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The Deurbanization of Detroit


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No other city has risen so high and then fallen so low as has Detroit. Through these historic photographs I found at WSU's Virtual Motor City, I have put together this thread, which chronicles the fall of Downtown Detroit.

EDIT: My photo host is acting up, so you may have to refresh a few times before you see all the photos.

During the 1920s, the city was booming, constructing new skyscrapers each year.


1920s Grand Circus Park




The depression brought a halt to the city's boom; so the city did not put up any new skyscrapers during that decade.



From the Penobscot, 1930s


The same view in July of 2004


The city from the north in 1954. The Lodge Freeway was not yet constructed. The freeway was one of the first in the city, and opened to traffic in 1956.


These patrons are attending the movie theaters on Adams Street in the 1950s


Shopping on Woodward in the 1950s




By 1958, the Lodge Freeway was really starting to do its damage, as businesses started to move out of the downtown area. This is evident just to the right of the Lodge.


The western edge of downtown less than ten years later.


Clearing the Riverfront for Cobo Center, 1950s.


Campus Martius in the 1950s. Parking lots are starting to appear.


The center of the city changed rapidly in the early 1960s. The city's first skyscraper, the Hammond Building had been demolished to make way for the new Bank One Building. The old city hall from the 1950s was also demolished, creating Kennedy Square. Demolition of the Majestic Building is underway at the far right.


Kern's department store, seen here during the 1950s, closed in 1960.


In 1966 Kern's was demolished, leaving a vacant lot that was planted with grass and trees. The block stood vacant for nearly forty years, until the Compuware Corporation decided to relocate its headquarters to the Kern Block.


1960s Washington Boulevard was still a busy shopping district, although within a decade that would change with the conversion of the boulevard into a pedestrian mall.


Woodward and Jefferson in the 1960s


The city received a dramatic change in the 1970s with the construction of the Renaissance Center. The massive influx of office space into the downtown market caused a glut in the office market that lasted for the next ten years.


The 1970s also brought I-375 through downtown, cutting off Lafayette Park from the rest of downtown.


The corner of Woodward and John R in the 1970s. It is still a struggling retail district that is barely holding on.


The early 1980s brought about the closing of Hudson's flagship store downtown. Many nearby businesses hung on for a while, but they too ultimately closed because of the reduced foot traffic.



The late 1980s brought the demolition of Crowley's Department store, leaving another block downtown as a vacant lot.



The 1990s brought new investment, such as Comerica Tower, Comerica Park, Ford Field, and several renovated skyscrapers. However, Hudsons and several other historic buildings were lost at the same time. Detroit has begun its long, difficult recovery. Only time will tell just how successful this recovery is going to be after 50 years of decline.

Here is Detroit sometime in 2002. Compuware is under construction, but hundreds of parking lots remain.


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WOW awesome finds!! :)

Thanks. It makes me sick to see how much we've lost though. And it's not like a lot of it was lost for any reason at all. Look at all the parking lots! There are times when I hate this city...this is one of those times. Detroit has no regard for its history at all. :(

I'll elaborate more in the morning...what am I doing up at 2:20 AM anyway?!

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Great job Allan! I really enjoyed this historic look back.

It's amazing to see all the foot traffic in those pictures and hopefully it will be like that again in the near future.

Also, looking that those pictures really makes me hate the placement of 1 woodward even more. Its not that I don't like the building, it's just that it hides the gaurdian.

And don't get me started on the Bank One building. Kahn must have been rolling over in his grave to have his name associated with that turd of a design.

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Unfortunately I just can't see foot traffic like that downtown ever again. The intersection of Woodward and State was once the second busiest pedestrian interesection in the world, being beat out only by an intersection in London. We'd need some major downtown department stores and a huge downtown population to ever acheive anything even remotely close to that. I just can't see either of those things happening in the near future.

One Woodward doesn't bother me so much, but that pedestrian walkway between it and the Guradian does. I am in favor of removing it, as well as all the other pedestrian walkways in the downtown area. The pedestrian walkways might be convenient, but they don't encourage interaction among people, which would occur if they were forced to walk on the street.

