City Beautiful

Despite the planning visionaries such as Augustus Woodward and Frederick Olmstead taking part in the planning of Detroit, the city had a legacy of prioritizing the commercial growth and industrialization over anything else. Their plans were only partially recognized, resulting in the unique semi-circle shape of Detroit’s center and an incomplete Belle Isle Park [1]. The geography of the city permitted many of these projects proposed yet the government decided to prioritize railroad systems and highways to facilitate the commercial activities.

This was made worse by a new system of manufacturing which made one-story land-extensive production mode popular [2]. This new method, along with the problem of inner-city congestion, pushed the factories and wealthy families out into the suburbs where land was available for cheap, taking the jobs with them. The government built even more roads to make sure these suburban areas were still connected to the city, producing a cycle of sprawl and essentially abandoning the city core. Breakdown of community values, loss of common grounds, and fragmentation of political climate all led to worsening of the class inequalities along with damaging racial relations.

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Fig. 1: Olmstead’s Proposed map of the Park. Source: Olmstead Archives (1882). [1]
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Fig. 2: Silas Farmer, map of Detroit, 1899 (Library of Congress). Cass Park located to the to the left of Woodward Avenue in the middle of the map; public library, art museum, city hall, post office, and county building are also marked below at the center- The site of the Center of Arts and Letters is at the top of the map at Woodward and Farnsworth. Source: Library of Congress (1899). [2]
Many neighborhoods demonstrate this inequality and racial tensions. When Henry Ford built his Rouge factory in Dearborn, he realized the importance of the labor of black workers but he wanted to keep them separated from the white residents of Dearborn. Thus he worked behind the scenes to force the black workers to an informal settlement the west of Dearborn, named later in 1926 as “Inkster”. Eight Mile-Wyoming enclave during mid-1920s was where most migrating blacks would settle down given its large tract of land available for farming. Surrounded by predominantly white neighborhoods, this area became a “lightning rod” for white stereotypes and commuters would name it as a “slave market”. Brightmoor area in Wayne County was built by Burt E. Taylor for white working-class families for “affordable housing” and would later become a hotbed for KKK activities [2].

In a stark contrast to these neighborhoods, Grosse Pointe was developed based on a “recreational/resort” style where there were mansions along Lake St. Claire on either side of Lakeshore Drive (dubbed one of “America’s most idyllic urban drives”). This place was inhabited exclusively by Anglo-Saxon descendents, showing that racial tensions not only spread along color lines but also the origins of distinct European descent. These differences would slowly build up and economic defense would become the guise under which racial segregation was practiced informally by the white neighborhoods. Their “need to maintain property values and defend turf on economic grounds” was used as an argument to keep out anyone who is not one of “them” [2]. All these culminated and burst open in the public disorder of the 12th Street Riot in 1967.

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Fig. 3: Grosse Pointe Yacht Club and Lake St. Clair, as seen from Lakeshore Drive. Source: Driving Detroit (2012). [3]

 


Even today, Poletown neighborhood provides a good example of the fragile relationship that the city has with its citizens. During 1981, GM corporation offered to build a manufacturing plant on the large tract of land upon which Poletown neighborhood was built. Its proposed plan was to bring in economic activity and job growth to the people around the area, a means to serve the public good. But it required razing down many of the houses which many private landowners opposed to. The City of Detroit used eminent domain to take the land away from the residents and a lawsuit followed. In the Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, the Supreme Court of Michigan made the use of eminent domain constitutional after stating that a “higher level of scrutiny” confirmed a “clear and significant” public benefit [4]. The neighborhood was moved out and the plant was built there, only to fail in its promise to bring in the level of economic growth it proposed before. This made many people angry at what they saw to be abuse of power by the city and public trust dissolved considerably since then.


During its peak economic activity in 20th century, commercial buildings dominated the shape of the city, sparking some movements to reduce the imposing skyscrapers and the disorder brought about by private development all throughout the city. One of the major movements was the City Beautiful movement which the Belle Isle Park was a part of. This movement highlighted the importance of civic and social values in the increasingly threatening and disrupting shape of the city. Private high-rise buildings such as Hudson Departmental Store, Hammond Building, and Majestic Building covered the city skyline and dwarfed the public structures such as the library, museum, and even city hall [1]. Some developments even forced the relocation of public structures such as the First Presbyterian Church to another place in the city. The elites’ desire to reshape the city and restore civic buildings and landscape led to discussion of “commercial and civic monumentality” which grew into a pursuit of culture as “an implicit critique and an apology” for commercial growth [1].

