A Brief History of Detroit: Migration, Manufacturing, Memory

Last Saturday, I gave a talk at Contested Spaces, a collaborative course taught by Ana María León (University of Michigan), Tessa Paneth-Pollak (Michigan State University), and Olga Touloumi (Bard College) where they investigate how architecture intersects with race, class, and gender. The Saturday session where I gave my talk was part of the final workshop for the course, which focused on the contested spaces of Detroit. My talk, "A Brief History of Detroit: Migration, Manufacturing, Memory," attempted to convey a few broad themes in Detroit's history that have contributed to the city's current struggles. See the full video of the talk here or read the transcript below.

In July 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy to address its overwhelming $20 billion debt. The filing made international news as the city once known as the center of industry was now making headlines as the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history — exceeding the next largest bankruptcy by five-fold.

A year later, Detroit emerged from bankruptcy due primarily to the over $800 million dollars raised by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the city’s world-renowned art museum that is also owned by the city government. The DIA raised these funds after the city threatened to sell off the museum’s $4.6 billion collection in order to pay its debts. In a sense, we can consider the DIA’s bailout of the city a payback; the city originally came to own the DIA when it bailed out the museum in 1919 shortly after the museum’s founding. But the DIA’s bailout raises additional questions. Why was an art museum able to raise $800 million dollars to bail out the government while the government was able to raise almost nothing? Why did Michigan governor Rick Snyder agree to contribute $200 million to the DIA’s fundraising campaign yet previously had refused to offer a single dollar to the city of Detroit? Or more generally, why were donors willing to save art at the DIA but unwilling to save the city (and people) of Detroit?

This anecdote about the DIA hints at the varying conflicts between the city government, residents, adjacent suburbs, and the city’s industries regarding civic, social, and cultural values. With this talk, I won’t make any definitive claims about how things came to be this way. Rather I want to explore some problems that have been long standing for the city, that address some themes across the history of the city, and that can help us think through how these problems might contribute to Detroit’s current social, economic, and political struggles.

Detroit began as a small fort town, founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701, who, like the other French explorers of his time, traveled through the middle part of the continent searching for lands that would serve as ideal trading posts. Located on a bluff overlooking a river, the new city of straits, as Cadillac named the site, was ideally positioned along the waterway to reach Cadillac’s city of origin, Montreal, and also reach further into the continental interior.

Though he traveled with a band of traders who only had commercial interests, Cadillac quickly divided up the land into plots for farming. These ribbons farms were long rectangular plots 250 feet wide by 2-3 miles long, each providing equal access to both the river to the south and to the rich soil to the north. However, the traders coming to Detroit weren’t interested in farming so many of the plots remained unworked for the first century of the town’s existence. The fort town remained small with a population of just a few hundred.

In 1807, Judge Augustus Woodward developed an intricate plan for a new city on the site, after much of the original fort was destroyed by a fire. Woodward’s plan proposed a system of hexagonal neighborhood clusters, each with a Grand Circus at its center. Broad avenues emerged like spokes from the central wheel of the circus, extending throughout the city and terminating at other outlying spokes. Each circle would serve as a central public space with a fountain and shops.

The first unit of Woodward’s plan was designed for a population of 50,000, when at the time the town consisted of around 1,000 people occupying less than 1/3 of a square mile. Woodward’s plan was never fully realized, but the first unit of the plan was completed by 1830.

This brings us to the first theme in Detroit’s history — spatial planning consistently and persistently outpaced population growth. From Cadillac’s insistence on dividing up hundreds of acres of land for a farming population that didn’t exist, to Woodward’s ambitious plans for a radial city, the projections for Detroit’s spatial ambitions have rarely aligned with the actual conditions of the territory or the motivations of the populace.


By the late nineteenth century the city had expanded beyond the boundaries of the initial Grand Circus as it completed its transformation from a small trading outpost to a booming industrial town.

