Recentering Detroit, Part 4: Infrastructure and Deeper Histor(ies)


Recentering Detroit is a multipart examination of culture of development in the current city, the ongoing crises and the efforts by residents to define their city, not as a relic of the past to be resurrected or “revitalized,” but a place where people live their lives. This examination will be made within multiple contexts, including race, racism, the complex histories of Detroit, infrastructure and economics. Click to read: Part 1: Against Revitalization.

by Michael Stepniak

Matthew Gandy writes that “water lies at the intersection of landscape and infrastructure, crossing between visible and invisible domains of urban space” (1). He continues: “water forms part of the material culture of modernity, ranging from the private spaces of the home to vast technological networks that have enabled the growth of cities…” (2). Places of intersection between the visible and invisible, and the point of entry into the material culture of modernity: these are the spaces where human societies make sense of their world and imagine new worlds.

Gandy writes of the origins of the concept of Landscape, which stems from the Dutch word Landschap, meaning “a unit of human occupation intimately tied to the drainage and regularization of land” (3). The things here are “drainage” and “regularization.” These are tied to imagination and water, forming a series of interactions.

Regularization of land is the result of cultural imagination. The current concept of imagination comes from the Old French term imaginer: to sculpt, carve, paint, decorate, embellish. This in turn derives from the Latin imaginari: to form a mental picture of oneself. Traveling back in etymological time, these concepts describe what humans have done to the land and water: forming a mental picture of themselves, their societies, and sculpting the world.

The river bottom is invisible. So are the sewage pipes and water intakes, the rail and automobile tunnels, the oil and gas pipelines and the communications cables. The regularization of the river through imagining and sculpting has its visible counterpart on land.

The Detroit River is infrastructure. It is a preexisting feature, in that it was not created by humans for humans. It has, however, been molded, sculpted, dredged and made into a host of and purpose for many other infrastructural works. There is what could be called passive infrastructure: those things imagined and constructed by humans that use the river as it is: boats, buoys, floating docks and so on. There is dependent infrastructure: things that need the river. There is dominant infrastructure that lets humans refuse to acknowledge the river: the tunnels, bridges and things that bypass the water. There is imagined infrastructure that comes in forms of canals artificial harbors and port facilities. All of these cultural imaginings made manifest form an ecology, interconnecting and interacting.


Figure 1: Pre-European Detroit. Wetlands are drawn in orange. Data Attribution: 1816 Survey of Michigan

Pre-European Detroit: its Water as its Road

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Detroit River had more tributaries than it does today.1 Many were filled in, and one, Connor Creek, still flows under a vast industrial complex on the Eastside.

Today, there are four principal waterways. There is Lake St. Clair, from which flows the Detroit River, which is met by the River Rouge, which flows through Southeastern Michigan. At the mouth of the Detroit River is the place where it empties into Lake Erie.

These waters have other names. The Wea called Lake St. Clair waayaahtanonki: or The Whirlpool (McCafferty). To the Ojibwe, the Detroit River is Waawiyaataanong: At the Curved Shores, or the Crooked Way. Lake Erie is Waabishkigoo-gichigama, the Neutrals Sea, after an Indian confederacy whose true name has been forgotten (Lippert). The water empties from the whirlpool, flows through the crooked way on the curved shores, and passes into the sea of a forgotten nation. There is poetry and metaphor here, but it is arbitrary. The Anishinaabe could have named them anything. The point is to focus on the water, and what people and cultures have imagined for water, because of the water.

Paul Edwards writes that “infrastructures simultaneously shape and are shaped by – in other words, co-construct – the condition of modernity” (2). Preexisting conditions inform technology and the regularization of land. There is a bay, a river, a plain, a field and a mountain. These become harbor, shipping lanes, a street grid, a farm and a tunnel. Once realized, these are the new preexisting conditions.

Modernity begins in the imagination. Edwards writes: “to be modern is to live within and by means of infrastructures,” saying that “infrastructures are like laws. They create both opportunities and limits, they promote some interests at the expense of others. To live within multiple, interlocking infrastructures of modern societies is to know one’s place in gigantic systems that both enable and constrain us” (2, 6).

Modernity, living within and by means of multiple, interlocking infrastructures, gigantic systems enabling and constraining: this is our urban ecology. Edwards says that “mature technological systems – cars, roads, municipal water supplies, sewers, telephones, railroads, weather forecasting, buildings, even computers in the majority of their uses – reside in a naturalized background” (1). Newness is technology. Old technology becomes something in the background, an infrastructure: out of sight, out of mind.

The working waterfront of the Detroit River must first be imagined as it was three centuries ago.2 The river is the infrastructure. There is heavy canoe traffic, as this is a busy crossroads for the Wyandot, Kickapoo, Thakiwiki, Meskwaki, and other Ojibwe and independent tribes (Farmer 322). The occasional Frenchmen pass by, also mostly in canoes, but occasionally in tall ships. The river is not out of sight, nor out of mind.

Over the centuries, the Detroit River became a busy highway, host to immense industrial infrastructure that depends on, uses floats on, and channels the water, as well as many auxiliary infrastructures that support those infrastructures.


Figure 2: Pre-European Detroit’s urban bones.

Water was the original Detroit highway, and it determined its urban bones. Augustus Woodward’s plan for the city may have riffed off L’Enfant, but it was situated by the trading routes of Indians. The Anishinaabe and others who lived and traveled through the region did not drain the land, and so the physical features of Michigan were non-negotiable. As such, the Indians followed the high ground (figs. 1 & 2). Detroit was the center of a vast trade network that stretched between present day Port Huron and Lansing, Michigan, Toledo, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. When Woodward planned after the city burned, he based it off the half-wagon wheel spokes of what are now Gratiot Avenue, Grand River Road and Michigan Avenue, the latter of which was the Great Sauk Trail that connected Detroit and Chicago (Mason 18).

If one wanted to travel in pre-French Detroit, there were two choices: on the water or around it. In places where it was practical, the river as a highway worked. In others, trails had to circumnavigate the wetlands. Infrastructure connects, but it does not connect everything. Steve Graham writes that infrastructures “unevenly bind spaces together… they dramatically, but highly unevenly ‘warp’ and refashion the spaces and times of all aspects of interaction – social, economic, cultural, physical, ecological” (11).




1. Some have actually been added as well: channels, canals and other modifications to the water have been constructed.

2. It must also be considered as a sort of watery 8 Mile: a compressed environmental justice community, divided by industrial and transit infrastructure, and by municipal borders.


Works Cited

Gandy, Matthew. The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination. MIT Press, 2014.

McCafferty, Michael. “Re: Miami-Illinois place names.” Message to Indiana Historical Bureau. Email 2, 4, 12 Jul. and 19 Nov. 2004. Web 8 May 2016.