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Fig. 4: A view of the city hall surrounded by buildings-from right to left: Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, Guardian Building, 1929; Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, Buhl Building, 1925; Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, Penobscot Building, 1928; Daniel H. Burnman & Company, Dime Building, 1910. Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (1935). [4]

Edward H Bennett and Frank Miles Day were selected to plan for the city and their designs in 1913 would result in the Detroit’s Center of Arts and Letters, the pinnacle of City Beautiful movement in Detroit [1]. Their plans featured a symmetrical, axial center for two buildings, Detroit Public Library and Detroit Institute of Arts, facing each other across Woodward Avenue, signifying a sense of unity and harmony of the city. Both buildings were finished in 1921 by Cass Gilbert and in 1927 by Paul Gret respectively in which the influence of Renaissance arts was clearly visible in the marble columns, mosaics, paintings, and stain glass. Multiple restrictions and recommendations including height restrictions and expanding the size of arts center were put in to make sure that these civic structures were not overwhelmed by private buildings like before. By contrasting the scattered steel skeletons of high rises with coordination and harmony of public structures in their surroundings, civic monumentality was preserved for the city and gave it an identity and sense of culture.

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Fig. 5: Detroit Institute of Arts, seen from the terrace of Detroit Public Library after its completion in 1927. Source: Library of Congress (1927). [5]

Detroit, as can be seen from its past architecture and landscapes, is very rich in culture and history, albeit not so much in its planning sector. Sprawl and industries which once were the supporting pillars of the city structure now come back to haunt those living in the city. One thing to note here is that the bleak image of Detroit that is usually portrayed is its condition of the city center. In contrast, the suburban areas of Greater Detroit has suffered comparably lower losses in their economic prowess.

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Fig. 6: Median Family Income Abutting Woodward Avenue (2000). Source: Driving Detroit (2012). [6]

Informal growth of urban agriculture is becoming more popular as a way of rebelling against the institutionalized planning strategies and promoting cultural values of community and attachment to place. This is almost parallel to the City Beautiful movement in 1890s-1920s, the only difference being that there is now very little top-down planning by the city government imposing on its citizens. DFC has put the emphasis on community-based, participatory planning process which is substantially different from its history that has more or less led up to today’s problems in Detroit. The success of new form of urban reformation is still in the dark and can be debated from various perspectives. Nevertheless, Detroiters have shown resilience through the crises and this may be the break they need to become a model city for America again.


 

Works Cited

  1. Bluestone, D. M.. (1988). Detroit’s City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 47(3), 245–262. http://doi.org/10.2307/990300
  2. Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. (2012). Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City (pp. 45–68). University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fj663.6
  3. Joseph Stanhope Cialdella. (2014). A Landscape of Ruin and Repair: Parks, Potatoes, and Detroit’s Environmental Past, 1879–1900. Michigan Historical Review40(1), (pp. 49–72). Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.5342/michhistrevi.40.1.0049
  4. Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://lawschool.mikeshecket.com/property/poletownneighborhoodcouncilvcityofdetroit.htm

List of Figures

  1. Joseph Stanhope Cialdella. (2014). A Landscape of Ruin and Repair: Parks, Potatoes, and Detroit’s Environmental Past, 1879–1900. Michigan Historical Review40(1), (pp. 49–72). Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.5342/michhistrevi.40.1.0049
  2. Bluestone, D. M.. (1988). Detroit’s City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 47(3), 245–262. http://doi.org/10.2307/990300
  3. Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. (2012). Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City (pp. 45–68). University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fj663.6
  4. Bluestone, D. M.. (1988). Detroit’s City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 47(3), 245–262. http://doi.org/10.2307/990300
  5. Bluestone, D. M.. (1988). Detroit’s City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 47(3), 245–262. http://doi.org/10.2307/990300
  6. Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. (2012). Sculpting Detroit: Polity and Economy Trump Geology. In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City (pp. 45–68). University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fj663.6