Bank One bothers me more by the day, however. I have always hated the building, but I hate it even more now. And to think that they demolished our city's first skyscraper for that attrocious thing!

Old City Hall was another beautiful building which was demolished for a useless concrete park (Kennedy Square). I guess they did not have adaptive reuse of buildings back then! Even if they had gutted the entire interior and retained only the exterior shell I would have been happy.

And what can I say about the Majestic Building? 1001 Woodward is by no means a bad building, but the Majestic looked much nicer. Couldn't they have built 1001 on some vacant lot somewhere else?

It really sickens me to look back and see what has happened to our once great city. Our history is being demolished, one building at a time and is being replaced by nothing but vacant lots, parking lots, and parking structures! There is so little density left downtown that the city feels like the suburbs with the occasional skyscraper mixed in. And the sad thing is that it keeps getting worse. The city looks like crap, thanks to the slumlords and the lack of maintenance they do to their buildings. The city needs to get agressive with all these building owners. Otherwise they will sit on them and let them rot forever. The city as it exists today is just a shadow of its former self. It is not beyond fixing, but at its current rate of repair it will just continue to decline.

If you have a look at the Detroit projects list, you'll see that almost all of the downtown projects are mere proposals. A proposal doesn't actually mean anything. Heck, even I could propose a 25 story mixed use tower for the Hudson Block! In fact, maybe I should! Only a few select projects have been approved, and only a few are under construction. I keep telling myself that the city has to rebuild slowly...one building at a time. But I feel so pessimistic about the whole thing. The city might not be fully revitalized for another thirty years or more! The city is so broken it's not even funny.

Detroit needs to work regionally on improving the city. Right now it's the city competing against the suburbs. Clearly that is getting Michigan nowhere. Job growth in the 1990s was next to nothing, and now it is completely stalled. Other metros were adding hundreds of thousands of jobs and new residents during the 90s, while metro Detroit's growth was stagnant. Between 1990 and 2000 the metropolitan area added a whopping 170,000 people in the four county area. Not bad, until you consider that metropolitan Atlanta added one million people during the same period. The same is not uncommon among other metros, especially in the south. While metro Detroit should be focused on competing with cities like Chicago and Toronto, it is instead competing with itself. Instead of working regionally to attract new high tech jobs, the city and suburbs are competing, trying to steal jobs from one another. Additionally, the shift from a maufacturing economy to one that revolves mostly around high tech and service industries has left Michigan in the dust, creating a massive brain drain. This is a HUGE problem, so why is metro Detroit not working to solve the problem? Without a change in direction, Michigan will be a "has been".

The only booming industry here is the home building industry. However, that is just hurting the metro in the long run by spreading our region's people out over a larger area, causing decay in the inner city, and now in the inner ring of suburbs, as well as stretching the infrastructure to its limits. Wait 50 years when all this infrastructure needs to be replaced. The people will be complaining because the governments will have to raise taxes very high to pay for the infrastructure repair and replacement.

In additon, I am quite disturbed by the new job creation here. Why is that state so fixated on creating new manufacturing jobs? Should the state not work on attractin high tech industries instead. It is time to diversify the economy. Enough with automobile manufacturing already!! Cars are a commodity. The auto industry is not nearly as profitable as it once was, and the big three continue to loose market share. It's great to have to auto industry here, but we need to have other types of jobs here too. The golden age of the automobile has been over since the 1950s. We need to move on...manufacturing is going to leave no matter what the state tries, unless they make a law against exporting jobs to other countries. I'm not any too hopeful about that though, considering how our lawmakers like to drag their feet so much.

I am just so dismayed by the state of this area. As one of the largest metros in the country, we CAN do better, and we should expect ourselves to do better. It is unfortunate that the metro area will continue to loose out; however, because of the flawed attitudes and thinking of the leaders here.

Sorry for this big long rant, but all this has been accumulating over the past several years....

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Detroit hopefully will bounce back. Are they beginning an upswing now are am I mistaken?

It is an upswing, albeit a very slow one. Or at least too slow for me! I want 50 years worth of decay to disappear in five, which just isn't going to happen.