Lippert, Charles and Jordan Engel. “The Great Lakes in Ojibwe V2.” Decolonial Atlas 14 Apr. 2015. Web 14 Apr. 2015.

Edwards, Paul N. “Infrastructure and modernity: Force, time, and social organization in the history of sociotechnical systems.” Modernity and Technology (2003): 185-225.

Farmer, Silas. The history of Detroit and Michigan or the metropolis illustrated. 1889.

Mason, Philip P. Michigan highways from Indian trails to expressways; manual to accompany filmstrip. Munson Michigan History Fund 1959.

Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. Psychology Press, 2001.


Image Credits

All maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.


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Recentering Detroit, Part 3: A Jeffersonian Digression


Recentering Detroit is a multipart examination of culture of development in the current city, the ongoing crises and the efforts by residents to define their city, not as a relic of the past to be resurrected or “revitalized,” but a place where people live their lives. This examination will be made within multiple contexts, including race, racism, the complex histories of Detroit, infrastructure and economics. Click to read: Part 1: Against Revitalization.

by Michael Stepniak

As Detroit grew, it annexed the towns and villages around it. The city that exists today grew by gradual annexation. The site Detroitography has a graphic that shows the city’s footprint changing over time. It comes to a halt in 1926.

Just because the borders of the city proper remained static after 1926 does not mean Detroit did not grow. It filled up and spilled far out into suburbia and the countryside, in a process of development that is still ongoing.1

It took two centuries after European contact for Detroit to become a big city. It happened slowly at first, starting from Cadillac’s landing and a fort that measured a single arpent. The city’s population and area growth accelerated over the decades, until it wasn’t just the city proper, but an entire metropolis of many people and governments.

This is not a process that can be replicated. Detroit isn’t downtown anymore. It is a big, messy city surrounded by a big, messy metro area (Fig. 1). The neighborhoods around downtown are not at the center, and the city limits are not the periphery. The last time we tried this, it took a long time, and Detroit was undeveloped. Now, the geography of Southeastern Michigan has changed: the processes of urbanization are uneven, not linear, and not springing from the radial arms of downtown. The city needs to be connected within itself and with the suburbs at multiple points, not an all-roads-lead-to-downtown system.


Figure 1: The Big, Messy Metropolis. Data Attribution: U.S. Census, 2013 ACM 5-year estimates

Bill Hubbard begins “American Boundaries: The Nation, The States, The Rectangular Survey” with an anecdote. Hubbard visits the Michigan Museum of Surveying in Lansing. At the gift shop is a poster of Mt. Rushmore that is captioned “Three Surveyors and the Other Guy.” Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were all surveyors, a fact that, as Hubbard notes, undoubtedly informed their visions for the country. Hubbard writes that the poster hints “that the United States is a nation formed by surveyors, people whose chief task is marking borderlines upon the land that cleanly apportion its surface into discrete parcels, each destined to be the sole property of some identifiable person, entity or government.” This parcel is called a cadastre: “a perfect, no-conflicts allotment of the earth’s surface – not just on maps but upon the land” (Hubbard ix).

Hubbard writes of two cultural conditions that existed in the United States soon after independence. The first was a feeling that North America was a blank slate, and that Americans were its masters.2 The second was a reaction to Europe. Hubbard writes: “recent Americans arrived from a Europe where boundaries had seemed as inevitable as facts of nature but drawn to the advantage of the powerful” (x). Most Americans, as British subjects, could never hope to own land. Although the British middle class did exist (Benjamin Franklin came from one such landowning family of non-noble lineage), the largest portions were occupied by those born owning it (Isaacson 5).

Hubbard says that “from the first, we felt impelled to know, with certainty, the exact location of the boundary between ‘what is mine’ and ‘what is somebody else’s’” (x). Land became an instrument of democracy in certain ways. One was the right to vote. In the century following independence, the right to vote was restricted in many states to white male property owners. Under these rules, democracy would be expanded if property was easier for white males to attain. Other aspects of the relationship between land and democracy are that of what to vote for, what to identify with and what issues matter. The point of view that one takes often depends on which side of a border a person is on.

Hubbard writes that “to an American it doesn’t matter, too much, what the provenance of a boundary is. Where else but in the United States could citizens feel an intense identification with entities called Colorado and Wyoming, whose boundaries are mere rectangles… drawn indiscriminately across mountains and plains?” This identification is physical and emotional, as well as practical. Hubbard observes that the things that change when passing through different states: license plates, odd names for familiar things, accents, architecture and so on.3 These are physical and emotional things. There are other things that mater, that signify home (x). A Pennsylvanian driving home from Ohio will notice the land becoming more mountainous, and will feel that sense of home. The Ohioan will likely feel the same when noticing the land becoming flat again.

The practical aspects are the laws that govern the Pennsylvanian and the Ohioan. Despite their proximity and, in many ways, their similarity, Youngstown, OH and Erie, PA identify with their rectangles partly because of the things that matter in their everyday lives: speed limits, highway funding, labor regulations, gasoline taxes and public schools.

Another set of emotions is in play between identity and home within these rectangles. Hubbard writes of seeing it from an airplane or an aerial map: “the great, gridded landscape… It is the quintessential American landscape, characteristic of us, emblematic of qualities we value and aspire to: plainness, sobriety, evenhandedness, evincing “good sense” as we reckon it. It is a landscape daunting in its implacability but, to some of us, both deeply moving and ineffably beautiful” (xi).

Over nearly two and a half centuries, groups of citizens in the United States have fought for an ever-expanded democratic enfranchisement.4 This is a legacy of American leadership before and after the revolution. The leaders of the American Revolution were powerful, landed men. All of them were white, many held other human beings in slavery, were outright rich, and some were perpetrators of Indian genocide. Yet they articulated a vision that took power out of their hands and put it with a larger population.

Because the right to vote was tied not only to being white, but to the ownership of land, land became the method of expanding democracy. Land would not be distributed in large tracts to the wealthy, as was the case in Europe. It would be made available to the general population of white males. Hubbard states:

We Americans decided, even before we were a nation, that unsettled land would not simply be thrown open to claimants to divide up as they chose, nor would the land be offered up for sale to the highest bidder. Instead, the national government would hold the land in trust for all the people, survey it into rectangular parcels, and make those parcels available to individuals and families (xii).

Hubbard writes that “to the originators of this Rectangular Survey, the system was merely an efficient, foolproof way of apportioning the public lands” (xii). It was more than that to Thomas Jefferson. This was an opportunity for the expansion of democracy, of a dissemination of power from the hands of the few to the many. Giving power to people had never happened in such a manner or on such a scale. It is unlikely that it will happen again. As Hubbard says,

Underlying the whole story is the very idea of lands being held in trust as public domain. At the time of our nation’s independence, all of its land, from the Atlantic west to the Mississippi, was under the jurisdiction of the thirteen new states… Gradually the idea arose that lands not yet settled should be held by the national government, parceled out to settlers, and eventually formed into new states… (xii)

The Rectangular Survey as a basis for the formation of new democratic states completed the idea of land as an instrument of democracy. Rather than exert colonial-style control over American territories, American leadership decided to put democratic power squarely with Americans. They knew, as rich businessmen, slave holders and entrepreneurs, that offering power to an ever-expanding number of citizens would often run counter to their interests. Still they put forth this vision of America and its democracy.

