Detroit: Life Between the Gaps

As early as 1922, Henry Ford decreed the demise of the Modern City and his intention to assist in its dismantling. Almost 90 years on, Jacqui Alexander discovers, Detroit stands as a relic of its former glory.

August 1, 2008

“The city is doomed..we shall solve the problem of the city by abandoning the city.” – Henry Ford

Before the Japanese overtook America’s domination in the motorcar manufacturing industry, Detroit was once a wealthy and illustrious city: industrially well equipped due to its earlier investment in the war industries.

Figure 1: Ground/figure: Vacancy in Metro-Detroit, 1916-2004

It was also hotbed of persisting racial conflict and inequality.

With an economy driven by a single industry, the automobile proved to be Detroit’s greatest success, and later, its greatest failure. The construction of a comprehensive freeway system stretching from the suburbs to the city during the fifties was a world first: for Detroit, it was the first nail in the coffin. This Highway Act, coupled with the introduction of the GI Bill in 1956 ─ making home loans more accessible to white working families ─ facilitated the ‘white flight’ to the suburbs. While Black Veterans were eligible to apply for loans under the new Bill, local suburban by-laws frequently rejected applications. Detroit’s existing racial polarization and poverty was exacerbated, becoming spatially manifest as the city was transformed into a homogenous black ghetto.

Today, urban sprawl is frequently referred to as the ultimate disaster of twentieth century city planning. Suburbia has become synonymous with conservative values. It is a general misconception that Detroit imploded as a result of some sort of resistance to progress. On the contrary, Detroit is in fact a product of Modern hubris. Once acclaimed as the most modern city in the world1, Detroit took Modernism all the way, investing all its energy in self-advancement, as local academic Jerry Herron describes, “[Detroit] is just like every other American Metropolis, only more so.”2 Today, Metro-Detroit appears as a post-apocalyptic landscape. A journey through the (former) centre reveals a confused vocabulary: part-urban, part-suburban, and at times, semi-rural.

In Detroit proper, Woodward Avenue is the bones of the remaining functional limb in the central business district. This part of town is illusory: the height and density of towers on Grand River Avenue or Griswold Street are comparable to those in Chicago, yet here, few are but partially occupied. During business hours, the commercial district is quiet, yet not altogether deserted. The extent of emptiness remains unfathomable until further out beyond this supposed ‘hard edge’. Torched, abandoned factories swamp the west edge of Detroit proper. The devastation is repeated at a similar scale through the episodic decaying monuments on the horizon: the Tiger Stadium, derelict hotels and the spectacularly porous Michigan Central Station. At this scale, the urban decay is theatrical, even picturesque.

More confronting are the inner- city neighbourhoods, where the disorder is understood at the scale of the individual, the family unit. Vacant properties meld together to form uninterrupted stretches of field, dotted by the occasional resilient dwelling. In neighbourhoods like Mexicantown (south-west of Detroit and just north of the industrial zone) many homes are in disrepair; subject to arson or vandalism. Despite this inner-suburb’s close proximity to strip shopping on Vernor Highway and the centre, the emptiness distorts any perception of distance– delineation of land plots is undiscernible– making it next to impossible to pick up a carton of milk from the corner store without a reliable car.

Figure two: Hamtramck laneway as social interface.
1. Servicing Lane
2. Public Spectacle: North Detroit Disneyland

North-east of the centre is Hamtramck, an animated and culturally diverse neighbourhood. Traditionally a Polish enclave, the prospect of local factory work enticed the Poles when the Dodge Brothers opened a new car manufacturing plant in 1914. Further out than Mexicantown – though still technically inner-urban – Hamtramck remains largely unscathed by the decay that afflicts neighbourhoods with a more immediate adjacency to former industrial areas. Hiding amongst the well maintained garages in the backstreets of Hamtramck is “North Detroit Disneyland”. This exuberant backyard project stands six meters tall: a brightly coloured cacophony of kitsch bric-a-brac, collected and assembled over the years by the owner of the property, a retired Ukrainian steelworker. This is an extreme example of the potential for social exchange in ancillary inner-urban residential streets (figure 1). Backyards in Hamtramck are typically demarcated by cyclone fencing and gates, facing onto the servicing lanes that facilitate parking. Because each lane is sandwiched between two primary residential streets, backyards face one-another: their visual permeability stimulating a neighbourhood dialogue. Much of Hamtramck’s housing stock was built between 1920 and 1930 when the neighbourhood’s population was racially and economically homogenous. Without this cultural commonality, such publicity may never have been embraced. Today, Hamtramck is acclaimed as Michigan’s most ‘internationally diverse’ city3– yet backyards remain exposed.

