Situated in the northern Mid-West of the USA, Detroit became the centre of American car production at the beginning of the twentieth century. The «Big Three» ? Chrysler, Ford and General Motors ? created the ultimate «Motor City». It was here that the first street was surfaced with concrete; here that Davison Freeway, the first city motorway, was built. Detroit was long able to boast of unparalleled economic growth. During the nineteen-twenties, one skyscraper was built after another; department stores and palatial cinemas lined the streets. It is no wonder that the number of inhabitants rose from 285,700 to 1.85 million between 1900 and 1950.
After 1950, the boom town became one of the first to experience the drift of population to the edge of town. The suburbanisation of Detroit took place against a background marked not only by the rise of the car, but also by racial tension. Between 1940 and 1960, the proportion of blacks in the population grew to one-third. The white middle-classes, full of resentment against the black lower classes, fled to the periphery. In 1998, 78 percent of those living in the suburbs were white, while 79 percent of those in the inner city were black. At this time, the average income in the metropolitan area was almost double that in the inner city.
The suburbanisation of Detroit was no creeping reduction in density. It was dramatic. Nowadays, one third of the entire city area lies derelict. Countless buildings have been demolished. Four thousand of those still standing are vacant and abandoned: locked, boarded and walled-up. Street signs are rusting away. Grass grows over the pavements. Feral dogs roam in packs. Visitors to Detroit should prepare themselves for dystopian scenery. The city’s blatant decline found its way into textbooks on town planning long ago. In spite of it, attempts at re-urbanisation are still undertaken: in the Seventies, the Renaissance Center, which failed in this respect, and in the Nineties, Greek Town, which succeeded.
The excessive, even aggressive character of suburbanisation is, to put it bluntly, the result of a love of the car on one hand and racial hate on the other. Without these factors, urban drift would hardly have gone so far that in 1990 only 26 percent of the population of metropolitan Detroit live in the inner city.
With the upturn in car production following the end of the Second World War, more and more black people came to Detroit to work. During the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, the black population swelled from 150,000 to 500,000. The greater part lived in the poor neighbourhoods on the lower East-side. The working class whites who lived there were not willing to accommodate the newcomers’ way of life. Blacks for neighbours? They would rather move out to the suburbs. During the nineteen-fifties alone, 500,000 whites left the centre of Detroit to settle on the periphery; today, 85 percent of the inner city’s inhabitants are black.
Increasingly hard living conditions, twinned with growing self-confidence, led to a social revolt in 1967.
The years of dizzying economic growth saw building after building erected. The city’s numerous skyscrapers were virtually all constructed within a six-year period, between 1923 and 1928. Department stores tempted shoppers all along Woodward Avenue and three times a day, feature films were screened in pompous palaces with up to 5,000 seats.
Detroit was destroyed not least by its own vision: that of «Motor City». Back in the nineteen-thirties, the years of the «New Deal», the city had countered unemployment with programmes to construct motorways and private housing. In the nineteen-fifties, a large number of new through-roads were laid, cutting through the fabric of neighbourhoods. In 1955, General Motors proudly had the city’s tramlines torn up. The workers could afford to ? and had to ? travel by car. Today, there is hardly any local public transport.
Whilst the 127 boroughs of the metropolitan area prospered, the inner city gradually began to decay. Between 1978 and 1998, 108,000 buildings were demolished in Detroit, while only 9,000 new applications for building permits were granted. Thousands of residential buildings, together with numerous department stores, offices and cinemas, stand derelict. Since 1977, people have parked their cars under the grandiose plasterwork ceilings of the Michigan Theater cinema. In some streets, Detroit resembles a ghost town.
At present, the cultural energy and the financial commitment needed to help implement visions of urbanity are lacking. Here a bit of demolition, there a bit of new-build: that’s how they treat the city fabric in many parts of Detroit. Among the best examples of this approach is the conversion of countless low-rise bank buildings, mostly sited on street corners, to small community centres, run by local church groups.
In 1977, a complex was erected near to the Detroit River. Its name was intended to stand for a new approach. Created at the behest of Henry Ford II and designed by John Portman, the Renaissance Center consists of four office blocks, now the headquarters of General Motors, and a high-rise hotel with a capacity of 1,400 beds. Since this hybrid, with its theatre, businesses and restaurants is of a largely self-contained character, in some respects even reminiscent of a fortress, it did not contribute to the revitalisation of the inner city.
Better results in this respect have been obtained, since 1990, by the four blocks of the old Greek Town, with their spatially and architecturally smaller ensembles. In spite of the fact that taxes there are twice as high as they are out of town, Compuware, a world-wide software producer, is planning to move into new headquarters on Kennedy Square this year. The 3,000 jobs that this will bring with it could revitalise Greek Town still further.
For some years now, new investment has been flowing into the centre of downtown ? modestly, but steadily. Now that the social and political tension between the inner city and the metropolitan area has died down, Detroit can make capital from its old title of «Motor City», in individual cases ? but it is only downtown that a slow urban recovery is being registered. In the inner city, in contrast, the decline is progressing apace. Here and there, secure estates of detached homes are springing up: suburbia is taking over the inner city.