Jefferson was a person who thought in big, abstract strokes of idealism and genius.5 He was never able to scale his ideas down from ideal to practical application. He thought slavery was an extreme evil, yet he held slaves. He did a number of things along these lines. His position versus his actions regarding slavery extended to his actual practices as a slave holder. Jefferson had a strong belief that slaves at Monticello should not be abused or overworked, but since he was in debt and liked to spend money, he left discipline to an overseer and just didn’t inquire too much (Ellis 179). He believed that an agrarian life was the virtuous way. Yet he spent a good portion of his life in big cities from New York to Paris. He despised cities for their dirty factories, but upon returning home from New York, he had become fascinated and impressed by one such facility. Jefferson designed and built a nail factory on the plantation grounds, but did so out of sight of the main house (Ellis 168). Jefferson had an inability to integrate his big ideas and idealism with practicality. When he chose to be practical, he often did so without morality or empathy for others. It was almost inevitable that his proposals for the rectangular survey of America would be rejected. That said, Jefferson’s idea and ideals survived initial rejection and carried through into the more practical, real world application that resulted.

In 1784, Jefferson presented his idea for the survey of land, the creation of new states, and the spread of democracy across the continent. Jefferson’s initial concept was based on a new system of measurement that he had devised, similar to his successful effort to decimalize currency. The first and biggest new unit was that of a state: Jefferson’s states would be largely rectangular, and measure two degrees latitude from north to south, or 120 nautical miles (which Jefferson called Geographical Miles) (Hubbard 111).

The geographical mile became the basis for Jefferson’s new measurement system, an attempt to decimalize land in the new United States. His new principal unit of measurement was the Hundred. A Hundred would be a grid of 100 blocks of one square mile each, or ten miles per side. Each new state would measure twelve Hundreds from north to south, and be gridded east to west to fill out the new borders (Hubbard 183).

A Hundred was too large for a single farmer. Jefferson wanted each Hundred to be divided into, according to Hubbard, “a checkerboard of one hundred lots.” A lot would be one mile per side, or exactly 1,000 acres. Once Hundreds were surveyed, they would be put into squares of nine each called districts, so that four districts would fit perfectly into the north to south state measurement of 120 geographical miles (Hubbard 183).

Jefferson’s ideas for the execution of the survey were detailed and practical, which, coming from a former county surveyor is not surprising. He outlined techniques to be used and the timing of the surveys (Hubbard 187).


Figure 2: Big Data, the First Try. Data generated from the Rectangular Survey used to analyze indigenous plant life in pre-1800, pre-industrial Indiana.

Additionally, Hubbard writes, Jefferson’s plan stated that “as he ran the lines, the Surveyor was required to note the courses of any streams that crossed the line, as well as the positions of features like springs or salt licks that fell near it, and then record those features in his maps” (185). This, with several modifications, was an aspect of Jefferson’s vision that anticipated modern America: this is Big Data, the first try (Fig. 2). When the final survey was conducted, surveyors did record their observations into a grid (or a pre-digital spreadsheet). This data on what the continent was like in the pre-industrial era, from land cover to types of indigenous plant life is still available, has been digitized and is still widely used.

Hubbard writes that in 1784, “Congress took Jefferson’s plan for land disposition under consideration, sent him to Paris, and then soundly defeated it” (186). In 1785, Congress once again, reacting to pressures from the British, Indians and American settlers who were pushing west, took up Jefferson’s plan. This time, rather than rejecting it, they appointed a committee to, as Hubbard puts it, “come up with a course of action the whole assembly could endorse” (187) Hubbard writes that “Certain features of Jefferson’s grand, abstract vision managed to make it into the more modest, tough minded replacement” (187). These “certain features” were among the most radical ideas: the wealthy and powerful would distribute the wealth, power and democratic rights among a larger public, and the first large-scale data collection grid.

When deciding how land would be portioned out, Congress had to contend with issues that Jefferson’s abstract vision did not: conditions on the ground. Lands were ceded or not ceded by Indians, states engaged in border conflicts, parts of newly acquired territories were impossible to defend, and so on. In addition, certain lands were owed to veterans of the Revolutionary War, and as the United States was still a confederacy with no right to impose taxes, the sale of land had to be expedited to pay down war debts (Hubbard 184).

Jefferson’s Hundred was modified in committee into a smaller unit called a township.6 Each township would be a square, seven miles per side, divided into 49 one square mile parcels, which were renamed as sections (Hubbard 187). There was debate over how land should be sold, based on differing traditions in the north and south. Southern custom stated that an individual buyer would go to state authorities, purchase land and stake it out himself. In New England, a “proprietor” would purchase and develop a large area and then sell to individuals. Neither side wanted the other’s custom to dominate, so in the end they compromised and a checkerboard of both customs was decided upon (Hubbard 213).


Figure 3: The end product: 36 square mile townships.

At the time, it had been decided that within each township, the center square would be reserved for the maintenance of public schools, and that each corner would be reserved for the Federal Government. Near the end of the committee’s process, the 49 square mile township was changed to a six mile sided square of 36 square miles (Fig. 3). The public school’s square was shifted off center, as the new township had no center square. The Federal Government’s reserved squares were brought in from the corners, so as to deprive the government of four contiguous square miles at the intersection of townships. Congress re-adopted Jefferson’s terminology of lots, replacing sections, and then later again decided to use sections after all, which continues to this day (Hubbard 193).

Jefferson’s vision, beyond democracy, the decentralization of power and wealth, and the collection of data was of an agrarian society of simple farmers, spread out thinly, so that each family or individual could live off their own land. His plan called for farmers to purchase lots of one square mile, which is far more than needed so as to rarely see a neighbor. Once again, practicality struck against him. The United States needed to raise funds, and despite favorable financing terms, sections were not selling fast enough. The method of subdivision of sections began evolving. In 1800, the half-section was introduced (320 acres), and in 1805, quarter-sections became available (160 acres). Soon after followed the half-quarter (80 acres) and the quarter-quarter (40 acres). Additionally in 1805, Congress decided that a section could only be divided along perpendicular lines (Hubbard 275). All this was done to make the sale of land more attractive and possible. Jefferson’s dream of spreading democracy was facilitated by the United States government’s need for revenue.

