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The Geography of Detroit’s Decline

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Detroit

Buildings in an entire city block in what was once Detroit's prime business district sit largely abandoned March 23, 2011.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Updated December 17, 2012
During the mid-20th century, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of over 1.85 million people. It was a thriving metropolis that embodied the American Dream - a land of opportunity and growth. Today, Detroit has become a symbol of urban decay. Detroit's infrastructure is crumbling and the city is operating at $300 million dollars short of municipal sustainability. It is now the crime capital of America, with 7 out of 10 crimes unsolved. More than a million people have left the city since its prominent fifties. There are a multitude of reasons as to why Detroit's fell apart, but all the fundamental causes are rooted in geography.

Demographic Shift in Detroit

From 1910 to 1970, millions of African-Americans migrated from the South in pursuit of manufacturing opportunities in the Midwest and Northeast. Detroit was a particularly popular destination due to its burgeoning automotive industry. Prior to this Great Migration, the African-American population in Detroit was approximately 6,000. By the 1930s, that number has ballooned to 120,000, a twenty-fold increase. Movement to Detroit would continue well into the Great Depression and World War II, as jobs in artillery production were plentiful.

The rapid shift in Detroit's demographics led to racial hostility. Social tensions were further perpetuated when many desegregation policies were signed into law in the 1950s, forcing residents to integrate.

For years, violent racial riots engulfed the city, but the most destructive one occurred on Sunday, July 23, 1967. A police confrontation with patrons at a local unlicensed bar sparked a five day riot that left 43 dead, 467 injured, 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The violence and destruction only ended when the National Guard and Army were ordered to intervene.

Shortly after this "12th street riot", many residents started to flee the city, particularly the whites. They moved out by the thousands into neighboring suburbs such as Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Auburn Hills. By 2010, whites only made up 10.6% of Detroit's population.

The Size of Detroit

Detroit is geographically very large. At 138 square miles (357km2), the city could accommodate Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan all within its limits. But in order to maintain this expansive territory, a great deal of funds are needed. As people started to leave, they took with them their tax revenues and labor. Over time, as the tax base decreased, so did the city's social and municipal services.

Detroit is particularly difficult to maintain because its residents are so spread out. There is too much infrastructure relative to the level of demand. This means large sections of the city are left unused and unrepaired. A scattered population also means law, fire, and emergency medical personnel have to travel greater distances on average to provide care. Moreover, since Detroit has experienced consistent capital exodus for the past forty years, the city is unable to afford an adequate public service workforce. This has caused crime to skyrocket, which further encouraged rapid out-migration.

Industry in Detroit

Detroit lacked industrial diversification. The city was very dependent on the auto industry and manufacturing. Its location was ideal for heavy production because of its proximity to Canada and its access to the Great Lakes. However, with the expansion of the Interstate Highway System, globalization, and dramatic inflation in labor costs brought on by unionization, the city's geography soon became irrelevant. When the Big Three started moving car production out of greater Detroit, the city had few other industries to rely on.

Many of America's older cities faced a de-industrialization crisis starting in the 1970s, but most of them were able to establish an urban resurgence. The success of cities like Minneapolis and Boston is reflected on their high number of college graduates (over 43%) and their entrepreneurial spirit. In many ways, the success of the Big Three inadvertently restricted entrepreneurship in Detroit. With the high wages earned on the assembly lines, workers had little reason to pursue higher education. This, in conjunction with the city having to reduce the number of teachers and after-school programs due to declining tax revenues has caused Detroit to fall behind in academics. Today, only 18% of Detroit adults have a college degree (verses a national average of 27%), and the city is also struggling to control the brain drain.

Ford Motor Company no longer has a factory in Detroit, but General Motors and Chrysler still do, and the city remains dependent on them. However, for a large portion of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Big Three did not react well to changing market demands. Consumers started to shift from power-driven automotive muscle to more stylish and fuel efficient vehicles. The American automakers struggled against their foreign counterparts both domestically and internationally. All three companies were on the verge of bankruptcy and their financial distress was reflected on Detroit.

Public Transportation Infrastructure in Detroit

Dubbed the "Motor City", car culture has always been deep in Detroit. Nearly everyone owned a car, and because of this, urban planners designed the infrastructure to accommodate the personal automobile rather than public transportation.

Unlike their neighbors Chicago and Toronto, Detroit never developed a subway, trolley, or intricate bus system. The only light rail the city has is its "People Mover", which only encircles 2.9-miles of the downtown area. It has a single set of track and only runs in one direction. Although designed to move up to 15 million riders a year, it only serves 2 million. The People Mover is considered an ineffective rail, costing tax payers $12 million annually to operate.

The biggest problem with not having a sophisticated public infrastructure is that it promotes sprawl. Since so many people in the Motor City owned a car, they all moved away, opting to live in the suburbs and just commuting to downtown for work. Additionally, as people moved out, businesses eventually followed, leading to even fewer opportunities in this once great city.

References

Okrent, Daniel (2009). Detroit: The Death- and Possible Life- of a Great City. 
Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1926017-1,00.html

Glaeser, Edward (2011). Detroit's Decline and the Folly of Light Rail. Retrieved from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704050204576218884253373312.html

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