Even from the fringe of new development in Macomb Township, one of the area's fastest-growing suburbs, Detroit's downtown is still visible, like a city on a hill. Nowhere else in the country, experts say, is the relationship between a city and its suburbs quite like that of Detroit and its surrounding area.
A FRENZY OF CHANGE: How Northland, now 50, jump-started suburbs' growth
When the mall opened in 1954, no one imagined the sprawl that followed
March 18, 2004
BY SHERYL JAMES
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
It was 1950. The J. L. Hudson Co. had a problem.
Hudson's President Oscar Webber had promised that Detroit's premier retailer would not build branches outside the city.
But as the new decade began, it was clear that Hudson's market share was declining dramatically. An anguished Webber was forced to do an about-face. Hudson's would build branch stores, he announced -- and it would do so in style.
The result was Northland Center at 8 Mile and Greenfield in Southfield, one of the first major suburban shopping centers in the United States. Northland was a retail innovation, a huge campus with 85 acres of parking, original sculpture and covered pedestrian walkways.
Northland was also a detonation. It was the first big postwar development in suburban Detroit. Its opening -- March 22, 1954, 50 years ago Monday -- touched off a building frenzy across suburbia that continues unabated today.
So in many ways, Northland's birthday is also -- symbolically -- the birthday for the nation's most distinctive suburbs.
The monumental growth Northland helped to engender has made southeastern Michigan's quilt of counties, cities, townships and villages the most dominant collection of suburbs in the United States.
In no other major metropolitan area do the suburbs overshadow their central city like the suburbs here dominate Detroit.
The build-out never stops. Development daily pushes the boundaries of suburbia outward, further tipping the balance of wealth, power and population away from Detroit, whose 50-year decline is directly connected to suburbia's rise.
This is a birthday retrospective. It is a snapshot of five decades of social change, for better or worse. It is a story about the American Dream, but it is also about racial conflict and economic change.
As you read this, the suburbs will have expanded even further.
After Northland came the deluge.
In semirural Warren, the General Motors Tech Center opened in 1956; Life magazine called it the Versailles of Industry. During the 1950s, Detroit's automakers built 25 auto plants in southeastern Michigan. All were in the suburbs.
A growing network of freeways whisked people in and out of Detroit. Then came Eastland Center, and countless subdivisions of colonials and split-levels with big lots and rustic names like Fox Run and Timberlane. Accompanying them were office parks with lots of parking, the Somerset Apartments and the Silverdome in Pontiac and the Palace and Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills. Catholic high schools such as Mercy, Catholic Central and DeLaSalle transplanted themselves to the suburbs, as did Temple Beth El and Central Woodward Christian, among many other places of worship.
Gradually, the suburbs came to surpass Detroit, whose economy began suffering from corporate and human flight just as Northland was opening. Detroit never has recovered. By the mid-1960s, there were as many jobs in the suburbs as in the city.
Today, the suburbs rule, at least statistically, in categories big and small.
- The suburbs have more than three times Detroit's population -- a higher ratio than in most U.S. metro areas.
- The suburbs have about 85 percent of the region's retail establishments and 87 percent of the jobs.
- Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties have 110 bowling alleys combined; Detroit has two.
- The suburbs have 130 7-Elevens; the last one in Detroit recently closed.
- The suburbs have more than 400 first-run movie screens; Detroit has 10.
- The suburbs have Northland and 20 other malls. Detroit has none.
"Some of this suburbanization would have occurred anyway because of population growth," and because of the general trend toward suburban development in America. "But in Detroit, it has occurred at a sort of hyper level."
In 1950, Detroit's suburbs were mainly scattered 19th-Century towns such as Wyandotte, Dearborn, Farmington, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Mt. Clemens and the Grosse Pointes. Newer communities clustered along main arteries like Michigan, Grand River, Woodward, Jefferson and Gratiot avenues.
Today, suburbia is a sprawling super city that stretches for 5,000 square miles and seven counties across the reclaimed farmland of southeast Michigan's mostly flat terrain.
The region is so vast that Brighton can get 4 inches of snow while St. Clair Shores remains dry. The average metro Detroit commuter spends almost 30 minutes driving to work, a figure that is steadily rising, according to U.S. Census figures.
Despite a lot of talk about reining in sprawl, growth never stops. In Macomb County, for example, workers are widening M-53 to 34 Mile, and Hall Road -- also known as M-59 or 20 Mile -- is one of the busiest surface streets in the state.
With suburbia's hyper growth now two generations old, many residents of the region's new, perimeter towns have arrived from older suburbs. Fewer people have roots in Detroit. Fast-growing Livingston County is a good example.
"Livingston County is somewhat like Florida," said Bob Block, county administrator and longtime Southfield resident. "It's very difficult to find a native."
Katz, the urbanologist, describes life in southeastern Michigan as a "new metropolitan reality," in which people live in one suburb, recreate in another, shop in a third and work in a fourth.
Suburbanites have replicated the shopping, cultural and ethnic diversity -- not to mention the traffic jams -- of 1950 Detroit. Many older suburbs, which have long streets crowded with brick bungalows, even look like some Detroit neighborhoods.
Ethnically, the suburbs are more diverse than Detroit. You can hear a variety of foreign languages from Dearborn to Troy to Sterling Heights, and the suburbs are where you are most likely to find sushi, shwarma and Korean barbecue.
The suburbs are home to the vast majority of metro Detroit's corporate executives, sports stars and even its most infamous criminal, Jack Kevorkian.