Because the Earth is a curved surface, maps must be projected. In order to accomplish this, a series of Meridians (lines of longitude) and Baselines (lines of latitude) were drawn across various regions. Daniel Jacobson writes: “for surveyors the greatest task was the delineation on the land of the Principal Meridian and Base Line” (131). Delayed by the War of 1812, the survey of Michigan began in 1815. The Michigan Meridian was defined by lands ceded by the United States government to the Anishinaabe. The Base Line was set by Jared Mansfield, the Surveyor General of the United States, who said it should “run a little north of Detroit” (Jacobson 132). The Baseline was set eight miles north of the city center along Woodward Avenue from where Michigan Avenue, or “zero mile” begins. When metropolitan Detroit adopted its “Mile Road System,” it became known as 8 Mile Road.

The superimposition of the Rectangular Survey of a grid, irrespective of the land, upon the American West changed everything.7 It accomplished Jefferson’s vision of the decentralization of power and the spread of democracy, to a point. With that superimposition came borders, and almost immediately with the creation of these borders, came competition, segregation, identity politics, differences of law and justice, and the accumulation of wealth within some borders at the expense of those who lived within another set of borders.

The placement of a political border is arbitrary, but the ecology of the border is not. The logic and ideology that led to the creation of a border may or may not be realized. Functionally, borders exist to divide one thing from another, and have racial, cultural and economic implications. 8 Mile Road is more than the border between Detroit and the northern suburbs. It is a wide boulevard occupied by speeding cars and semi trucks. It is physically difficult and at times dangerous to cross on foot. It is a big piece of infrastructure. More than a political border, it is a physical boundary. It is not quite a mountain, but more like a river with a dangerously fast current. In addition to these characteristics, it is locally infamous enough that the normally dignified Detroit Historical Society posts the following description of the road:

Along its most impoverished sections, Eight Mile Road has, for several decades, been a dangerous strip of suffering businesses and broken windows. It’s still a main artery for commuters and area residents – more than 1,500 businesses call Eight Mile home. However, it’s also not uncommon to find prostitutes, strip clubs and junkies patrolling the street at all hours.

There is animosity between residents on both sides of the border, due to racism, classism and the heavily politicized nature of the space.8

Peter Morris, writing of the Montana-Alberta border, states that “Canada’s own potent regionalism, combined with everyday cross-border interaction with neighboring states to the south, blurs the transnational divide into what might be described as a series of borderlands,” but also notes that U.S. Citizens are more likely to refer to the border as an “imaginary line,” while Canadians are “more sensitive to the significance of the 49th parallel as a line of cultural and economic defense” (469).

When Hubbard writes of the wonder of an individual identifying with a rectangle, this is what he is talking about. The border takes on meanings of pride, competition, and often hate. Within metropolitan Detroit, residents are likely to identify with an intersection as well as their municipality. On both sides of 8 Mile Road, residents are likely to give their intersections as part of their identity, for example: “8 Mile and Gratiot.” This intersection takes on different racial and class meanings depending on which side of 8 Mile they are on.



1. And will continue, if suburban leader L. Brooks Patterson has his way. The Oakland County executive wrote a letter that is displayed on the County website titled “Sprawl, Schmall… Give Me More Development.”

2. This blank slate idea has found new life in pro-gentrification narratives of urban revitalization in many cities, but especially in Detroit. This idea of tabula rasa, used to displace American Indian tribes (and their ideas, culture and narratives) by white American settlers, is still used to displace long-term, low-income and minority residents in Detroit, Bushwick and other cities across the country. Black residents, businesses, culture and narratives are disproportionately targeted, marginalized and displaced by the blank slate crowd.

3. In Michigan, there is a sense of relief when crossing the state line after not getting a speeding ticket in Ohio.

4. Expansion of voting rights began almost immediately, as white males fought against the property-owning laws.

5. For an excellent discussion of “The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” see the cited work by Ellis, American Sphinx.

6. This process may seem mundane, but it illustrates the way in which the very process of democratizing the land was very, very democratic.

7. Spaces of superimposition continue down to a micro-scale, from the big survey to a subdivision.

8. Many residents of the northern suburbs brag that they “haven’t been across 8 Mile in years” as a point of pride


.Works Cited

Hubbard, Bill. American boundaries: the nation, the states, the rectangular survey. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: the character of Thomas Jefferson. Knopf, 1997.

Jacobson, Daniel. “Michigan Meridian and Base Line: A Teaching Formulation for the Secondary School.” Journal of Geography 87.4 (1988): 131-140.

Detroit Historical Society. “8 Mile Road.” Encyclopedia of Detroit. Detroit Historical Society Web 6 May 2016.

Morris, Peter S. “Regional Ideas and the Montana-Alberta Borderlands.” Geographical Review 89.4 (1999): 460-490.


Image Credits

Lindsey, Alton A., William B. Crankshaw, and Syed A. Qadir. “Soil relations and distribution map of the vegetation of presettlement Indiana.” Botanical Gazette (1965): 155-163.

U.S Department of the Interior. Township Grid. Bureau of Land Management. Web. 8 August 2016.

All other maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.



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Recentering Detroit, Part 2: The French Connection


Recentering Detroit is a multipart examination of culture of development in the current city, the ongoing crises and the efforts by residents to define their city, not as a relic of the past to be resurrected or “revitalized,” but a place where people live their lives. This examination will be made within multiple contexts, including race, racism, the complex histories of Detroit, infrastructure and economics. Click to read: Part 1: Against Revitalization.

by Michael Stepniak

The last time Detroit had 700,000 people or less, as it does today, was most likely in 1913 or 1914 (Detroit Public Schools 170). At that point, the city was booming, with another 1.3 million people on the way over the next 40 years. Downtown, a century ago, was still financially and culturally central, if not geographically. Revitalization, with its ideals of restoring the city to its former self raises questions of methods and values attached to population growth.

Detroit grew at a gradual rate for the first two centuries after European contact. The period over which the city grew from a population of 700,000 to its peak in the 1950s of just under 2 million was a time of extraordinary, never-to-be-repeated events. How much value does revitalization place on population growth?1 If population growth is a key goal, then why focus on downtown instead of the places where people live? If population growth is not prioritized, how is this squared with goals of returning the city to its former self? Above all, who is valued?2

The circumstances facing today’s revitalizers are far different from those residents, workers, entrepreneurs and power-brokers who propelled the city in 1920. Back then, downtown was at the core of something. Today, the city’s and the region’s people live in dense and not-so-dense pockets scattered across huge geographies of the city proper and the metropolitan area. The invention of the assembly line is not going to happen again, and there will not be a need for hundreds of thousands of high-wage unskilled laborers. This points to a particular logic. Revitalization does not require city-wide or regional population growth. It requires population growth within a high-rent district with attractive, historic architecture that provides “character.” This means the 7.2. It also means that higher value has been placed on people who will move to the city than those who live there now.

