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 The tight network of small streets and small blocks has been replaced by mega blocks.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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 11.18.14 AM

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 10.36.41 AM
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.

110 thoughts on 7 Photos Show How Detroit Hollowed Out During the Highway Age

  1. Wanted to add that “rapid movement” accepted as a criteria is questionable in itself, but reflective of a certain American ethos.

  2. Thank you. I have two degrees in music, and my one urban living experience was in the Mount Auburn neighborhood in Cincinnati in the 70s. I wanted to get another degree—in urban planning, but my parents said I needed to get a job! Here in Cleveland, where I am an east side inner-ring resident. I pay attention, and frequently ride a bicycle through what some consider to be Cleveland’s “ghetto” neighborhoods—Glenville, Kinsman, Woodland Hills, by day, needless to say. I have gotten to know inner-city residents and have a different view of these communities than I ever could have had in a car or on a bus. For one thing, you actually see people out and about far more than in the ‘burbs. On a muggy day, I can count on being offered a cold drink from someone relaxing with friends on a front porch or in a driveway. I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Berea; this was a reflection of my parents’ values. I think all this explains where I am coming from.

  3. Thank you Giuliana, I think that we come from a similar place. Yes, Black people can be absolutely wonderful and caring. That is why I have steered clear of white women in particular having witnessed some mean spiritedness that was shocking.

    And yes I am concerned because I was the first Chief Architect of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. And I am appalled by their move away from funding housing in the city. We did some great projects but now they provide mortgages for single family dwellings for people retiring up north in the Woods. This is another ghastly Republican Reverse.

    They are skilled at trying to reverse good things.

    Now why would I post so much here? Well, because I see that there is lots of confusion going on and actually have tried to clear things up with everyone on this issue.

    I have worked in the planning environment and even tried to stop the Martin Luther King Project nearby because it housed too many people together in a tight space. There were something like 7 murders there in the past several years.

    People do like to get together but too many in an interminable time begin to get on each others nerves.

    Because we are in a current movement of demolishing decrepit houses bigtime, Blacks are moving out into the suburbs. There is no clear plan for growth.

    Housing Development Authority?? Who, whah, whatcha talkin bout?

    Republicans are Death against Planning. It has been in their mantra for many years. That is why, Walter Reuther, and Herb Greenwalt were assasinated. Walter was behind Lafayette Park and was a close friend of Oskar Stonoroff the Philadelphia Architect who was an avowed Comminist. Zow! That would really set of Senator McCarthy the other insane politician from Wisconsin.

    Believe me they are dangerous crazy.

    Now let’s try to bring some reason into this.
    The headline set me off. I thought that it might be a ploy to generate a vigorous discussion about this important topic… a sort of didactic technique. Say something outrageous and sit back and watch it play out.

    Well for me the thin is this… Cars are not Evil, Roads are not Evil, Housing is not Evil, Shops are not Evil, Schools are not Evil. But people in any one of them can be very stupid and evil… the problem is people.

    Screaming at a road or highway may ultimately gather some other ears and people can make a move to change things for the better. But you have to recognize that no matter what, typically the Republicans are against it.

    Yes planning is important! Yes planning education is crucial and i’m partial thinking that it’s good to have some architectural experience ahead of that. And in Detroit the Governor has appointed a friend to head up planning so they hacked down the department to 3 including the secretaries. And, of course the new head is an Attorney!!! What the hell do attorneys know about planning? Zip, Zero, Zilch, Nada.

    And yes you are right Road planning is apart of Urban planning.

    When I was in school 50 years ago we were assigned to come up with a plan for Ann Arbor. It was evident to me that a huge bottleneck was the fact that there was no good circulation on the East side of of the City so we built a model showing that.

    Guess what Happened within 10 years… a beautiful road on the East side. It worked.

    Let me explain Further…
    Planning was set up in the Architectural School as an Advanced degree when I was there. Also Landscape Architecture was taught in the same building. They had a good department and later moved to the school of Natural Resources.

    There were two Brothers named Johnson who had gone to Harvard to learn Landscape Architecture. The thrust of their schooling was modeling the earth and knowing how to beautifully design roadways unlike the thrust at Michigan State which was more Planting Oriented. Really quite different.

    The Johnson Brothers JJ@Roy became famous and had landed some huge commissions. They did that beautiful roadway on the East and the Beautiful entrance into Cranbrook. And in their early years they went to work for the City of Kalamazoo making beautiful presentation drawings and advocated cutting cars off the Main Shopping Street and making it entirely people friendly and walkable. The street furniture, plantings, trees, lighting, and paving were wonderful, absolutely so.

