DETROIT AS A CITY OF COMMODITIZED MULTIPLES
Truly every city exists with multiple unequal parts where housing conditions, transportation routes, and access to opportunity remain inequitable. In present day Detroit, the “two Detroits” term has been used to admonish the current Mayor’s focus on Downtown development deals while ignoring “the neighborhoods” where the majority of Detroiters live on the edges of the city far from Downtown, and which are in great need of investment. Even Detroit’s heavily publicized core, now known as “Midtown,” is referred to as a city within a city, where its development director exists as a de facto Mayor. Similarly, Politico recently listed Downtown property mogul, Dan Gilbert, as the shadow Mayor of Detroit.¹ Downtown, Midtown, and City Hall are all situated within the same 7.2 square miles called “Greater Downtown” by the city’s philanthropies. To understand current conditions in Detroit requires a historiographic approach to how data and mapping have commoditized the city into separate pieces or cities within the city.
The map in Figure 1 is an important starting point to understand Detroit’s growth and decline especially as it relates to conceptions of the commoditized city. The map is from the report titled “Neighborhood Conservation: a pilot study summary” published by the City Plan Commission [City Planning Commission] in 1958.² Detroit had already hit its peak population in 1950 at 1.8 million people and the post-war expansion had already reached every corner of the city. In the map we see the Downtown and what could be called the “urban core” labeled as the “Old City,” while the more recently developed neighborhoods, “built since 1934,” labeled as the “New City.”
Blight is the critical missing context on this map. By 1958, population and businesses had already fled the urban core to live in homes that were far from the dirt and pollution of factories, had larger yards, and newer construction. Black Detroiters were restricted primarily to living in slum conditions in the urban core, due to racial red-lining and discriminatory housing practices, with the exception of a handful of public housing projects outside of the Downtown area. In Detroit’s coordinated effort under the “Urban Renewal Administration” the city’s Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee deemed the housing of Black Detroiters to be blight that must be removed, which meant Black people must similarly be removed. The map in Figure 2 comes from the extensive analysis by Constantinos Doxiadis and Associates³ as they attempted to model the future of the city. At the time, most of Downtown fell within the funded urban renewal programs. Yet blight in the city extended far beyond and was only expected to increase across Detroit’s urban core. In the 1970s, William Bunge referred to Detroit’s inner city or urban core as the “City of Death” where housing was held by slumlords, no doctor’s offices existed, and infant mortality was high.
New Detroit versus Old Detroit is not a new phenomena. The gears of development, blight reduction and redevelopment have turned for decades. These forces follow familiar patterns with primary data collection on conditions, codifying communities through entities like block clubs, and the large scale leveraging of federal funds. Yet in all instances, anti-blackness is at the core. Blight, caused by racism, has been a tool for reclaiming the city, specifically land parcels, by the local government. Detroit’s highly regarded Lafayette Park was an urban renewal success story. The site was in the middle of the “Old City” and was better known as the historic Black community of Black Bottom. Nearly 600 Black families were removed in a slum clearance effort that paved the way for Lafayette Park.
Detroit’s major foundations and philanthropies have defined a “Greater Downtown” area where they have focused their funds and investments in order to “revitalize” Detroit. In their myopic view of the city, there exists only opportunity. The history that bore that opportunity is one of extraction and violence against Detroit’s Black population. The map in Figure 3, by the author,⁴ juxtaposes Detroit’s Black population in 1940 compared to the 7.2 square miles declared Greater Downtown. This particular geographic construction is often used as a rallying point when community members and activists criticize revitalization efforts and declare two Detroits.
Blight again enters the historical trajectory of understanding Detroit’s multiple “cities.” Following the Great Recession, which for Detroiters included mass mortgage and tax foreclosure. A newly named process of “reverse redlining” appeared where Black homeowners were targeted for predatory mortgage products leading up to the Great Recession until, in just a few years, nearly no home mortgages were originated in Detroit. In 2012, Detroit’s government and philanthropies needed data to make their decisions and to target the blight that had not been prevented. Supported by a team from the Obama White House and chaired by shadow Mayor, Dan Gilbert, a consortium of entities launched the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force.⁵ The map in Figure 4 shows that the Motor City Mapping effort identified some 80,000 blighted properties in what would have been called the “Middle City” in 1958.
In present day Detroit, the Old City is the New City. The decades of blight removal, land speculation by the city government and land hoarders, like the Ilitch Family, made Downtown a wasteland worth redeveloping when the time and tax incentives were right. At a blistering pace, Detroit’s Old City has seen new skyscrapers, a sports arena, countless evictions and renovations of prime apartment spaces, wholesale redevelopment of an entire neighborhood, and a flashy 3-mile streetcar. The map in Figure 5 comes from an analysis by the Urban Institute⁶ that quantified the heavy investment in Greater Downtown versus investment in Detroit’s outer neighborhoods or what in 1958 was the “New City.”
Detroit has been commoditized into separate parts that link back to conditions identified in 1958. As three cities (new, middle, and old) Detroit progressed as expected, yet subsequent programs and policies prioritized areas of the city that were selected for targeted blight removal and future investment. The areas that were selected for blight removal were strategically left vacant or dormant until market opportunity presented again. Through all of the decades and policies, Detroit’s Black population needlessly suffered the most in the name of development that seems to have only pushed issues of housing and opportunity further down the road rather than addressing them outright.
Alex B. Hill is a GIS Director and researcher of urban health at Wayne State University. He teaches in urban studies, public health, geography and data visualization. He has been mapping Detroit since 2011 at DETROITography.com
¹ “America’s 11 Most Insteresting Mayors (and 7 Rising Stars),” Politico Magazine, June 25, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/06/25/most-interesting-mayors-america-215295
² “Neighborhood Conversation: a pilot study summary,” City Plan Commission, 1958.
³ “Emergence and Growth of an Urban Region: A Study Directed by Constantinos A. Doxiadis,” Detroit Edison, 1970.
⁴ Alex B. Hill, “Map: Pradise Valley: the Original Innovation District,” DETROITography, November 3, 2017.
⁵ “Time to End Blight,” Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, 2014, http://report.timetoendblight.org/.
⁶ Brett Theodos, Eric Hangen, Jay Dev, Sierra Latham, “Coming Back from the Brink: Capital Flows and Neighborhood Patterns in Commercial, Industrial, and Multi-Family Investment in Detroit,” September 12, 2017, https://www.urban.org/research/publication/coming-back-brink