The period of Detroit’s rambunctious industrial growth was brief. The city’s ongoing job and population losses have lasted longer than its boomtown period. Revitalization culture is on view of the city that primarily serves a high-income demographic and promises a trickle-down (or trickle-outward) effect. It is an emotional and intellectual space in which the historic city core is given an outsized value. This view negates other histories of Detroit, and assumes fallowness in the places where most people live. There are other ways of viewing the city, and other periods in time to view it through.

On July 24th, 1701, after camping on Grosse Isle the previous night, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac came ashore at what is now Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit. Southeastern Michigan was a well-traveled crossroads for Native American traders. Cadillac came with 25 canoes filled with 100 Frenchmen and 100 Indians. They built a fort on the site that measured approximately 192 by 192 feet, with wooden walls twelve feet high (Burton 86).

Cadillac fought with his colony company, who intrigued against him in the court of Louis XIV and with the Naval Secretary, Count Pontchartrain, for whom the original colony was named: the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Burton 87). Cadillac was commandant, with interruptions until 1710. His ambition was that Detroit should become a city. Rivals for the lucrative beaver trade with greater influence in Paris and Quebec fought him on this, and because of his strategies to grow Detroit by offering incentives to multiple Indian nations and Canadians to settle in villages near the fort., actively encouraging mixed Indian and French marriages, and giving Indians the same run of the fort during the daylight hours as white settlers (Burton 90-91). Cadillac belived in this way Detroit could grow in population and importance as a center of trade to rival older, more established settlements . In 1710, his enemies won and Cadillac lost control of Detroit. As a consolation, he was appointed governor of Louisiana (Burton 91).


Figure 1: Cadillac’s Landing: Negative Space

There is the wild, the agrarian and the urban (Lefebvre 7). In Detroit, the urban and the agrarian grew together. A new farm is the building of one thing and the lessening of another, as was Cadillac’s landing (figs. 1, 2 & 3). Many maps show cities, highways and railroads: these are human constructions. Land is often defined by water, so water too makes it onto the map. Glance at a map of Ohio or Michigan and you will see these features. Drive through the country roads of these same states and you will see farms all around. What if the perspective were changed, hiding the cities and showing the farms?


Figure 2: A growing Detroit, blurry lines between agrarian, urban and industrial forms

Sketching agrarian landscapes has been a popular artform. Mapping agrarian spaces is an industry-specific thing. Yet the agrarian and the urban are closely connected. Clarence M. Burton writes “the first settlers were the French farmers, and they brought with them… the idea of the Frenchmens’ ‘water lot’ and introduced it here.” The “Ribbon Farm” was a tract of land with a frontage of several arpents, or French acres, on a fresh water source that ran back as far as was permitted (Vol 2 1268).


Figre 3: Urbanization process moves outside the city, agrarian forms begin again.

Cadillac’s landing, the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, was negative space in the agrarian environment, just as the agrarian was negative space in the wilderness.

Detroit Historical Ribbon Farms

Figure 4: Ribbon Farms in Detroit

When Cadillac arrived in Louisiana in 1713, he came to a familiar place. Here too, Count Pontchartrain had a namesake. In this case it was the brackish lake of New Orleans. The French had brough the ribbon far and the arpent here, too. New Orleans would not be founded for another five years. Baton Rouge was another century away, but soon the entire lower Mississippi would be covered in ribbon farms. The notable difference in Louisiana was that these farms were large-scale, industrial slave plantations (figs. 4 & 5).


Figure 5: Ribbon-style slave plantations on the lower Mississippi River.

Detroit is a city whose structure was determined by the non-negotiable spaces of the wetlands and the highground, and the Indians who laid down trails that became its arterial roads, but New Orleans is a city founded on the idea of negotiating with the water.3

After the human disaster of Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans revitalization culture focused, in a manner similar to Detroit’s downtown, on the French Quarter (Gladstone 166). As Detroit is not downtown, New Orleans is not the French Quarter. It is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, but it has not been the center of the city for a long time. As with Detroit’s bankruptcy, revitalization culture swept into New Orleans, and like Detroit, the same problems had existed on the ground for decades: poverty, racism, virtually nonexistent or crumbling infrastructure and violence.

On a larger geographic scale is Cancer Alley, the petrochemical corridor that lies along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. If the Detroit River as the city’s original highway, the Mississippi River is a superhighway times a thousand that carries the things that make modernity possible on a national and global scale.

Over 140 petrochemical and industrial facilities and ports operate in the 80 mile corridor, coexisting with over 1 million people, not including New Orleans (Miscrach and Orff). Plants have exploded. Contamination of soil and water has forced the abandonment of entire towns, such as the historic black communities of Wallace and Morrisonville (Gaylord 775).


Figure 6. Data attribution: U.S. Census, 2013 ACS 5 year estimates.


Figure 7. Data attribution: U.S. Census, 2013 ACS 5 year estimates.

As in Detroit, there are divisions of race and class in Cancer Alley. Often the poorest communities, and the ones with the highest black populations are those that live right next to the petrochemical facilities (figs. 6 & 7). The fact that these communities have the lowest income suggest that they are not reaping the economic benefits of the middle class jobs provided by industry. The whiter, higher income communities tend to live at a safer distance.

Detroit and its French connections in New Orleans and Cancer Alley are all places of non-negotiable spaces. On Detroit’s norther border, it is the giant infrastructure of 8 Mile Road. In New Orleans it is the water. In Cancer Alley it is the petrochemical industrial sites, some of which are bigger than downtown, and most of which are larger than the French Quarter: impenetrable barriers that, even if they were demolished tomorrow, would be contaminated indefinitely, depending on political will and the bioavailability of the compounds in the soil (EPA 1; Maletić et al. 55).4 These places are the centers of urban relationships and actions for their respective regions, yet the people live there are not acknowledged, and priority is placed on serving and attracting others.



1. Lester Graham, in the 2014 Michigan Radio Article Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan Not Like Past Mayors quotes Duggan, who says that population growth “governs every single decision we make. We do not have a future if we don’t start growing.”

2. Mayor Duggan has worked to restore city services in the neighborhoods,but problems persist.

3. There will be a full discussion on the formation of Detroit’s infrastructure around its water in a later section.

4. The EPA estimates that bioremediation (method that does the least amount of further damage to the environment by using special plants and methods to clean the soil) may take from several years to decades, if the source contaminant is removed. This does nothing for groundwater, which the EPA, in a 1993 seminar publication Wellhead Protection: A Guide for Small Communities stated may be impossible.


Works Cited

Detroit Public Schools. “Education in Detroit 1916.” Department of Superintendence, National Education Association 1916.

Burton, Clarence Monroe, William Stocking, and Gordon K. Miller. The City of Detroit,Michigan, 1701-1922. Vol. 1. The SJ Clarke publishing company, 1922.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. U of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Burton, Clarence Monroe, William Stocking, and Gordon K. Miller. The City of Detroit,Michigan, 1701-1922. Vol. 2. The SJ Clarke publishing company, 1922.

