7 Photos Show How Detroit Hollowed Out During the Highway Age

While searching for images of highway interchanges in urban areas, I came across these historic aerial photos of Detroit on a message board, showing how the city fabric has slowly eroded. It’s a remarkable record of a process that has scarred many other American cities.

1949: Here’s what the east side of the city looked like right at the middle of the century, with Gratiot Avenue forming the diagonal. Detroit was a big, bustling city.


1952: Just a few years later though, urban renewal and other city-clearing initiatives were already leaving their mark.


1961: Almost a decade later, you can see a large space south of Gratiot had been cleared to make way for Lafayette Park, a neighborhood of high-rise residential towers.


1967: By the mid-1960s, land was cleared and buildings destroyed to make way for Interstate 375.


1981: The freeway is complete, along with a monster interchange. The tight network of small streets and small blocks has been replaced by mega blocks.


1997: By the turn of the century, the area is almost unrecognizable.

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Finally, in this recent shot, you see that the new Tigers Stadium has entered the landscape, surrounded by a field of parking.

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Source: USDA vis Google Earth

Can this process be reversed? Well, the city of Detroit is considering the removal of I-375, so there is hope.

Thanks to user GSGeorge at the forum AtDetroit.net for sharing the first five of these images. The originals up to 1997 — and other aerial photographs from all over the city — can be found in this image repository maintained by Wayne State University.

  • Chris Lazaro

    I cannot grasp how anyone in their right mind would see the latter photos as an improvement over what was there in 1949. The destruction here is sickening, really.

  • neil21

    What software is there to help quickly and easily show how we might reverse this process, and what might be gained from doing so? Anything more refined that Sketchup, Illustrator, Excel, sweat and tears?

    And if there isn’t any, shall we Kickstart it?

  • C Monroe

    This is just one area of Detroit(east side of Downtown and Lafayette park). Now add Corktown, Poletown and a few more places, you have the destruction of the Urban Renewal Movement.

  • John Morris

    So, in plain English, government highway “investments” were a major force in the destruction of the city.

    Who knew central planning could go wrong?

  • Patrick

    Here’s a little study of one part of the city comparing 1949 to 2011:


  • red_greenlight1

    I suspect that Detroit’s problems were, and still are, much larger and not caused by a single highway. *puts flak jacket on.*

  • Guest

    …And I think the series of images does a great job of showing a representative sample of the chopping and mashing of the community, beyond “a single highway”, that happened in the latter half of the century.

    If you merely “suspect” that the changes represented here are part of a vicious cycle of economic and racial tensions played out in the physical destruction of neighborhoods, let me recommend Thomas Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis.”

  • Daayiee Abdullah

    Grew up in Detroit and lived one block from Eastern Market and Wilkins, several blocks north of Gratiot. Left Detroit in mid-1970s as I saw the city’s decline in the mid-1960s rushing into the future…auto factories decentralizing, Motown music moved to LA, public transportation declining, employment centers located in the suburbs (Troy, Birmingham, Ann Arbor, et cetera), and if you didn’t have a car, you were just out of luck. After school integration in 1954, white flight and the suction of money into the suburbs (yes, Hudson’s at Northland the first anchor mall beyond 8 mile in 1959). 1967 riots did not help anyone and caused further dysfunction. In 1970s, Mayor Young’s “stay on the other side of 8-mile” was the final nail in the coffin, and he was followed by a number of Mayors that tried to stop the decline, but it far too little to help make a turn-around. Though many people of all races gained from the auto industry…for many of their children got to go to college and moved into the middle class…(Wayne State, Michigan State, University of Michigan, Michigan Instittute of Technology, and many, many more)…yet, I don’t see it recovering any time soon as a person needs a car to get around. It takes a good hour or more to get from one place to another–fuel is not cheap–and if you live in the downtown section, you are limited by public transportation. Detroit, you were once a great place to grow up and thrive.

  • Mike K

    The seeds of Detroit’s destruction, as you have pointed out, were sowed during WWII as the first plants where place in Willow Run. The rest, as they say, is history and a very sad one at that.