The growing industrial city was populated largely by people from elsewhere—immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland; and migrants from the American South. The Great Migration described the massive influx of predominantly black agricultural workers to the North, most of whom had been sharecroppers and were fleeing the discriminatory practices that made southern agricultural work in the early twentieth century not sufficiently different from the slave-based labor of the early nineteenth century.

These black workers came to cities like Detroit seeking jobs in the booming manufacturing industry.

Thus Detroit’s population expanded significantly in the 1920s and 30s, growing four-fold in just 20 years.

The city government quickly began annexing the towns and villages surrounding the city, growing the city’s land mass to 140 square miles by 1930. However, despite the massive accumulation of land, the city itself remained dangerously dense at its core.

Most of the factories offering the desirable jobs that migrants came for were located either along Woodward Avenue, or along the Grand Trunk railway which ran from the southwest part of the city northeastward. Thus workers most benefited from living close to the factories where they often worked long hours and six or seven days a week.

Thus Detroit in the early twentieth century was a dense booming industrial town at its core and a sparse agricultural hamlet at its periphery. The regulated spaces of the central city—geometric, ordered and legible—served to reflect the union of industry, power and equal opportunity key to the narrative of the burgeoning industrial city. Inscribed in the formal axial arrangements of the street grid were the neo-classicism of the city’s architecture, the scale and dignity of the urban public spaces, and the predominance of industry in governing the social and economic direction of the city.

Yet in the neighborhoods and on the outskirts, workers often built their own homes, sometimes from catalog kits or plans. Families planted fruit trees and grew vegetables in their yards or in common plots shared by the community. Here we see a group of Hungarian women, on the west side of the city, walking to the nearby potato patch to gather vegetables for dinner.

Though Detroit’s initial growth was due to the stove industry located in the city, it’s place in industrial history was secured due to the automotive industry.

Central to that narrative was the Ford Motor Company, who’s first factory in 1903 was but a small non-descript building on Mack Avenue, which at the time was on the outskirts of the city.

However, by 1910, Ford had erected an immense factory complex in Highland Park replete with a large power plant situated right on Woodward Avenue.

The power plant’s glass facade revealed the massive boilers inside, machines at architectural scale, that signaled both the power and the might of the city’s industry.

By 1917, Ford had built the River Rouge plant, then the largest factory complex in the world, covering several square miles and housing, in addition to materials processing and assembly plants, its own hospital, high school, police force, and fire stations. The River Rouge plant also boasted a system of roads and rails that rivaled those of the city adjacent to it. Buses and trolleys carried workers from the factory gates to their respective work locations and trains moved materials into the complex and completed automobiles out of the complex. In many ways, the Rouge Plant was an urban condition in its own right. However, unlike the conventional city in its midst, the Rouge factory lacked housing and its lacked a government.

The technological and natural resources that support urban infrastructures were both more plentiful and more economically deployed in the factory complex than in the conventional city. Additionally, Ford Motor Company initiated and advocated regional decentralization, an approach to spatial planning that would discourage any single aggregation of economy in favor of an even spread of labor, resources, and production over large areas. Decentralization meant that Ford committed itself to spreading its own industry across the region while also encouraging the decentralization of its own workers, who increasingly left the city in favor of the ideal suburban life promoted by Ford itself.

Which leads us to another theme in Detroit’s history: the factory-city made the traditional city redundant in part by actively working against the kind of aggregations of resources that make cities possible. For instance, by the 1940s, downtown Detroit was facing a crisis of vacancy as more employers chose to move their administrative headquarters to suburban office parks.


Despite being a city of single-family houses, Detroit continued to suffer from a lack of clean, affordable housing in the central part of the city.

Additionally, discriminatory practices, both individual and federally mandated, as through the red-lining of black neighborhoods, created additional racial tensions around the city’s growing housing crisis.

[IMAGE - 1943 RIOTS]
In 1943, the city erupted in riots that were both racial and spatial.

Union organizers and community activists worked together to try to remedy the crises around housing and race that threatened to destroy the city, yet their efforts yielded little in terms of concrete action taken by the city government.

In 1967, the city erupted in riots again and the city burned as military tanks rolled through the streets.

