Detroit Today, Gone Tomorrow

The development of cities fascinates me. Mainly because, for the majority of humanity, the designs of our cities affect our lives on a daily basis. A morning traffic jam adds stress. A park helps you to get in touch with nature. A shop or office acts as an informal temple to commerce.

One thing I do in my head a lot is compare what I’m seeing now to what came before. Whether that before is an untouched meadow or a prior stage of urban development. It’s a huge part of how I perceive the world on a day-to-day basis.

And it finally hit me the other day, “Dude, you’re crazy. Most people don’t think about this stuff, or not like you do.”

I realized I have this vast storage of contextual knowledge on the history of urban development, and like, I’m not sharing it with anyone. Rather than posting about all this stuff I’m just learning about, why not mine more of what I already know?

I’ll start by sharing a link to beautiful piece of work by Robert Crumb on the evolution of a single street corner. He really captures some deep truths about urban development in America, at least up until the late ’70s.

Detroit, obviously, is a city that’s undergone a lot of change. Titanic, sea-change. And, oftentimes, we’re lacking in perspective on how to properly evaluate it. Too many before and after exposés focus on the downtown, in my opinion. Compared to most of the rest of the city, downtown is a beacon of hope. Sure, it’s suffered great losses, but projects like the Renaissance Center and Comerica Park bring rays of light to the continuum.

What I want to do is draw more attention to the neighborhoods, the forgotten spots that made Detroit more than just a downtown, but a real, functioning city.

Let’s start by taking a trip up Grand River Avenue, a major thoroughfare extending outwards from downtown.

Here’s a quaint picture of Grand River Avenue on the edge of downtown, likely taken either before the automobile, or in its infancy. Humorously, it appears to be everything urban planners now covet and are attempting to recreate in our major cities. You’ve got bicycles, a streetcar, and only a few carriages. It looks relaxed, bucolic even.

To me, it also illustrates – in a way – how our downtowns were in trouble long before 1960s sprawl. That iteration of Grand River was still very livable, almost ideal. By the 1920s, it’d already be overrun by the forces of big commerce, a tangled mass of super high density shopping and office space. It was virtually unlivable, with few residents, and the public developed a love-hate relationship with downtown that would fuel the subsequent popularity of suburban malls.

You can see a great example of the change I’m talking about on Grand River & Farmer: Before; after.

Continuing on Grand River, we see this old scene at Grand River & 6th. Besides the dog defecating in the street, it appears to be a pretty darn nice place. Now look at it (view is approximate – the exact interchange no longer exists). It’s a travesty!

Lastly, and quickly, let’s take a look at Grand River &  Plymouth, quite a ways out into the city. Here’s a beautiful overhead shot of the neighborhood in its heyday. It’s heartbreaking to see it now, especially the old Ford sign. Neglect, rather than redevelopment, being the culprit.

I’ll be doing more posts like this in the future, so stay tuned for more.  And yes, I understand this post still ended up stuck on the subject of downtown a bit. Don’t worry. Future posts will stay more focused on the neighborhoods.