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The decline of the city cannot be entirely attributed to the automobile, but much of it can. As the birthplace of the auto industry, Detroiters embraced car culture early on. By the 1930s there were already proposals to criss-cross the city with freeways to quickly move along the quickly growing population. The first depressed urban freeway in the country, the Davison, opened in 1942. Henry Ford was a proponent of the freeway, as it would allow the workers at his factory to get to work quickly. The Davison Freeway was never fully completed. In fact, it is only about one mile long. However, we all know what would've happened to countless neighborhoods if it had been.

Despite having the first freeways in the nation, Detroit also had a world class streetcar system. In fact, it was one of the largest in the country. Begining in about 1935, as more people moved from the streetcars to automobiles, the lines were shut down, one by one. This was also possible thanks in part to the automotive industry, which lobbied to get the system removed. After all, they figured it didn't look very good to have these antiquated streetcars all over the place, especially since Detroit was the automobile capitol. In 1955, the Woodward Line was the last to be shut down.

Freeways tore up the city landscape, with the Davison being finished in 1942. In the 1940s, parts of I-94 were also constructed. The 1950s brought the John Lodge freeway, which connected downtown Detroit with Southfield, a then booming suburb. Also in the 1950s, the interstate highway act meant that I-75 and I-96 were to be constructed. At the time, it was thought that the city limits would have 3 million people in them by 2000. The freeways obviously had the opposite effect though, since the city current has only 904,000. The 1970s brought another pointless freeway, I-375 through downtown.

Despite all the destruction, we cannot forget that Detroit was really a city built for cars from the very begining. The most urban portion of the city is the area bounded by Grand Avenue, which encircles the city. Pretty much everything outside of that boundary is an early version of sprawl. It would be fair to say that more than 95% of the housing within the city limits are single family homes. This was the cause of a major housing crisis in the 1940s and 1950s, and many single family homes were carved up into apartments during this time period.

Finally, we cannot forget about the race relations. Detroit had long prided itself on its stellar race relations. Things were great up until the first riots along Woodward Avenue in July of 1943. From then on tensions were high. Blacks began moving into traditionally white neighborhoods. This did not sit well with the whites. Many whites wanted to stay in the city, but were told by real estate agents that if they did not sell their houses then, their property values would plummet. The scare tactic worked, and whites flooded into the suburbs. Eventually, however, total chaos broke out. In 1967 the second series of race riots occured, forever altering the city's image. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and many whites saw no choice but to leave the city. Longtime mayor Coleman A. Young tried to remedy the situation, but he ended up just making it worse. Crime began to rise, leaving the residents scared. In 1974 the city had 714 homicides, earning it the nickname "Murder City". The schools were begining to perform poorly in comparison to the suburban schools, giving even more people a reason to leave.

Today the city is still loosing people, but the crime rate is falling, property values are rising, and the city is third in the tri-county area for the number of new homes constructed in 2003. As it stands today, the population is 80% black overall. About 90% of those living downtown are black, although there are areas just north in midtown where whites make up greater than 50% of the population. For the first time in decades, racial harmony may be acheived in the city.

It has yet to be seen what will happen to the city. Despite all the improvements, many middle class blacks are moving out of the city. Sick of poor city schools and extremely high crime rates, they are begining to move out to suburbs, such as Southfield. Middle class blacks make up a large portion of the city's population, and if they leave, the city will see even more troubling times in years to come.

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Wow! Now that explains your concern.

I know. I need to write a book on the subject. LOL. I will go further in depth on the subject later this afternoon, since class is starting now.

(although it's not like I need to pay attention because it's a lecture on Detroit architecture.)

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Ok, now to finish my thought from earlier today....

Downtown Detroit has lot so much that there are places where it feels like the suburbs. It's certainly got all the characteristics of them: green grass, parking lots, and auto oriented development. Of course, there is the occasional highrise scattered in there for a mix of variety. There is also a fair share of abandoned buildings mixed in there too.

