Detroit, failed rival of its own suburbs

In the standard ruined-Detroit story, there’s a photo of the burnt remains of an abandoned home, and it’s clear that the house you’re looking at the charred outer shell of was pretty big – two stories, well detached from its neighbors, with an ample porch and its own decent-sized yard, now overgrown. This is an important detail, typically unmentioned.

Detroit is old by American standards. It was founded by French traders in 1701, grew unremarkably for two centuries, then exploded (or, if you will, boomed), but strangely, in a munificent rush starting after 1900 and fueled (of course) by the auto industry, in which the city bypassed the usual stage of dense, tenement-style construction – very few row-houses or attached townhouses, very few multi-family houses such as greater Boston’s ubiquitous three-flats or Chicago’s two- and three-story gray-stones, very few apartment buildings and virtually no neighborhoods anchored or defined by apartment buildings – and went straight to vast swaths of detached, single-family, owner-occupied homes, a striking percentage of them two stories high, many of them on ample if not generous lots. Detroit’s double blessing early on was its curse later – lots of flat land for houses, and lots of money for building and buying them, as people migrated to Detroit for jobs that were already waiting for them. Perhaps more than any other great American city, Detroit went up as a perverse forerunner of its own suburbs.

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

When white Boomers and Gen Xers were buying up Brooklyn’s glorious Park Slope and Chicago’s cozy Bucktown and Boston’s gorgeous South End in the early Nineties, neighborhoods sketchy in the 70’s and 80’s but wonderfully and sturdily built, Detroit’s version of this demographic had good-enough options for hip living north of Eight Mile, and no obviously better options south of it, because, compared to its suburbs, compared even to Ferndale, the vast majority of Detroit is profoundly unspecial, especially uncompelling. It’s a flat, unvarying landscape of detached houses, many big like those in the suburbs, but, well, old and worn, in neighborhoods that were always going to take a lot more than a few pioneers and a restaurant and a club to spark a revival. They were going to take loads of people willing to mortgage their lives on those 1920s money-pits, all of them assuming the existence of a critical mass of other people just as reckless and dreamy as they are. And the payoff, best case, if you’re one who wagered it all to gentrify such a neighborhood? Having improved the landscaping and paint-jobs and plumbing of a block that now looks and feels like one of the world’s first suburbs, from back before they were, like, nice. And until your efforts are realized in this long-deferred anticlimax… “Er, the café up on Grand River between the empty lots and across from overgrown field that just opened under new ownership just closed again, and there’s still not a supermarket, and there’s nothing we can walk to but other houses, and the coyotes keep eating our cats.” No wonder it didn’t happen.

The deeper causes of this have nothing to do with race, and are only indirectly related to the auto industry, and have more to do with its early triumph than its later collapse. The city is just too geographically big, too filled with too-big houses, too defined by neighborhoods that are too defined by those too-big houses. Detroit, built as a weak rival of its own suburbs, was eaten by them.

Several factors – both weird bad luck and criminally bad urban policy – aggravated this comparative disadvantage. I hope but don’t promise to expand on them here.