Downtown Detroit has turned from a symbol of urban failure to a beacon of hope in Detroit's sea of urban decline, buzzing with active shops and restaurants, vibrantly colored office lobbies and cranes that promise more to come. But turn a corner, and downtown's colors make way for the Motor City's familiar grays of gravel, crumbling concrete and painted plywood. Busy sidewalks end in desolate parking ramps and oversized freeways. The elegant smell of the latte cup makes way for the destitute rattle of a panhandler's beaker. How far do downtown's dreams extend? Even if you stay put in the historic core long enough, you begin to notice some eerie consistencies behind its seemingly pluralistic streetscape. Why does all the street furniture look the same? And the people? And why does the same music echo on all of its streets? The longer you stay downtown, the more you venture out, you will realize you are witnessing a paradox between past and present, public and private, urbanism and suburbanism.


My research demonstrates that this dichotomous landscape is the direct outcome of the tensions that have shaped it over the past two centuries. Today's downtown is the materialization of the often conflicting hopes and dreams of thousands of Detroiters - even those dashed in the maelstrom of growth and decline. This book will introduce you to the aspirations and exasperations of a surprisingly unexpected cast of downtown powers, from the broken dreams of an early 19th century judge, 20th century nostalgics and progressives, the ambiguous urbanism and anti-urbanism of industrialists, architects and traffic engineers, to the growing empires of a car body salesman, a pizza tycoon and a mortgage billionaire. The book will also demonstrate Detroit's struggle to integrate these past dreams in its unwavering gaze toward a brighter future, illustrating how the past transformed from a burden to growth, an embarrassment to decline to an asset for rebirth. Thousands of books, articles, newspaper records, government reports and interviews come together into an unprecedented level of detail and insight on the transformation of downtown.


Most importantly, my research connects the narrative of this transformation into its materialization in the downtown landscape through a series of detailed morphological maps that depict the transformation of downtown over two centuries. By carefully tracing dozens of government records, fire insurance plans, aerial photographs and real estate atlases, I am able to tell the story of downtown's rise, fall and rebirth in text and graphics - a first in North America. My detailed data also allows for powerful conclusions that challenge the common misconception of a downtown in decline since Detroit's mid-century peak, by uncovering a far more intricate process of creative destruction that show a much earlier peak in the 1920s, but also the seeds for the unprecedented decline and rebound that followed. These conclusions will also demonstrate that Detroit's story is extreme, but not unique. Many other American cities have seen a similar path to decline, and many may see a similar path to revitalization.


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The rise, fall and rebirth of downtown Detroit

Detroit parking erosion crop

Growth of parking and vacant lots in downtown Detroit.

Sequence of morphological transformation 1805-2011.

Presentation on downtown Detroit at the University of Michigan, 2015.