Figure 3: Lafayette Park site plan.

Attempts at urban renewal go as far back as the 1950’s in Detroit. One such scheme was the flattening of the run-down but culturally vibrant neighbourhood Black Bottom, to make way for Mies Van Der Rohe’s luxury multi-residential project, Lafayette Park. Consequently, a large African-American community found themselves displaced and substituted with a new homogenous social demographic– young, white professionals.

Lafayette Park is a neighbourhood composed of curtain-wall towers, two-storey co-operatively run townhouses, a school and retail pavilion (figure 2). Since the economic recession in the late 1980’s, Lafayette Towers’ apartments have been available for both private rental and rental by government-subsidized tenants: “Section 8 residents”. While Mies’ design did not anticipate the accommodation of social housing candidates, the project seems perhaps more relevant to the economically heterogeneous community that occupies it today. In the first instance, the expression of the curtain-wall means that balcony spaces are omitted from the design. The realm of the individual is concealed behind the curtain wall so that private space is illegible from the outside, obscuring economic disparities. The lack of private balcony space also demands that residents of Lafayette Towers exit the building to experience the outdoors, charging the surrounding community gardens; and providing an opportunity for social exchange between neighbours while preserving their economic anonymity. Similarly, Mies’ decision to separate parking facilities from the apartments, by clustering car-spaces in sunken lots with no direct adjacency to the towers has helped blur socio-economic distinctions.

The privately-let Lafayette townhouses are strung together in a linear fashion by an indoor servicing corridor at basement level that each townhouse opens directly onto. The corridors were designed for waste storage, so that unsightly bins would not contaminate the otherwise orderly and uncluttered development.

Not unlike the servicing lanes in Hamtramck, these utilitarian spaces have been reappropriated by residents as a place for social interaction. As one resident explained, “Lafayette Park is a fantastic place to bring up your children. We all leave our basement doors open and let our kids play in the corridor out the back. They are so amazed darting in and out of the other houses in the block. Each apartment is strangely familiar: different but the same.”4

Lafayette Park provided Mies Van Der Rohe with an opportunity to execute his Utopian ideas for co-operative living, with the advantage of generous budget. A neighbourhood with such obvious social ambitions, it is serendipitous that the ultimate beneficiaries of the project were not the affluent professionals it was envisaged for, but the melange of residents who occupy it today. Lafayette Park’s power to foster and sustain its socio-economic hybridity is primarily as a result of the economic investment in the project half a century ago; making possible its quality construction, handsome tectonics and attention to detail.

In Michigan, there are two opposing responses to solving the problem of Detroit. There are those that support the city’s rehabilitation– contextualizing Detroit’s current state as one of flux; part of a city’s natural decline and regeneration. Others are more nihalistic. For them, the city is evidence of a lifestyle no longer relevant to Michiganities, echoing Henry Ford’s declaration in 1922, “we shall solve the problem of the city by abandoning the city.” A tertiary response might be to provide the dying city with palliative care: while it is niave to anticipate that Detroit might ever return to its former economic glory, it is equally ignorant to overlook the parts of Detroit – Hamtramck, Lafayette Park, pockets of Mexicantown – that are operating comfortably and maintaining strength in community. Urban renewal strategies can draw from the localized idiosyncrasies across Detroit, which can be transplanted and repeated to colonize dead zones, extending the existing framework of vibrant neighbourhoods outwards.

  1. In the late 1920’s, Outlook Magazine proclaimed Detroit to be “the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow. There is no past, there is no history.”
  2. Borderlands International Workshop Lecture, Jerry Herron, University of Michigan, 2007
  3. According to the 2000 Census, the city’s foreign born population stood at 41.1% making it Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.
  4. A woman I met at Lafayette Park in the gardens was kind enough to show me through her townhouse. She worked as a professor at a local Detroit university, and lived at Lafayette Park with her husband and children.

Jacqui Alexander is a co-editor and founder of POST Magazine. She is a lecturer in the Architecture program at Monash University Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) and a director of Alexander Sheridan Architecture.

Feel free to post a comment below. All comments are moderated - any abusive, defamatory or inappropriate comments will not be tolerated, and will result in cancellation of your account.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.