The city of Detroit, Michigan, USA was once a booming industrial city, the home of the American motor industry and the birthplace of Motown. Since the 1960s however, the city has faced a prolonged period of decline which culminated in Detroit becoming the largest US city to ever file for bankruptcy in 2013. Abandoned buildings are now an ever-present feature of the cityscape, with some even going as far as labelling it The Abandoned City.
Detroit began life in 1701 as a French colonial town founded by the explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. It was named originally named Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, after Louis Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, who was Minister of Marine under Louis XIV. Free land was offered to French settlers and by 1765, it was the largest city between Montreal and New Orleans. Following the Seven Years War, the settlement passed to British rule as part of the Province of Quebec, at which point it became known simply as Detroit. Following the American War of Independence, Britain ceded the area to the newly formed United States and created the border with its colony of Canada.
In 1805, Detroit was burned to the ground with very few buildings surviving the fire. None of the residents were killed and the city began to rebuild. It was briefly surrendered to the British during the War of 1812 and was recaptured by the United States in 1813. Detroit was incorporated as a city in 1815, continuing to serve as capital of Michigan Territory. On January 26 1837, Michigan entered the Union as the 26th state.
Detroit was designed with many grand boulevards and became known as the Paris Of The West. It was a wealthy city and fine mansions were built to the east and west of downtown along the grand avenues. Woodward Avenue, in particular, was a desired location for the city’s elite.
In 1903, the Ford Motor Company was founded and was soon followed by Dodge, Chrysler, Packard and others. Along with shipbuilding, Detroit’s automobile industry fuelled the city’s economy and it became the 4th biggest in the USA by 1920, trailing only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Great Migration brought about racial tension in the city and with the rising population came social unrest. Detroit was caught in the middle of the civil rights movement. As the auto industry was retooled to cope with the demands of World War II, nearly 400,000 migrants arrived in the city. The tension resulted in the 1943 Detroit race riot in which 34 people died.
By 1950, Detroit had reached its population peak of 1.8 million. African Americans from the South continued to arrive in the city, attempted to escape the segregation laws and racial discrimination policies of the South. Black people were still discriminated against, however the groundswell of support for the civil rights movement grew resulting in significant changes to federal civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965. During this period, Detroit was the home of Motown. As an African American-owned label that achieved major crossover success in the 1960s, Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. Artists such as The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Jackson 5 achieved massive success across the world.
The racial tensions which continued to simmer in Detroit resulted in the Twelfth Street riot of July 1967 in which 43 people died and over 2,000 properties were destroyed. A phenomenon known as white flight saw a large number of white families leave the city. In 1973, Coleman Young became the first black mayor of Detroit. The same year, the oil crisis had a significant impact on the auto industry with thousands of people losing their jobs. A long period of economic decline followed and efforts to reverse the trend began in earnest in the 1990s.
With the coming of the global recession in the late 2000s, the number of people buying cars plummeted and the automotive industry in Detroit suffered greatly. Companies like Ford, General Motors and Pontiac layed off thousands of workers causing the population to decline by 25%, dropping it from the 10th largest city in the USA to the 18th in just 10 years. The great auto factories became abandoned and as the workers moved on, so too did their houses. The large scale urban decay led it being led to it being deemed greyfield. Buildings such as Michigan Central Station, Cass Technical High School and the Hotel Charlevoix are all examples of buildings which were abandoned during the long period of economic decline in the city.
Today Detroit suffers from unemployment, poverty and other social problems although there are large urban renewal projects ongoing. Sadly a number of neighbourhoods have become no-go zones with houses left derelict and abandoned, a virtual ghost town in some areas. Many of the city’s social problems have been documented by the rapper Eminem both in his music and in the movie 8 Mile, named after a road in the working class area of the city in which he was raised. The abandoned buildings have become hives of activity for crime and it is feared it will be many years before Detroit begins to recover.
Abandoned: From 2000 onwards