Urban Development and Transportation in Detroit

A certain degree of irony surrounds the city’s reputation as the “Motor City”, considering many people nowadays do not have access to a vehicle and are reliant on the public transportation system. Beginning in the early 1940s, the construction and development of massive highway systems - which were designed to make the automobile the primary source of transportation - cooperated with city revitalization projects. Highway designs were part of the “Detroit Master Plan”; they not only urged the population to purchase locally-manufactured personal automobiles, but were also carefully designed to hasten “slum clearance”.

The major highways in Detroit were under construction by the late 1940s. Because of the abundance of cars, urban planners designed the infrastructure to convenience the personal automobile rather than public transportation. The importance of location was also a concern of city planners, who saw it as an opportunity to “rationalize” the city. But, planners failed to foresee the significant ramifications subsequent urban sprawl would create. Since personal automobiles were excessively intrusive on downtown, the highway infrastructure allowed many to move away to the suburbs, commuting downtown to work. What the planners envisioned was a network of ‘sunken’ freeways, built to alleviate street crowdedness. But as the people moved out, business ensuingly followed, increasing the vacancy of the greater downtown area. Whilst the downtown area became more deserted - in population and industry - there were fewer opportunities for jobs, and therefore fewer people able to access/afford a personal car. Though there are several documents from construction development that display a planned passenger rail car traveling adjacent to the highway, it was never implemented; so, the only way to effectively maneuver around the expansive city is to have access to an automobile.

During this time, city developers accelerated slum clearance and highway construction, as they congruently provided a solution to the issues of slums in the city. Post-World War II expressway formation mainly impacted the poor, black communities, further aggravating housing issues – as mainly-black neighborhoods were destroyed, there was no compensation for former residents. The aftermath of the city’s projects saw that “…the majority of the former residents, informed observers agree, are now living under slum conditions equal to, if not worse than, those they left” (Mowitz, Write; 1962). Whether intentional or not, the city planner’s execution of projects physically destroyed the African-American community – specifically around Hastings Street and the extended ‘Black Bottom’ community. Planners saw the politicized opportunity to take the poor, ‘slum’ areas associated with the black population as the scaffolding for highway construction.

At the time of development, these expressways were seen as a way to ensure the resilient growth of a pivotal commercial and industrial city. But instead, the designs doubtlessly aided in the depopulation and withdrawal of investment in the city. However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.


Goodspeed, R. C. (2004). Urban Renewal In Postwar Detroit: The Gratiot Area Redevelopment Project. (Senior thesis).

Hyde, C. K. (2006) Planning a Transportation System for Metropolitan Detroit in the Age of the Automobile: The Triumph of the Expressway." The Michigan Historical Review: 59-95.

Mowitz, R. J., Wright, Deil S. (1962) Profile of a metropolis: A case book. No. 8. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Saunders, P. (2012). The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline. The Urbanophile RSS. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from http://www.urbanophile.com/2012/02/21/the-reasons-behind-detroits- decline-by-pete-saunders.

The Detroit Works Project. (2011). Detroit Works Project. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from http://detroitworksproject.com.

Zhou, P. (2012). The Geography of Detroit’s Decline. About.com Geography. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from http://geography.about.com/od/urbaneconomicgeography/a/geography- detroit-decline.htm.