Suburbs were once called places of "broad lawns and narrow minds" -- a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. But Detroit's suburbs have developed culture as well as consumers. They are home to Eminem, Kid Rock and Elmore Leonard. Most of the region's elite private schools long ago moved there. The new Holocaust Memorial Center soon will open in Farmington Hills. There are a number of symphony orchestras: Plymouth, Birmingham-Bloomfield, Livonia and Dearborn.
From 'the country' to 'suburbs'
When Northland opened, the word "suburb" had not taken on its contemporary meaning; the suburbs had yet to develop a collective identity, and there was no sense of Us vs. Them across 8 Mile.
"I never knew the word 'suburb'. It was 'country' -- 'Let's ride in the country,' " said Donald Fracassi, a Southfield City Council member and former mayor.
In the 1950s, Ed Hustoles, now of Southfield, lived just south of 7 Mile in Detroit -- close to Northland. A recent transplant from Chicago, he was a city planner in Detroit and later worked for the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, or SEMCOG.
Hustoles and others said many people believed Northland was simply a logical extension of a vibrant, expanding city. "There was no thought that Detroit was going to empty out," Hustoles recalled.
He spoke from his 19th-floor Southfield condo, which overlooks a wide swath of suburbia.
"Beaumont Hospital is right there," he said, pointing to the large block of buildings in the foreground. Turning left, he said: "That's the DaimlerChrysler headquarters, and that's 15 miles. That's Rochester Hills, and those tall buildings, that's Troy, that's 16 Mile Road."
He said he remembers when that area was black at night. Now, he said, "It's filled with lights."
Businesses and people leave
In 1950, when J. L. Hudson's conceived of Northland, Detroit was dynamic. It had reached its population peak of nearly 2 million people, and it had the majority of the region's retail, manufacturing and cultural institutions. The city was still basking in the international recognition it received for its pivotal role as a leading arms manufacturer during World War II.
By Northland's opening in 1954, experts now understand, the flight of manufacturing firms from Detroit was becoming a serious problem. Historian Thomas Sugrue found that, from 1950 to 1956, 124 manufacturing firms located in the suburbs; 55 of them had moved out of Detroit. People soon began following. The city's economy was trapped in a downward spiral from which it never has been able to extricate itself.
Government programs, such as subsidized freeway construction and federal loans for new homes, benefited the suburbs and hurt the city. Like a poor kid peering over a wealthier neighbor's fence, Detroit watched thousands of homes sprout on the other side of 8 Mile.
Then there was the race issue.
A bitter history between whites and blacks within Detroit became a dominant theme between Detroit and its suburbs. In the years after Northland opened, Detroit's population became blacker, and many suburbs took actions to preserve their whiteness.
Dearborn had its segregationist mayor, Orville Hubbard; Grosse Pointe real estate agents excluded blacks and ethnic people; a number of suburbs fought the federal government's attempts to build low-income housing. When black Detroiters who still didn't get the message tried to move to suburbia, white suburbanites sometimes attacked them or their homes.
Today, even though suburban integration is rising, metro Detroit stands out nationwide for the extent of its segregation. U.S. Census figures show Detroit is 82 percent black. The seven counties surrounding the city are 87 percent white.
An end to Us vs. Them?
Even as sections of Detroit undergo a renaissance, experts agreed that the future will bring further expansion of suburbia.
SEMCOG predicts that population growth over the next 30 years will result in at least a 36-percent growth in developed land -- 390,000 more acres bulldozed for progress. The development will continue to be mostly single-family housing, and will require more sewers, more stores and more schools.
But really, who knows? In 1954, no one predicted the rise of suburbia and the decline of Detroit. No one predicted Southfield -- which was not even a city -- would become a super suburb, with high-rises and, in recent years, some abandoned buildings. No one knew Northland's creator, the J. L. Hudson Co., would have disappeared by 2004.
The suburbs were on the mind of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in early January when he stood before 1,000 people at Cobo Hall. The featured speaker at a Detroit Economic Club meeting, Kilpatrick was talking up the building of a new convention center in downtown Detroit.
He was asking the suburbs to help pay for it. And he was trying to prove the center, priced at an estimated $1.3 billion, would benefit people in the entire region, even those who live 45 miles from downtown Detroit in a new subdivision without sidewalks or trees.
It was, he said, a venture that would require -- and indeed, would celebrate -- regional cooperation in a metro area known for divisiveness.
"Over the past 50 years, we have become consumed by negativity that has led to eternal stagnation in regional cooperation," Kilpatrick said. "We have become masters at pitting neighbors against neighbors. If we are to be competitive in the new economy, this cannot continue."
During his speech, Kilpatrick made a startling concession. In asking for financial help from the suburbs, he also offered to let them help run the new center.
"We have determined the funding and operation of the convention center must be governed by an authority -- not a city," Kilpatrick told an audience that was receptive but less than exuberant.
"This is the structure of most successful centers in America. And the fact is, substantial city, regional and state cooperation will be necessary to get the deal done."
Kilpatrick also told of how, 50 years ago, Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo had set forth his vision of a grand convention center and how the prosperous city simply built it. It needed no help.
The present, though, is vastly more complex. In the half-century since Northland opened, the seven-county region has expanded to 89 cities, 115 townships and 27 villages. They are fiercely independent bodies that rarely agree on anything other than opposing Detroit.
Seemingly resigned to the new reality of suburban clout, Kilpatrick appeared to grow wistful and said: "What I wouldn't give to go back to 1950."