Gladstone, David, and Jolie Préau. “Gentrification in tourist cities: evidence from New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina.” Housing Policy Debate 19.1 (2008): 137-175.

Misrach, Richard, and Kate Orff. Petrochemical America. 2014.

Gaylord, Clarice E., and Geraldine W. Twitty. “Protecting Endangered Communities.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 21 (1993): 771.

Environmental Protection Agency. “A Citizen’s Guide to Monitored Natural Attenuation” EPA 2012. Web 6 May 2016

Maletić, Snežana, Božo Dalmacija, and Srđan Rončević. Petroleum Hydrocarbon Biodegradability in Soil–Implications for Bioremediation. Edited by VladimirKutcherov 2013.


Image Credits

Aaron Greely, D. Plan of Private Claims in Michigan Territory. Detroit Historical Society. 1810.

Persac, Marie Adrien, Norman, Benjamin Moore, J.H. Colton & Co. Norman’s Chart of the Lower Mississippi River. Library of Congress. 1858.

All other maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.




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Recentering Detroit, Part 1: Against Revitalization

By Michael Stepniak


Where do people live in Detroit? Where does investment go, and for what?

Revitalization (and its cousins: Revive, Restore, Reinvigorate, and so on), is more than a buzzword in Detroit. It is a culture of memories. It is a romance with a once-prosperous city and its decay. Consider the word “revitalization.” It descends from the Latin re for “again, back, anew, and against,” and vitalitas, for “things pertaining to life.” Combining this last definition of re with vitalitas presents the most accurate definition of revitalization culture in Detroit. A romance with the past and a focus on its return is against the things that pertain to life in the present and future city.

Visually, at the height of its postwar wealth, Detroit was grand. The majesty of its industrial works and its Art Deco skyscrapers is undeniable. The vast, sprawling places in which working class people achieved home ownership, the places in which the middle class grew: these cannot be ignored. The city’s rapid development, industrialization and population explosion, and the physical spaces that were created represent a remarkable period in the city’s history.

The narrative of revitalization employs specific rhetoric: Visions of “former grandeur,” “former prosperity,” and a “return” to these things are embedded in the collective imagination of local politics, development and culture. The motto on the city’s flag is Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus: it will rise from the ashes, we hope for better things. These words were spoken by Father Gabriel Richard, a French priest and local politician after the fire of 1805 burned the city to the ground (Herron 669). Richard’s words have found new life in the local popular vocabulary.1


Woodward’s Plan 

What is the geography of revitalization culture in Detroit? Generally speaking, it is an area of approximately 7.2 square miles, known as “downtown,” “greater downtown,” and more recently, “The 7.2” (7.2 SQ MI). This geographic understanding of Detroit also traces back to the 1805 fire. In 1806, judge Augustus Woodward designed a new city, based on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. (Moore 120). Much of Woodward’s plan was discarded, but it was largely adopted within the one square mile city core. A century after Woodward, the rapidly growing metropolis adopted a City Beautiful plan, and greater downtown became a place of French-style architecture, wide boulevards and green spaces (Bluestone 246). This is the physical geography that revitalization visits with its rhetoric.

How does revitalization culture effect planning? Two centuries after Woodward, planning language and aims have not adapted to the new realities of a changing Detroit. Planners and city-saving developers operate under the premise that Detroit has a core, and that it is Woodward’s downtown. The reality is that Detroit proper is 138 square miles, and nearly its entire population resides outside of the 7.2. An additional layer is that Detroit is now a metropolis: 3.6 million of the metro area’s 4.3 million residents live outside of the city limits. Woodward’s core is the city center in imagination only. Language commonly used by residents is telling: every outside of greater downtown is known as “the neighborhoods.”

Detroit Future City (DFC) is the latest plan, the de facto master plan. Unlike many previous plans, it attempts to acknowledge the people and the existing city. DFC does engage with communities and structures, but it does not confront them. It cannot get away from its mission of revitalization. The document begins with the prosperous industrial postwar city, skips to the mess it is today, and moves forward towards revival, allocating the bulk of initiatives, and therefore funding, to the greater downtown area. One stark example of its non-confrontational tone is that in 761 pages, the word “racism” is not used once, but the word “revitalization” appears dozens of times.

It is impossible to have a serious discussion about Detroit, its past, present or future, without discussing race and racism. It is one of the things that has shaped the city’s spaces and continues to do so. Racism is one of the most important problems facing any person, group or government who hopes to re-plan the city.

DFC also fails spatially. DFC held many community meetings during the process of crafting the plan and its presentation to the public. Yet in one meeting in 2013 a DFC representative stated that the plan for the neighborhoods near 8 Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue was to “let them lie fallow.” DFC is proposing almost no investment for the outermost neighborhoods. This, despite that these neighborhoods are among the city’s most densely populated.

Revitalization culture is a romantic view of Detroit in the mid-20th century: a city of 2 million people, giant factories, prosperous workers, beautiful parks and wide boulevards, personified by legends from Augustus Woodward to Henry Ford. It lives up to its motto and has risen from the ashes. This view idealizes a period that was far from ideal. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the 1943 race rebellion, red-lining, union battles and riots such as the Ford Massacre and the Battle of the Overpass, systematic union discrimination against black workers: all this and more took place during this time in the city’s history.2 This is nostalgia expressed as a narrative that drives development within a small geography that is no longer central in a meaningful way to a large proportion of the population.

White racism against blacks by individuals, governments, unions, banks and systems has been well documented as a destructive force in Detroit, as have automation, globalization, and government-subsidized suburban development.3 Nostalgia refuses to confront these issues. It selectively ignores the Detroit that came before the industrial city. Post-European Detroit has three centuries of history under the rule of three countries. As a region, it has been inhabited for 8,000 years (Roberts 252). There have been many incarnations of this place, from the Mississippians to the Mississauga, to the French, British and Americans. No doubt there will be many more.4

The development crowd asks “how can we revitalize Detroit?” and answers its question as follows: “By restoring its former grandeur, with a focus on the historic city center, which is our best chance to rebuild a tax base” (Neavling). There must be an opposing question that rejects the assumptions of centrality in downtown and focuses on the places where people live.


Figure 1: Infrastructure in Metro Detroit


Figure 2: Population Density in Metro Detroit, 2013.

At the heart of metropolitan Detroit is 8 Mile Road, a 20 mile long border between the city proper and the northern suburbs (figs.1 & 2). It is the line of demarcation between counties, cities, and school districts. It is a racial, economic and cultural barrier. Stark divisions of race and class exist between the city and the suburbs (figs 3 & 4). 8 Mile Road is the center of the metropolitan areas population, its geography and its conflicts.


Figure 3: Racial Segregation in Metro Detroit, 2013. Darkest Blue: >75% African American, Lightest Blue: <14% African American. African Americans are 14% of Michigan’s population.


