The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 8

Buildings from the Packard Automotive Complex in Detroit, abandoned by Packard in 1958.  Source:
A unique aspect of land use in Detroit that’s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and manufacturing land in the city.  It’s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the industrial gods.  Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable – producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes. 

Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city.  In Chicago, for example, industrial lines developed along the rail corridors that brought goods into and out of the city, through the south and west sides.  The north side largely avoided industrialization to the extent witnessed elsewhere in the city.  Industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use.  

But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical dilemma.  The fantastic growth potential of automobiles was evident to nearly everyone.  By 1905, Ford, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Buick and Packard were already operating in Detroit, and this was prior to the consolidations that led to the creation of General Motors and Chrysler.  Each of the automakers were working overtime and competing to secure space for production in Detroit.  How could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World? 

To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time, the railroads.  By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to the northeast, all just beyond the growing city’s limits.  While numerous other lines existed throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit with the rest of the nation.  An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914, stated that:

“The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within the city limits suitable for such development.  (M)any railway and business men who had given the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.”

This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western lines highlighted in red.  The city’s boundaries prior to 1915 are outlined in green (please forgive my simple graphics):


Several railroad interests came together, including the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk lines, to address the issue of industrial expansion and congestion in Detroit.  They elected to establish a new railroad – the Detroit Terminal Railroad.  It was indeed an “outer belt line” that connected the Michigan Central Line with the Grand Trunk Western, arcing from the southwest side to the northeast, but also created a spur on the east side that would link to the Detroit River and allow for the development of additional industrial land.  The DTR was constructed between 1904 and 1911.  The line is illustrated on the following map with a dotted black line:


The land use dynamic changed when Henry Ford constructed his Highland Park assembly plant, which opened in 1908.  In 1906 he bought 160 acres of land along Woodward Avenue in the small village north of Detroit, next to the crossing of the DTR at Woodward Avenue (the main roadway that extends through Highland Park in the above image).  He was well aware of already-underway efforts to construct the “outer belt line” that industrialists had called for, and Ford put himself in position to benefit from it.  

Shortly after the opening of Ford’s new factory, other automakers and suppliers followed suit along the DTR.  By 1910, Dodge and Packard both had facilities near the DTR, and major Buick and Chevrolet supplier Fisher Body had a location directly on the DTR.  By 1920 there was an almost unbroken arc of industrial land lined the DTR – occasionally split by major arterial roadways that connected the city to its hinterlands, but largely occupied by the industrial supply and small assembly businesses that would serve each other.  

The DTR and its adjacent industrial uses encircled and constrained the city’s dense urban core. The Detroit of 1910, about the same size as present-day St. Louis and with about 500,000 people, became strangled by an industrial necklace. 

This created, in my mind, two distinct characteristics unique to the Motor City.  First, the development of the DTR and the subsequent industrialization of the rail line meant that there was no part of the older city of Detroit that was untouched by manufacturing.  The DTR meant a burgeoning streetcar neighborhood stood no chance anywhere near the manufacturing plants.  The DTR meant that many of the kinds of urban neighborhoods that are enjoying a renaissance today were never able to develop in large parts of Detroit.

Second, I believe this left a psychological imprint on Detroiters, and contributed to a collective disdain for the city among locals.  Keep in mind that between 1910 and 1920, Detroit’s population doubled from 500,000 to 1 million — with approximately the same boundaries as above, and with the DTR still encircling the city.  Detroit quickly became a crowded and smoky city, and the land use decisions made at the time reinforced the belief among residents that the best place to live was beyond the city’s grasp.  That kind of thinking carries on to this day.

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