    So what happened? Well all the businesses went out of business and it was a disaster! So they had to tare it up and bring parking back in. Apparently people would not give up the convenience of their Cars and the convenience of short walking distances. Should we have brought in the Black Snake whips and shaped them up? Not really.

    So there are lots of subtleties involved in grand scheming. And experience may be necessary as it actually, usually is.

    And now way would I attempt to discourage you in your love of planning. The field needs bright, creative people.

  4. Hey that’s a coincidence, I currently work for MSHDA. Have you heard about the state’s Placemaking efforts? I’m curious to know what you think. As for not funding housing in the city, MSHDA has funded rental units in the city. They have also recently funded some single family units, but for the most part they believe that the supply of single family houses is larger than the current demand. In fact MSHDA mostly funds demolitions in Detroit.

    I like downtown Kalamazoo, especially the remnants of the pedestrian mall. Right now they have two blocks with a one lane road in the middle. Not one lane in each direction, but one lane total. Thus while cars are allowed through and their is street parking, you still have quiet and a feeling of safety. Downtown Kalamazoo wouldn’t be the same if it had a 4 lane road in the middle. Besides pictures, I don’t know what it was like to walk in the old pedestrian mall, but the current street is really really nice, even if its only two blocks.

  5. Thanks Brandon,
    Nice to hear fresh news. There was an interesting group there when I signed in only about 17 people. I established the position of Chief Architect which may or may not still exist and I hired the cost estimator Gary Nesbitt. We had a young, fun group.

    Apparently Attorney General Rogers, under Nixon came up with the programs for tax write offs to get money for funding housing. He later headed up the Kennedy assassination investigation.

    No I have not heard about the Placemaking efforts. Are there any Architects there? I hope so.

    Wish that there were a way to lighten up the MLKing housing and move in and do some more housing expanding out from Lafayette park. This really is the finest way to put up housing from a long term construction perspective.

    Now is the time to be putting up townhouse projects again. Our units have gone up from around 100k to now 200k this year. They are highly prized. And from my perspective, while I love to see younger people moving in too many Blacks are not and we sadly are missing something.

    Filling in I-375 and turning it into a surface street would be a disaster for us.

    Because Planning has been destroyed i wonder exactly what will happen… too many cooks in the kitchen now. And too many who have not taken Le Cordon Bleu course.

    What is your background?

    In keeping with what Giuliana was saying there should be a huge coordinated effort going on at this point in time with Housing and Street designs in development efforts. LP is way to successful to be ignored as a development model.

    And no you cannot do Mies in wood. Virtually every one of Zeke’s projects has turned to junk. It’s beyond a shame. Some intelligence needs to be applied to Parc West to fix it up.

    It would be fun to talk with you in person.

    And the new logo for MSHDA is terrible!
    The whole idea was to improve housing for Blacks.
    The original was designed by Kathy and Mike McCoy from Cranbrook and it contained a Rainbow which indicated purpose and intention. More on that later.

    I am glad that Brian Conway is with you now. The effort to have LP placed in Historic Landmark Status is Marvelous.

    MSHDA could be great if properly organized and directed.

    BTW I lived in the Goetsch Winkler House in Okemos while there. MSHDA should step up on that one.


  6. In your last shot, what you call Tiger Stadium is actually Comerica Park, as Tiger Stadium was on the west side of downtown at the corner of Michigan Ave and Trumbull, west of the Lodge Freeway and on the south side of I-75 at that point, a bit east of the biggest crack house in the city, the old train station there. Crazy driving by there in the middle of winter at night and seeing a dozen fires burning on the upper floors with its inhabitants trying to stay warm!

    Removing I-375 would just make it more-difficult to get to the waterfront downtown and on the near east side. I could see maybe making it a boulevard rather than a freeway as the maintenance cost would be less, and maybe even reducing the number of lanes which might create enough space for some mixed use development alongside it too, but I can’t see entirely ripping it out and losing the right of way and the access it provides either.

    “Glamorous” Cleveland? I don’t see how those two words go together myself. At one time Northland Mall in Detroit was almost glamorous but that was a long time ago. When was the last time that Cleveland was glamorous? Maybe back in the late 1920s?

  7. One more historical photo of Detroit, here is rush hour on Gratiot in 1941. You would rather have traffic like this on a 10-lane surface street than have it grade-separated on a freeway?

  8. Part Two

    Right after World War II ended about 40% of the remaining trolley routes were abandoned and replaced with buses in 1947 and 75% of what remained was replaced by buses in 1951, leaving the only trolley service on 4 major boulevards, which closed by 1956, the same year as the Interstate Highway Act passed. At that point the only freeways in Detroit were the Ford Freeway and the Lodge Freeway plus the short crosstown Davison Freeway. All other commuting traffic moved on the city boulevards and arteries, and yet 1956-59 was a very tough time in the city too.