  • Brandon

    most histories of suburbia claim that it was first the middle class who moved to suburbia and then the jobs followed, In Detroit the auto Industry led the way. Keep in mind that Ford is headquartered outside of Detroit proper, and Henry Ford built his main factories in Highland Park and Dearborn, although Highland Park has since been surrounded by the city of Detroit. The idea of moving factories to different municipalities to get cheaper land or lower taxes has been around since the beginning of the Auto Industry.

  • Daayiee Abdullah

    Mike K, my grandparents migrated to Detroit as blacks came north to work in the auto industry, i.e. Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, NYC. My grandmother, a beautician, provided services to blacks who needed them, i.e., funeral homes, the community at large in her shop. Even in the Depression they thrived. My parents growing up in this place of opportunity, got better educations and built their careers. I’m third generation and many 4th and 5th generations are following suit. Many kinds of services provided a good living in those rich Detroit waters. 🙂

  • Mike K

    Similar for my family. Came over via boat from the old country and Detroit gave them the opportunity to have my generation where it is at.

  • Hart Noecker

    Nobody believes me when I tell them that automobiles themselves (and their lobbyists) were far more responsible for destroying Detroit than the loss of the automobile factories were.

  • It ignores the red-lining that has been done for decades, and the preferences to destroy ‘ethnic’ neighborhoods in favor of profitable ‘development’ and squeezing families to get more tax money from them. This tells an important story, yes, but far and away NOT the only one. The move out of Detroit and the marketing of suburbs made highways more and more necessary.

  • They must have some nice Parking Craters. Or maybe even Parking Volcanoes!

  • Giuliana S

    Necessary? Interesting choice of words.

  • red_greenlight1

    OR Detriot’s problems could be due to the deindustrialization of America, poor education and variety of really complex social problems. But nope lets blame highways yeah that looks great on Streetsblog.

  • C Monroe

    They have probably the worse in the country, but no-one would vote for them because a notion that the city is dead, which is not true. There are still tens of thousands still working downtown and huge parking ramps and lots for those workers. Mostly do to the lack of good mass transit.

  • C Monroe

    This particular section was the ‘black area of Detroit’ basically it was where the black community was red-lined to. It had thriving businesses owned and operated black community leaders. When this area was destroyed, the real estate agents used it to sell houses in predominately white neighborhoods to blacks and then use propaganda to scare the white neighbors to move to the suburbs, where the same real estate agents would not sell to black families.

  • C Monroe

    Yes Detroit had other problems but instead of the citizens facing those problems, they built freeways so they could escape them. Which in turn made the problems worse and led to an emptying out of a major city..

  • Matthew P. Picio

    Except automobiles didn’t destroy Detroit, Hart – urban planners did. Cars exist in other cities without issue – it’s the freeway network, its planning and implementation, that enabled the mass exodus to the suburbs.

  • C Monroe

    And they continue to do the same thing over and over. Metro Detroit has the same or slightly higher population than it did in the 1950’s but its actual footprint is many times larger. They are just moving farther and farther out. Many of the inner ring suburbs face some of the same problems that the city of Detroit faces.

  • C Monroe

    Exactly, why did Detroit need 7 freeways(8 if you include quasi highway Telegraph road) inside the city limits when it had 10+boulevards that rivaled the Champs Elysese in Paris and were able to handle 75,000 vehicles each. These boulevards were able to handle the population of Detroit for the most part years before the freeways stole their traffic. Many of these boulevards are still around and are now just large empty expanses of traffic lanes and empty, abandoned store fronts or vast stretches of prairie where storefronts and neighborhoods once stood.

  • Hart Noecker

    I’d have to disagree with you, Matt. Cars have mutilated all American urban centers. Detroit was only the worst of them. Planners were the Robert MacNamara tacticians, but the urbanicide ordinance was definitely the automobile.

  • yodasws

    Not just the Tigers’ Comerica Park, but also the Lions’ Ford Field one block east. At least they give people a reason to go downtown, though their immediate access from the freeways and the parking separating them from downtown are errors…

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    This is an outrageously stupid presentation… particularly the comments that ignore the real facts.