I got bored...I started messing around with the aerial. So here we go:


The two buildings outlined in yellow are the Statler Hotel (left) and the Madison-Lenox Hotel (left). They are slated to be demolished sometime before the Super Bowl in 2006. The Statler was supposed to be coming down last month, but since this is Detroit it just isn't going to happen for a while. The city is spending roughly $5 Million to demo the 18 story Statler, and the DDA loaned the Ilitches $700,000 to demo the M-L.

The buildings outlined in blue are the Book-Cadillac Hotel (top) and the Lafayette Building (below). The B-C was supposed to be converted into a Marriot Hotel and condos by the Super Bowl, but the deal fell through. They are now doing demolition work that would be required whether the building is demolished or renovated. Across the street, the city is looking to redevelop the Lafayette Building. They recently did the RFPs on the building, and if no developer is found it will be demolished.

The parking lot outlined in red is the new downtown YMCA. Construction is well under way, and they have got the roof in place. It is only three stories, but it is filling up the entire parking lot. :)

The area outlined in green is the block where Hudson's once stood. It is currently an underground parking garage that is built to support a midrise building on top. Rumor has it that Schlostak will be building some sort of residential/hotel sort of building on the block IF the Lofts at Merchants Row across the street sell better than expected. The lofts are selling better than expected, but I am not going to plan on seeing construction on the Hudson block for at least five years.

I didn't feel like going around and outlining all the buildings that are just vacant and are waiting to be renovated or demolished. Over the years I have developed a list of what I think will happen to each abandoned building downtown. This seems like the perfect place to repost my list....


- Book Cadillac Hotel

- Charlevoix Building

- Detroit Building

- Donavon (Motown) Building

- Farwell Building

- Fine Arts Building/Adams Theater

- G.A.R. Building

- Madison Lenox Hotel

- Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel

- Statler Hotel

- United Artists Building

- Wurlitzer Building


- Captiol Park Building

- David Broderick Tower

- David Whitney Building

- Free Press Building

- Lafayette Building

- Metropolitan Building

- National Theater

- People's Department Store

- Vinton Building (600 Woodward Ave.)

As you can see, I'm very pessimistic as a whole. For some reason I have completely lost faith in Detroit's ability to rebuild itself. I've seen far too many things go wrong in the city, and far too many things go right. Granted, the city is much better today than it was ten, or even five years ago. But it has a LONG way to go. Quite honestly, I don't want to wait 25 or 30 years for the city to get its act together. The city need a viable mass transit system NOW. The city needs to agressively target the owners of these vacant buildings so that they can actually be redeveloped. Of course the city keeps saying that they will step up code enforcement, but so far it seems to be a lot of talk and little actual work. I don't know...maybe I just need someone to convince me that Detroit isn't too far gone....

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What have we done to the city? These are some pics I found just now.

Let's destroy some homes to build the Lodge! August 4, 1950. Glad I didn't live in one of those homes!


Of course this sort of thing is what the Lodge was trying to eliminate. This was taken in front of the Fisher Building in the New Center area.


I have no idea when this was taken, but it is interesting anyway.


Building the Ambassador Bridge


Double decker bus


1910s skyline


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I don't think anyone could disagree with you there...except for city leaders and some suburbanites. Detroit needs to somehow attract new residential development. Cities such as Miami, San Diego, and Vancouver have entirely redefined their skylines and improved their downtowns by encouraging the development of residential highrises. The office market is very weak right now, but there's no reason why we can't be putting up new residential towers.

Imagine what a 25 story condo tower could do for the city. Leaders thought nobody would want to live in downtown San Diego. They put a pair of new 25 story towers up in 1999, and that was the begining of a huge residential boom.

I think the same thing could happen if we found the right niche. People want to live downtown, but there doesn't seem to be that many options right now. Conversion of the upper floors of 1001 Woodward and the Guardian will help though. I also have a feeling that we will be hearing about the conversion of the Vinton Building into some sort of lofts or apartments any time now. It's my understanding that the city has completed the RFPs and has selected a developer. The city is also accepting RFPs for the Lafayette right now too. So hopefully that will be in progress by the time the Super Bowl rolls around.