The flight from the city that had begun with Ford’s promotion of decentralization decades earlier was further accelerated by the fear instilled in white Detroiters who resisted calls for equal opportunities and integrated housing.

Though the city’s population had been in decline since 1950, the exodus increased in the 1970s and the city grew more vacant in the last decades of the 20th century.

By the 1990s, Detroit was the poorest city in the United States with more than 40% of residents living in poverty and an official unemployment rate of 33%. The city that once was home to just under two million residents in the 1940s and was the center of North American industry, today has just over 600,000 residents and few living-wage jobs. In a dramatic reversal, the technological prowess that built the fourth largest city at turn of the twentieth century had, by the year 2000, left an estimated 30% of the city’s buildings and an additional 40% of buildable lots vacant.

The overwhelming presence of vacant land in Detroit presented a logistical nightmare for the city government. In addition to keeping records of far more parcels than the city ever expected to have in its own coffers, the city government was also charged with maintaining the vacant lots, a process which consisted largely of mowing the often overgrown parcels into lawns several times annually.

Remember that Detroit’s geographical size is quite large at almost 140 square miles. Another way to look at it: Detroit is large enough to include the entire land mass of San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan, yet today has a mere fraction of the population of those three cities.

Overwhelmed by the burden of mowing 40,000 vacant lots two to three times per year, the city’s maintenance crews bypassed many of the lots. Poor residents, frustrated with the lack of affordable, health, and secure food sources began transforming the empty lots of the city into gardens and urban farms.


Urban farms in Detroit reflect a vernacular understanding of urban land as holding the potential to provide economic sustenance for communities—but without architectural intervention. Such an intention transforms landscape intentions from the picturesque to the functional. The productive capacity—and, thus, the value-carrying capacity—of urban land in this case is found in its ability to sustain communities through production. This is counter to standard valuations of urban land relying on an economic profit motive related to the sale of the land itself. This emphasis on the productive capacity of land transforms the de-densified urban geography of Detroit in such a way that places become processes and social resources rather than commodities. Even while fallow, urban land as farm exists as potential; in its ‘non-use’ state it holds latent energy for later emergence. If one considers the urban landscape as potential for farming rather than lack of building, then there really is no vacant space; there is only space-in-waiting, anticipating the application of productive energy. In this view, vacant space allows an economic issue—in this instance, the lack of affordable, healthy food—to be addressed with land issues: that is, using vacant land for urban agriculture. This approach frees the land from traditional economic valuation systems, allowing it to become a vital community resource.

This emphasis on the productive use of land for community empowerment is key to understanding the specific nature of urban agriculture in Detroit. For example, in 2009, the commercial agriculture group Hantz Farms announced plans to develop the world’s largest urban farm on 70 acres of vacant land on Detroit’s east side, with plans to expand the farm to 20,000 acres, or 26 square miles, which is equivalent to the entire land mass of Ann Arbor.

Hantz anticipated exporting products to the greater region, reaching a larger market than conventional smaller-scale urban farming, and providing hundreds of agricultural jobs to local residents while removing vacant land from the burden of city infrastructure and resources. While the farm would grow some fruits and vegetables it would focus primarily on non-food crops, such as Christmas trees and corn for high fructose corn syrup.

One local commented, “Indeed, the proposal is for the creation of a ‘plantation’ amidst several hundred thousand poor and challenged urban residents. The jobs created would be farm labor jobs— transforming Detroit’s neighborhoods into farm labor housing, IF Detroit residents actually got the work. So much for the Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian freeholder as the basis of democracy.” With increased resistance to its commercial farm plans, Hantz eventually downsized its proposal to a five-acre fruit orchard.

The resistance to Hantz’ proposal and concerns about the introduction of plantation conditions in the middle of an industrial city points to a key attribute of urban agriculture. “Land tenure for urban agriculture is the critical issue.” The phenomenon of urban agriculture in Detroit is not simply about transforming vacant lots into farming plots but about the ways in which new modes of highly localized forms of governance emerge from this radically different image of the city.

