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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