I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 masterwork on urbanism, and the assessment of Detroit is damning. “Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure,” she writes. Long before the unrest of 1967 or the whole-sale flight of the middle class, Jacobs considered Detroit a failed city for being too suburban:
Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.
Even in its heyday, most of Detroit didn’t compare to cities like Chicago and New York. Detroit was simply never developed as densely. Before 1900 (that is, before the Ford Motor Company), the city was only a fraction of its current size. Its outer limits roughly corresponded to the U-shape made by East and West Grand Boulevard. The rest of Detroit was developed later, after the auto boom, in increasingly suburban neighborhoods of detached, single-family homes.
That’s why Detroit will never look like other big cities, even if it recovers. Only the historic urban core has a fighting chance to redevelop densely. The central business district, Corktown, Mexicantown, Eastern Market, the Cass Corridor (Midtown)–these are Detroit’s growth areas, where new lofts and small businesses are repurposing empty buildings and restoring the urban fabric. The rest of Detroit was built to be both suburban and walkable (not unlike Ferndale or Grosse Pointe Park), but after decades of disinvestment most of it is now neither. These residential areas will need to find a different path to recovery, and Jane Jacobs doesn’t offer much help.