Figure 4: Class Segregation in Metro Detroit, 2013.

The border kills democracy, or so it appears. The road itself is not divisive, it is an immense piece of infrastructure and must be seen on those terms as well, while acknowledging its racial, cultural and economic contexts.

“Restoring Detroit” is not an idea that implies evolution. A focus on postwar prosperity does not situate the present, the future, or even the formerly prosperous Detroit within its multiple histories. Postwar Detroit, Woodward’s Detroit, majestic as it was, must be thought of within the context of its racism, its deeper past and the way in which these things are still spatialized.

In Augustus Woodward’s day, what is now downtown was the entire city. Today, metropolitan Detroit covers all or parts of five counties, spanning thousands of square miles. The ideal that has been cemented into revitalization culture ignores that downtown is no longer the center. For the three million residents of the northern suburbs, and a good portion of the 700,000 residents of the city proper, 8 Mile Road is the true center of the region.



1. Examples of “rising from the ashes” rhetoric do not only apply to revitalization, but to recovery from disaster. See Reclaim Detroit’s home base destroyed by fire, by Daniel Bethencourt and Katrease Stafford, Detroit Free Pres, 4 February, 2016. The rhetoric has spread internationally as well, as stories by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Mirror and the International Business Times demonstrate.

2. Thomas Sugrue gives an account of this tumultuous period of extreme growth and discrimination in Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

3. Thomas Sugrue, in his analysis of deindustrialization Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work describes many of these processes, especially those of automation.

4. What will come next?


Works Cited

Herron, Jerry. “Detroit: Disaster Deferred, Disaster in Progress.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007).

7.2 Sq Mi. “7.2 Sq Mi: A Report on Greater Downtown Detroit 2nd Edition.” The Hudson-Webber Foundation 2015.

Moore, Charles. “Augustus Brevoort Woodward: A Citizen of Two Cities.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington DC 4 (1901): 114-127.

Bluestone, Daniel M. “Detroit’s city beautiful and the problem of commerce.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 47.3 (1988): 245-262.

Detroit Future City. “Detroit Future City 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan.” Inland Press. Detroit 2012.

Roberts, Arthur. “Paleo Indian on the North Shore of Lake Ontario.” Archaeology of Eastern North America (1984): 248-265.

Neavling, Steve. “’Bring on more gentrification,’ declares Detroit’s economic development czar.” Motor City Muckracker 16 May 2013.


Image Credits

Map Credit: Augustus Woodward, 1806. Source:

All other maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.

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Let’s Get Real: It’s Our Money

58% taxpayer financed, but it's anti-business to ask for a Community Benefits Agreement?

58% taxpayer financed, but it’s anti-business to ask for a Community Benefits Agreement?

Watching construction workers appear before Detroit City Council, one after another, to advocate for the rezoning of the new Olympia arena development, I worried that it might actually happen. As a former mason tender, I empathize: a few years of steady employment sounds like a dream. The fact is that the arena development will happen. The jobs will be there. At issue is our last chance to extract some concessions out of a very bad deal made by Kevyn Orr.

Detroit City Council is in uncharted territory. They are the first council in a century to represent districts, and they are taking it seriously. Olympia’s original deal with Kevyn Orr contains a non-binding agreement wherein Olympia will hire 30 percent of arena development contractors from within the city proper, 501 percent of arena employees will be Detroiters, the Eddystone Hotel will be restored, and 20 percent of apartments will be set aside as affordable housing. Detroit City Council wants a binding Community Benefits Agreement.

If it is Olympia’s intent to do right by the city, why is it so hard to put it on paper? The Detroit Free Press quotes Council President Brenda Jones: “I have been here 10 years. I have see trust come and go. It’s not that I don’t trust you… Chris Ilitch; it’s not that I don’t trust Mr. (Mike) Ilitch. What I do trust is seeing something in writing.”

Enter The Detroit News, sounding like shrill racist shills: “Council members are ignoring some facts about Detroit’s workforce. Just 12 percent of city residents have college degrees, according to the U.S. census bureau, and just 77 percent have high school diplomas.” Uh-huh. I barely passed high school and managed to keep jobs in restaurants and construction for years before I went to college. These are the jobs that make up the bulk of those within the arena development: unskilled labor, concessions, maintenance, etc. Go home, Detroit News. You’re drunk.

Tom Walsh writes a similar opinion for The Detroit Free Press (which was refuted by the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board). Like his counterparts at the News, Walsh only uses facts when they fit his agenda, and is insulting from the get-go. His title is “Uh-oh: Is Detroit City Council reverting to bad habits?” Let’s get real. This development is 58 percent publicly funded. The Detroit City Council is representing the interests of the public, and if they asked for a complete start-from-scratch deal they would not be out of line.

Welcome back to democracy. I know the EFM was fun for some people, but hopefully the gravy train is over. We need to stop giving millions of dollars of taxpayer money to billionaires and giant corporations who will tell us to be thankful that they created a few hundred $9 per hour jobs.

On that note, I still love hockey. Let’s Go Red Wings!

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A Few Hours In Mt. Clemens

These Guys

These Guys

Last week, I had an errand to run in Mt. Clemens. I completed my task ahead of schedule and took the opportunity to take a walk around town. Mt. Clemens is a fascinating place. Low-income and high-income housing exists on the same streets. National chains have not taken over the town. Factories still make things. There is a giant jail. I have all sorts of policy-related thoughts. Instead, here are a bunch of pictures from a pretty interesting place.




Hackel's Hotel

Hackel’s Hotel

This is close to where my walk began. I could write all sorts of things about criminalization of poverty, nonviolent offenders, sentencing guidelines, the insane degree to which black men are imprisoned, but I will do that later. For now, here it is: a giant jail.






The Axalta Coating Systems (formerly DuPont) paint factory

The Axalta Coating Systems (formerly DuPont) paint factory

I have to wonder why this factory requires such a huge lawn. That said, I will not ruminate further on zoning ordinances that may or may not be responsible, and just be happy that 500 people still have jobs making paint.





That is one bad ride.

That is one bad ride.

I felt so… purely Michigan when I saw this. It was as if I were part of something that were timeless, and confined to two specific peninsulas.






An Amazing Sign.

An Amazing Sign.

If anyone is wondering why I included this, just zoom in and look at this guy! It is enough to make one want a mustache. On a serious note, I had been walking for approximately 15 minutes, and this was the second independent haircare facility that I saw. In the middle of a suburbia dominated by chain haircut joints and salons, it was an encouraging sight.






transmissions, anyone?

transmissions, anyone?

Precision Transmission Repair has been here for 32 years (Thanks, Google). It looks like business is still booming.






wow. what a cool house.

wow. what a cool house.

To reiterate: wow, what a cool house.









Downtown Mt. Clemens

Downtown Mt. Clemens

Downtown Mt. Clemens is a bit more crowded at night. It is enjoyable to walk around and essentially have it to yourself during the day.