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LOL, I forgot completely about the freeway capping. Actually, they need to fill in 375 and turn it into a boulevard. The Lodge should be capped south of 94. There are plans to do this in part of midtown (although I can't remember where exactly). Perhaps the most important freeway cap is I-75 as it goes through downtown. This would physically connect downtown and midtown, allowing more people and development to spill over from midtown to downtown.

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I can't believe how much Detroit has lost. Allan, you have provided the best compilation of Detroit's decline I have seen yet. It is just sick to see those parking lots. This is precisely the reason why I don't get all defensive when people say Detroit sucks. I mean, how could you not agree when the city has these tremendous scars. I definitely have to say the road system brought the biggest blow, not the riots. People were already leaving for the suburbs before race riots, and other cities like Chicago had them and rebounded later. Although the radiating roads are cool, it is the WRONG way to build a city. On top of that, the freeways butchered Detroit more.

Since I go to the university of Michigan which has a very high percentage of out of state students, I have been able to talk about Detroit with some of them who have visited the city. The main questions they ask me are. Why does Detroit need all of those freeways, when you could build mass transit instead? Why do so many people drive? Why don't people take care of their houses there? Why don't your abandoned buildings have boards over the broken windows? Why are your roads in bad shape? Why is your economy so dependent on the automobile industry? Why do your suburbs grow so explosively? All great examples of things Michigan's cities have screwed up so horribly on.

I know a lot of poeple would probably jump on me for saying this, but Detroit seriously needs to rid its population of the stupids. What I'm talking about, is the people who don't pay their taxes, and buy expensive cars while abusing the welfare system. So they have the money to buy that brand new expensive TV, but don't have enough to paint their hosue? So a lot of kids don't have to go to school and can just go around causing trouble and polluting the city's intelligence level more? Oh, but there are plenty of smart people who grow up in Detroit. BUT THEY DON'T WANT TO LIVE THERE. Who would? When they grew up the hard live in Detroit, worked hard in school, avoided the bad influences, went off to college using the money they didn't buy on drugs. Seriously, I'm telling the truth as it is. I can't gloss Detroit's image and make it look like something it really isn't. The city has a crapload of problems, but a lot of them can be solved by the residents. I know life must be hard to live there. With high unemployment rates, we know it is hard to even find a job. With underfunded schools, and bad peer influences there, who can blame people struggling to learn. But sometimes, everyone has got to stop and think that maybe going to school would get me a bit farther than doing drugs on the street, or even doing nothing at all. Or maybe more people will come back if I stop shooting this gun for the heck of it, or arguing over some petty issue. Detroit is full of good, smart people. I already know plenty. But there are also a lot of lazy ass people who don't do squat. There are also a bunch of people up to no good. I'm sure there are tons of people who will disagree with what I said. But remember I don't mean everybody. But if you look at Detroit on the surface, you can see what problems can be solved, and what can't. The freeways aren't going away, and the buildings aren't going to stop going down. But Detroit can improve with what good resources it has. And if everyone can have a spirit of hope and revival in them, Detroit can be an amazing place within the next few decades.

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Not only is Detroit's violent crime rate high, but homicides and shooting are up sharply this year over last. The population will likely not stop falling if this continues happening. As of mid-August, more than 800 people had been shot this year in Detroit, a whopping 30% increase over last year. As of late-July, there were more than 200 murders in Detroit, also a 30% increase over last year.

I don't see a residential boom for downtown Detroit until the area gains a LOT of retail. The point of living downtown is being able to walk everywhere, there's not much point if you're driving miles to the suburbs to shop all the time.

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btw allan i think the bc is slated to become a westin, ne way i see downtown really takeing off and btw now that we have a niketown comeing other national retailers are soon to follow.


I'll believe the BC renovation when I actually see signs on the building and construction taking place. Right now it's all demo. The building will be saved, if for no other reason than the city has no money to demolish it. The city was too quick in announcing a development deal. The first deal was never actually signed. And now the city has been in talks with Ferchill for about 7 months. When will we hear something? Who knows...it might be another year, given the slow pace of development in this city.

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true were likely gonna see the post bar done before a deal is signed on the bc.


Speaking of Post Bar...do you know if they have resumed construction yet? I was downtown on Tuesday evening, but I didn't have time to make it over to the Broadway Area.

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