Thursday, May 05, 2005

Nature's Metropolis

Detroit. Robert Fishman gave a lecture on the city this semester during which he showed a slide of a residential street in the Motor City that was indistinguishable from an image of a 75 year-old rural road. A two-story house, slightly overgrown shrubs, somewhat sagging porch roof, and unimproved land behind and to either side of the house. But this was in what used to be the country's fourth largest city (now 9th or so). It is almost as if nature is reclaiming the city of Detroit.

(UPDATE: Detroit has now fallen to the 11th largest city and 5th largest metro area.)

As people discuss city government (too big and bloated, they say), so it is with the geography of Detroit. The city has about 950,000 residents (and falling) and about 138 square miles within its boundaries. There is nary a walkable neighborhood in what used to be called the "City of Homes." The myriad problems of the city are compounded by its sprawling urban form. The city itself is sprawling.

In an article I am writing, I argue that the problem of urban space in Detroit -- and more specifically, the division that Eight Mile Rd. represents -- goes back to the era of annexation. From 1916 to 1926, Detroit nearly tripled its size (to more or less its current boundaries) chiefly due to real estate speculation.

The city, you will recall, was in an unprecedented economic boom due to growth in industrial production, number one being automobiles. Many people were moving to the city from elsewhere for jobs and even more were moving from inside the city to the city's fringe to escape the chaos of the urban core. This demand for detached single family houses was anticipated by real estate developers who bought up farmland and subdivided it for resale. In Detroit's case, they would provide improvements such as graded roads, sidewalks, and even a water system to attract people.

When residents moved, they would call for annexation into the city, at times being prompted by the developers. They wanted more city services like better water, sewer, and paved roads, not just gravel. Developers wanted to rid themselves of responsibility for upkeep and to move the ring of demand farther out. The residents would vote to annex, and the city of Detroit would have to pick up the tab for more services. In 1923 the city got into a serious financial bind because they did not have enough revenue to cover their expenses and they had borrowed to their limit through bond issues. John C. Lodge and the city controller called for an end to annexations, but the outward movement kept apace.

In 1926 there was a state legislative amendment (which I'm still researching) making more annexation almost impossible for Detroit. From then on there were no more annexations, though the city's population continued to grow for another 30 years. Now that the city is under a million residents, it has become a major obstacle to revitalize neighborhoods because they are so desolate and spread out. Detroit has never been a dense city in the 20th century and that lack of density will continue to stifle recovery.

But I'll still go there for baseball games.


Blogger accidentalactivist said...

That should read, of course, "never was a dense city in the twentieth century." I frequently forget we're several years into the next one.

11:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home