A clock!

A clock!

This reminds me of a particularly (wonderfully, hilariously) cynical professor I had while studying for my undergrad in Urban Studies at Wayne State University. He always told a story in which he was hired as an urban design consultant by a small town in Pennsylvania. He designed a village square with a clock in it. The clock, in particular was well-received by the city fathers. He  would say:

Consulting. That’s where the money is. Don’t worry. You all will do fine. You will get jobs. Build ’em a clock and send ’em a bill!

Ah, those heady days of dreams and idealism.



Nice paint job.

Nice paint job.

This car had spray paint all over it. What’s more, it appears that this was not an act of vandalism, but of art. What a fun time that must have been!








Heading home.

Heading home.

After a fun time, a fish sandwich with beer, and some much-needed exercise, it was time to go home. It is curious how a simple trip to the suburbs can seem like an adventure. In addition, it has occurred to me that I may not be as humorous or fun as I think I am in this post. Perhaps I should get back to policy and design?

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Detroit Future City: The Economic Growth Element examined

Detroit Future City is the product of a 24 month effort wherein scarce resources were expended. It is the result of the work of many individuals. In order to give it its due, it will be examined in installments, beginning with the first chapter of the planning elements, The Economic Growth Element.

In his most famous book review, Ambrose Bierce wrote a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Detroit Future City (DFC) deserves better. Upon delving into its 340-odd pages, I did chortle a bit while ruminating on the pleasures of being Bierce. Of course, it was then time to read it. Much of DFC is can be safely termed as “good.” Even so, there are assumptions that are questionable. Ideas are presented that raise eyebrows. Most importantly, there are policy recommendations that must be challenged.

Districts and Pillars

Detroit's checkerboard of assets

Detroit’s checkerboard of assets

The framework for economic growth as presented consists of seven “primary employment districts and four “key economic growth pillars.” The identified districts are downtown, midtown, McNichols, Dequindre-Eastern Market, Corktown, and Mt. Elliot. The pillars are local entrepreneurship, educational and medical (eds & meds), industrial, and digital/creative.

Recognizing the diversification of Detroit’s economy as an imperative and then encouraging agglomeration economies within the city limits is common-sensical. Detroit is a city with assets; this is clear. Much of what is recommended by DFC is de-regulation and insertion of helpful regulations to stimulate the private sector, including small business. In particular, there is a focus on Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs). DFC posits a strategy regarding MBEs: create neighborhood incubators where services and expertise in areas such as accounts receivable and contract negotiation are exchanged with and linked to small business owners. The implementation of these incubators is possibly the most exciting idea in the chapter; no particulars of their inception are included. There are Detroiters young and old who have, in their dreams, concocted plans they see no possibility of coming to fruition. Physical space for service exchange and the stimulation of MBEs merits policy crafted on its behalf.

Detroit: the independent variable

The most disquieting notion put forth by the chapter is that our conventional wisdom with regards to Detroit Public Schools (DPS) may be a stumbling block. The authors write: “there is little evidence for the oft-stated claim that ‘Detroit can’t fix its economy until it fixes K-12.'” Some variant of this little gem is indeed oft-stated and rarely questioned. The data presented by the framers would seem to be at odds with this: in the last decade the percentage of jobs in the the city held by residents has decreased from 42% to 30%. According to DFC,

  • A Detroiter with a two-year college degree is 50% more likely to live in poverty than the average American with only a high school degree
  • A Detroiter with a four-year degree is more likely to live in poverty than the average American with a two-year degree.
  • if every working-age Detroiter invested in a two-year degree, the poverty rate in this group would still be almost 21% higher than overall poverty rates in 70% of U.S. cities

DFC refers to this imbalance as “inequity even with education.” This term is appropriate, but the “why” of this remains unasked. Despite the resources available, these statistics are presented with no analysis. The numbers may appear to bolster the claim that the chapter makes that job creation deserves higher priority than K-12, but numbers do not speak for themselves. That there are too few jobs in Detroit has not gone unnoticed. Consider this hypothesis: Individuals living in areas in which K-12 is meeting benchmarks are less likely to live in poverty than individuals who do not. If we identify our dependent variable as “poverty,” there are a host of possible independent variables, including jobs, K-12, high school and college diplomas, race and ethnicity, gender and sex, and access to transit. Whatever the equation, it cannot be that “Detroit” is made to be the independent variable. Conditions exist within the city limits, but it is the conditions themselves that must be explored.


Mapping bachelor’s degrees in Detroit

Some numbers to consider are that almost 23% of adults over 25 within the city hold no high school diploma; 33% have a high school degree but no college experience. Only 7% have completed a bachelor’s program and 5% have gone on to complete a graduate program. These numbers, like the ones presented by the DFC to not constitute an analysis, but they are fodder for investigation. It should remain a suspicion that K-12 is probably not something that can be sat on while Detroiters wait for the private sector to work its magic.

Transit is an economic issue.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

Other than K-12, the most important issue is barely addressed is transit. Spatial mismatch separates many city-dwellers from economic opportunity. Of the 253 thousand households in the city, 119 thousand have no workers. 44 thousands of these non-working households have no vehicle available. Of the 100 thousand or so households that are supported by a single worker, 14 thousand have no access to a car. It is also worth noting that over 27 thousand households have two workers, and over eight thousand of these have only one car. The questions that DFC should and did not ask are these: where are the Detroiters, and where are the jobs? Much of the population, in order to fill the job openings prescribed by the authors will need reliable, safe transit.

DFC recommends light rail, BRT and reliable local bus service, but as long-term strategies. In the short-term, public-private ventures in the shuttle-bus businesses are to be encouraged.

Darius and Barbara

The first page of The Economic Growth Element tells the tale of Darius and Barbara, a working class couple on the Northwest side. They have had a rough time. Darius is laid off and needs the car to care for the children. Barbara works in the suburbs. However, they have stuck it out over the past decade and now it is 2020. Detroit is a different place. Darius has found work and the whole family rides the BRT everywhere. They live and work in the city and are quite the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, albeit with a dual income. The more realistic outcome of this is that if they have school-age children, Darius has marketable skills, and Barbara has a job in the suburbs, then that is exactly where they are headed: towards economic freedom and better K-12. Like the DPS, transit is a factor that needs to be addressed now.


The Economic Growth Element is at once stimulating and unsatisfying. At a DFC open house on January 29th, Charles Cross, a senior research and design fellow at University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture had this to say:

This is just a framework; it’s a guide for decision making. It’s not a master plan. What it does tells an overall idea of hey, here’s the existing conditions on the ground today… it creates almost a buffet that community members and leaders can pick from that they think will work best in their community.

Mr. Cross’s words were reassuring. DFC is an appealing document on the whole, and the Economic Growth Element is a good satellite’s view of our circumstances and possible avenues for future action.

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