  • gneiss

    Which are?

  • j84ustin

    Sugrue’s book is excellent and a must read.

  • NicholasTylerMiller

    I live in Detroit, and the highways do cut the city up, and are not particularly pleasant. However, in this instance, what you’re really seeing is a section of the city being razed for Lafayette Park, a large-scale urban renewal project focused on private housing. Relatively speaking, Lafayette Park has been fairly successful. The mid-century buildings in this area are well-loved, and fully-occupied. The Mies Van De Rohe townhomes in this neighborhood are particularly sought-after and considered architectural masterpieces.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    I started writing in this environment and it challenging my “identity” and it wiped out my writings so I started writing a reply to Maureen in FB. What I have written is not complete and i shall complete it. In a sense it is an architectural history of our City

    I am a full fledged Architect with broad experience.
    I live in Lafayette Park, initiated the insulating glass replacements, came up with the spec for proper roofing and for securing flat glass replacements, and designed the retaining walls and handrails for proper construction and worked extensively on the landscaping. I also worked on the Historic Designation of Lafayette Park and am involved in a minor way in the upcoming Historic Landmark Status for this greatest of all Urban Renewal Projects in the US.

    I also intitiated the effort to Save Downtown Hudsons and the Graystone Ball room and was involved with restoring the Barry Gordy house and the Motown Museum as well as working on the Historic Designation of the Scarab Club, and setting up Michigan’s first Construction Management Company to build the Center for Creative Studies.

    I view the future with trepidation realizing that very few people understand the depth of the thinking involved in creating Lafayette Park… this is no cavalier Builder mess as our suburbs have suffered from

    Here is my reply to Maureen who I have long known… I appreciate her efforts to build a better America with mutual respect for all races.

    Lewis M. Dickens III

    That is a perfectly ignorant comment. The fact is this… Unlike the cities on the East Coast which outlawed wood construction in the 1700’s and the 1800’s so the great white pine forests of the North were clear cut and wiped out for the building of Detroit and other Michigan Cities. The wood in the houses can now bee seen in the dilapidated mess left by out Forefathers. This is a first environmental disaster of a magnitude that you probably do not understand.

    Wood house are prone to fires and decay and rot and that Detroit has suffered from. Any notion that something wonderful was destroyed with respect to the early housing is totally misunderstood. In order to last you had to paint them frequently. Were they? Who can afford that in our current economies?

    Coleman agonized over the fires BIGTIME! Not realizing that it was a forgone destiny.

    Running around bleating about Ike Eisenhower and Alf Sloan instituting the federal highways is mostly pure nonsense. Ike was impressed by the Autobahns and realized that we had to do something similar. Yes there were poorly designed sections in other Cities… particularly the elevated sections that blocked the views and access to the waterfronts. Many of those have been demolished and redone. Detroit never ever suffered from that mistake.

    Davidson was one of the first expressways in America and they knew that by recessing it, The noise intrusion would be mitigated. It was successful, not long enough but it proved a point.

    I am incensed by the ignorance ot the headline “Photos Show How Detroit Hollowed Out During the Highway Age.” Detroit was destined to decay away with or without the “Highway Age” because of the Architecture.

    I am a Restoration Architect amongst other things, restored the David Mackenzie house which was the signal of Gentrification of the City. I worked on the Assembly Room of Independence Hall with the people who initiated the Modern, highly refined Architectural Restoration movement and established the “Secretaries Standards for Architectural Restoration”.

    When the Nation’s great Historic Structures in Philadelphia were restored the Downtown area of Philadelphia rebounded with a vengeance that was astounding. I was hoping for that to happen here and it sure took an awful lot of time for people to realize what a treasure trove we had.

    Toby Barlow was instrumental in the turn around with his simple little letter to the Huffington Post.

    And I worked on the Detroit Medical Center and was there when the deal went through. Believe me, our designs were vastly superior to what got Built except for the Kessler Receiving Hospital.

