buildings. It was eventually demolished in July 2011 as part of the city’s waterfront redesign plans.

Ford Auditorium - © WSU

Read: Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis + the project Automobile in American Life and Society

See: the history of the Ford Auditorium [at] Detroiturbex + [at] Historicdetroit



  1. The Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser has a nice chapter on the wastefulness of property development in Detroit—efforts that assumed making the city beautiful would bring people back.

    1. Thanks a lot Benton, I will check it out. Detroit is a good example of inappropriate property development in many ways. “City on the Move” would be another case…

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