The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 3

Image from Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers Historic Commercial District.  Source:

The series to date:

Origin Post
Part 1
Part 2

Moving on to part 3 of this nine-part series on factors contributing to the economic and social collapse of the Motor City.

A couple years ago in the original post, I described the reason I’m going into detail here as a poor public realm.  Here, I’m going to move away from a terminology that’s admittedly a little esoteric to talk more directly about what I meant then — the poor quality of Detroit’s commercial districts and corridors.

We’ve all heard the saying, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  Commercial districts and corridors often give outsiders their first impression of a city.  If you drive into a city for the first time, the first major thoroughfare you come across, and its mix of visible businesses and residential uses, will determine what and how you think about the rest of the city.  In fact, even if the neighborhoods that sit behind the commercial corridor are a stark contrast from the commercial district/corridor itself, outsiders usually infer the quality and integrity of entire neighborhoods based on the quality of the commercial corridor.  For decades, Detroit has failed to invest in its districts and corridors, missing an opportunity to create a favorable impression not just to outsiders, but even to its own residents.

Here’s what I said about this two years ago:

Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places.  Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping.  Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking.  Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings.  The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this.  Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:
And another corridor a short distance away:
And yet another from the opposite side of town:
 Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring.   But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure.  That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.

I acknowledge that there’s a bit of cherry-picking going on here, and that I don’t have full knowledge of all commercial districts/corridors in Detroit.  But I do know the city well enough to say what’s shown above is common and pretty descriptive of districts/corridors citywide.  How did Detroit fail here?  

I believe that, coming into the mid-century economic expansion, Detroit elected to adopt a strip model of commercial development, rather than a nodal model.  The nodal model, one that places great emphasis on the development of commercial districts at major intersections, was one that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was often supported by public transit.  Even when it wasn’t, though, it was pedestrian-oriented, and often included multifamily residential uses above the ground floor commercial uses.  The strip model, which had its beginnings in the ’20s but really rose to prominence after World War II, was quite different.  I’ll let the EPA elaborate on the strip’s origins here:

Although the strip is popularly believed to be a creature of the free market, the shopping venues built in the new suburbs took the form of the strip primarily in response to government actions. Government subsidies in the form of the federal home mortgage program and the interstate highway system stimulated the movement of households from cities to the new suburbs, providing the market demand and the infrastructure for other uses to follow. In 1954, Congress created a massive subsidy for suburban commercial development by modifying the tax code to allow owners to depreciate new commercial buildings in seven years, in place of the long-standing 40-year requirement. This ―accelerated depreciation‖ sparked a 30-year construction boom in cheap strip commercial buildings, along with disincentives to maintain them…

This economic climate led to the construction of inexpensive, single-story buildings on abundant, inexpensive properties at low densities. The combination of low densities and new roadways provided little in the way of pedestrian comfort, customers arrived in automobiles rather than on foot. With the focus now on autos, buildings were placed at the rear of the site and the parking and signs at the front—and the commercial strip was complete. 

This approach was concomitant with Detroit’s rapid post-World War II housing expansion, detailed here two weeks ago.  Just like the city’s housing policy at the time, 1950’s-era Detroit elected to take the cheap approach to meeting the immediate, short-term needs of its residents, instead of pursuing more enduring, place-based approaches to development.

This led to two devastating impacts.  One, the strip model locked out the possibility of multifamily residential development from consideration in the areas where it might be best suited.  City policy was for long stretches of contiguous, one-story commercial development on major streets, and did not include provisions for multifamily development.  This led to the second impact — an overabundance of commercial space that helped accelerate decline once it set in.

The other problem associated with the poor quality of districts and corridors is the lack of infrastructure investment by the city.  This was recently documented by guest poster Eric McAfee at The Urbanophile, who keyed in on Detroit’s broken and outdated streetlights.  It’s not enough that Detroit simply did not see the value of creating a sense of place, it becomes clearer that the city developed a deferred maintenance and disposable culture that effectively prevented it from updating its infrastructure.

I do remember half-hearted attempts to improve as a child.  I recall a city effort in the ’70s to remake the Seven Mile/Livernois commercial district, the Avenue of Fashion (as it’s long been known) and one of the few districts/corridors in Detroit with a distinctive character.  The streetscaping program also targeted other parts of the city.  I recall the program being funded by the federal government through grants and/or loans acquired by the Coleman Young administration, and typically included new streetlighting, sidewalk awnings, signage and bus stop improvements.  I can’t seem to find any images of it with a quick Google search right now, but I remember the streetscape work to be fairly ugly even then, and not fitting the character of the corridor at all.  The work was often done in response to competition from suburban malls, as was often the case with most efforts at the time, so the goal was to “suburbanize” the urban shopping experience.  It had disastrous results.  I’m projecting a little here, but it seems the entire citywide program failed to gain traction.  This could be because the program may have been viewed as a reward to Young’s supporters, but also because the work was often just a poor fit for the surrounding community.

As I put these more in-depth features about Detroit into place, themes are beginning to emerge.  It’s becoming evident that a disposable mindset began to emerge as the auto industry began to dominate the city’s economic landscape.  City building took second place to the economy, bolstered by the automobile.  Neighborhood scale, the development of an enduring and well-built housing vernacular, and strong commercial districts and corridors were all unnecessary to city leaders as long as the plant was humming and jobs were plentiful.  Somewhere there’s a lesson to be learned for other cities that accepted a similar mindset of disposability.

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