    A similar series of photographs on that section of the city might lead you to a similar conlusion to the bogus hue and cry about Lafayette Park.

    I have a lot more to say and will continue this. There is a young generation here and they are being misled by some devious nonsense. I shall continue but must work on other stuff for the moment.

    Few things upset me more than ignorant comments supposedly containing some truth which in fact is false or an outright lie.

    If you wish to be upset then why are you not concentrating on what the PeePot Dixiecrat Republican Party is up to?

    There are a number of reasons for the prior abandonment or exodus from the City. One of them was Parking. It was virtually impossible to find parking. You could expend hours looking for a spot. When we met with Joe Bianco who held some “important’ position with Hudsons we mentioned that they had not done enough to bring parking into the City. He answered that they had built a parking structure. We considered that as an indication that he had no grasp of urban planning and was trying to act slick.

    That was the huge virtue of Northland… acres and acres of parking and it paved the way (literally) for the shopping center “Movement’ which spread across the counrtry.. Parking was solved with the centers.


  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Matthew you have no clue whatsoever.

    Obvously you have no idea about Urban planning… just a simplistic and incorrect notion.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    I see, we have a hate the roads moveiment going on… boy, isn’t that brilliant!

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Detroit is at the beginning of a huge resurgence.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Oh yeah, Hate the Highways movement… stupid as hell and the product of an under educated bunch failing to understand that it’s the Ed Schools that have destroyed education and placed America in huge Jeopardy… the feared Commies of old could not have done a better job of screwing things up.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    True to a degree but it ignores the huge movement back into Downtown. Believe me it is huge now just like Philadelphia in the late 60’s and 70’s.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Well you need to go to art school so you can learn to see in interpret things incisively.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    It’s not an issue of software at all… the City has long had Microstation. The issue is that the EM has wiped out planning in the City.

    And what, pray tell, process are you trying to reverse?

    You want to reverse decaying old houses from decaying?

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Damn, obvious that you do not grasp or understand what you are saying at all.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    The City is in a huge comeback. And when Charlie Blessing Retired planning went to hell with Bill Smith taking over. Coleman was not stupid and could not suffer fools lightly.

    Central Planning??? Wow are you ever out of touch!

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    You have got it Nicholas!… We need many more Lafayette Parks to regenerate the city vigorously… not Damned McMansions all over the place. The city was being strangled by the grid and the new arteries brought much needed circulation. But the circulation was a two way street. You can get about Detroit quickly because of these arteries.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Yes there needs to be proper circulation into our new “Sports Town” or Jock City. Been to Tennessee? See Rock City? Well see Jock City! Watch the boys sweat!

    Talk Gores into moving into that area and Detroit will have something Unique to talk about.

    Put in a Racquet Club and exercise Center like the Levin’s Eastbank Racket Club in Chicago and the town will go wild.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Nothing quite like inane speak!

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    It is true that Alf Sloan wanted 2 cars for every house and he set about to destroy Mass Transit throughout America.

    He was successful. And In Saginaw I saw some relatively new “Ranch” houses on the south side of town with as many as 5 cars parked on the front lawn. No point in laughing. The point is to think.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    And it forced the destruction of Redlining.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Again true.

    And leading to an explosion.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Chicken or the Egg. Hand in glove…

    There are areas where the expressway is inadequate forcing
    huge traffic jams.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Detroit is not destroyed! It’s being shuffled.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Bill Ford talked about this in TED.

    When I was in college the DEMON was the Automobile so here we see that the DEMON is Urban Planning, and now we hear that the Demon is the Highway system.. all so full of nonsense and mysticism and mystical thinking.

    I heard it called Stupid last night and that assessment was right on!

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Shame shame such nonsense! Obviously you are not old enough to know what you are saying.

    Yes there are many abandoned commercial areas… guess who gets to clean them up and pay those expenses. But your observation is wildly weighted.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    Detroit has not been destroyed despite Ron Flees demolishing so many wonderful buildings at the DEGC.

    Did he really help? Let’s give him a minor partial on that but Jock City may well be his plan.