Detroit is not the only city that has expanded community gardens to the scale of urban farms to support inner city neighborhoods. But it is the only American city to be on the verge of an agricultural urbanism—that is, to present urban farms at both a scale and integration into social life that make them a major form of land use in the city, and thus a significant influence on urban spatial practices and new forms of informal urban governance. I want to touch on three forms of this informal urban governance arising in Detroit in tandem with large-scale urban agriculture.

The first is the emergence of ecological jurisdictions. The economic activity surrounding urban agriculture—the selling of produce at both informal and formal markets, the procurement of seeds, and bulbs and the exchange of labor for food, for instance—provide critical links between the informal networks sustaining urban farms and the more formal market networks of markets and money exchange. Urban farms therefore have a wider economic effect beyond the informal networks in which they originate and certainly beyond geographies contiguous with the farms themselves. Accordingly, the activities surrounding urban agriculture map a new way of envisioning the city. Rather than using streets and buildings as urban wayfinding tools, the location of farms, large gardens, markets, and water sources increasingly become the primary way of understanding the organization of urban space. These new ecological jurisdictions supercede traditional neighborhood block aggregations and their architectures. As seen in this map of the Rouge River corridor, lining the western edge of the city, a collection of parks, gardens and adjacent environmental landmarks define a contiguous territory relevant to local farmers. Here the legibility of the urban environment is derived from how the space is practiced—how it is used and understood from the perspective and scale of the human body and the working farm.

A second mode of informal urban governance has accompanied the changing notions of public and private space brought on by urban agriculture. First, large sections of the city have been transformed into public space. But unlike the reclamation of open land for public parks, these public spaces are places of production—of work; they are not simply places for gathering or spending one’s leisure time, although they do function in that capacity as well. In this regard, these spaces suggest a new 21st century conception of public works. The productive use of land becomes a public infrastructure supporting the economic, ecological and social productivity of the region. Additionally, the farm itself is a place where the public literally works, collectively and publicly.

Both of these modes of informal governance—the ecological jurisdictions and the creation of a new public works—rely on a third mode of informal governance: tacit agreements among citizens that subvert expert planning practices and instead are supported by knowledges obtained and sustained through informal social networks. These tacit agreements are the ways in which knowledges concerning agricultural technologies are transmitted from citizen to citizen and from farm to farm.

These tacit agreements include habits that are not at all dissimilar from the agrarian spatial practices that the original European immigrants and southern migrants brought to Detroit. They include technical practices ranging from where and what to farm and how to handle soil drainage; as well as economic and environmental concerns such as how to evenly distribute produce across the region’s markets, how to address race-based inequalities in the food distribution system, and how to develop best practices for extracting impurities from the soil. These tacit agreements also govern the establishment and maintenance of social networks among farmers and residents, critical resources that allow them to live even in the fact of failing economic mega-structures and an unstable political environment. From these tacit agreements, and the spatial practices they birth—urban agriculture, ecological jurisdictions and the new public works—ordinary citizens contribute to a mutually constitutive narrative and image of the city.

Unlike the earlier planning practices in the city—whether Cadillac’s ribbon farms, Woodward’s radial plan, or Ford’s factory-city—the new tacit agreements evolving from these encounters between citizens, landscapes, and production, emphasize the mutual constitution between forms of social life and urban space. In this context, empty lots do not necessarily need to be “filled up” nor is the success of the city dependent on the ambitions of its architectural or urban designs. Rather the lacunae provided by the absence of architecture allows history to emerge through the spatial practices of agricultural urbanism.

The city once known for industry has turned to agriculture and the private spaces of commerce and consumption have been made into public places of production. Thus as the regeneration and renewal of economic exchange is found in Detroit’s landscape and not in its architecture, the evaluative term “Detroit”—that name that has been synonymous with automotive production and the industrial city for nearly a century—is now becoming associated with a new mode of urbanism, one that more readily embraces how the spatial practices of city living contribute to a productive rather than a formal urbanism.