    The metro-area also built a number of major boulevards like Woodward Ave, which carried lots of car traffic before any freeways were built. In 1941 when that Gratiot rush hour photo was taken the only freeway in Detroit was then still under-construction, the crosstown Davison Freeway, which is only 2.5 miles long.

    This looks like a Sunday afternoon photo of Woodward Ave in Detroit from 1942, about 5 miles northwest of downtown. At the time there were 6 lanes of traffic divided with 2 streetcar tracks in the center, plus a parking lane on either side. Just a few miles north of here Woodward has a 220-foot wide right of way with 8 lanes divided by a 40-foot grass median that dates to the 1950s.


    Something unusual I learned in urban planning education in the 1980s was that Detroit’s original designers left a good deal more road right-of-way room than most city’s designers, which was how there was room to build Detroit’s major boulevards. Even in the 1920s the right of way for Woodward was 180 feet wide, and numerous other arteries had 65, 85, or 125 feet of right of way width. A 65-foot right of way makes for a decent 5-lane road today.

    Photo: Woodward Ave between McNichols and 7 Mile Rd in 1919 was a 4-lane paved road, and the extra right of way to its left eventually made it an 8-lane boulevard.


    One early thing that badly damaged Detroit and many other older industrial cities occurred during World War II when the War Department built hundreds of huge new single-story defense plants and huge military bases well outside cities. In Detroit’s case the Willow Run B-24 Liberator Plant was 39 miles from downtown, while there were several more war plants in the north suburbs.

    Photo: The Willow Run B-24 bomber plant produced a new aircraft every 40 minutes and at one time employed 60,000 workers 24/7:


    During the war the War Department pioneered the just-in-time delivery of assembly parts to those huge outlying defense plants coming from inner-city factories, and to speed the process up they built a number of modern divided highways and even freeways.

    It was the War Department that built the Detroit Industrial Freeway, now I-94 from the intersection of Michigan and Wyoming on the city’s far west side, just south of the DeSoto plant and near other major suppliers, and connected it to the Willow Run B-24 plant more than 20 miles away. That meant that parts and subassemblies made overnight on 3rd shift were already being assembled into bombers the next morning.

    The east end of the Detroit Industrial Freeway was at Michigan and Wyoming. This photo is from 1949, just as work was starting on the Ford Freeway east of Wyoming.
    The plants to the north of the intersection are Desoto and McGraw Glass, which once made windshields and windows for Chrysler.


    Between much-greater efficiency in single-story manufacturing and rapid truck-based just-in-time supply that cut way down on warehousing needs, those old multistory inner-city factories sitting on once very-expensive land along inner-city railroad lines, supplied by railroad freight simply couldn’t compete, and after the war better-financed factory owners just couldn’t wait to leave the city to build big new outlying single-story factories in the suburbs. The same thing happened in Cleveland, Denver, and Los Angeles among plenty of other places.

    The mass exodus of prime industry right after the war took most of their employees with them, and left lesser underfunded companies in the city. Hudson was a huge car company that employed 50,000 people in the early 1950s but they were underfunded and never built a V-8 motor either as all the bigger companies were doing by then. The 1953 recession hurt Hudson, Nash, Packard, and DeSoto and their big inner-city multistory railroad served plants just couldn’t compete against the Big 3 who moved numerous plants to the suburbs in the 1950s.

    Photo: Continental Engine and Hudson together employed about 35,000 people here. This photo dates to the early 1940s. Both those plants are long-gone, as well as close to 90% of those houses too: Chrysler Jefferson South Assembly, which built DeSotos, also long gone today, was just out of the photo to the left about a half-mile. The old multistory plant in the upper left of the photo was Budd Wheel, also long closed, and the site in the center-left is where Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly is now.


    Here is an older aerial of Packard’s old plant when it was still open. Almost all the houses that surround it are gone too: This plant used to employ 12,000 in World War II.


    Ford’s Lincoln brand was made in Detroit through 1952 when the plant closed and its production moved to the suburbs: The plant was at West Warren and Livernois.


    This plant once belonged to Fisher Body and later to GM’s Hydramatic transmission division, which made over one million automatic transmissions at the plant before moving to a new plant in Livonia in 1949:


    Both Ford and General Motors moved their corporate headquarters out of Detroit to neighboring suburbs in the mid-1950s too. In-reality a couple hundred plants closed in Detroit between 1945 and 1960, with many moving to the suburbs while quite a few more went bankrupt. Here is an interesting blog on old Detroit factories that includes lots of discussion, photos, and maps.


    Freeways helped cause the collapse of inner-city Detroit but not so much because they marginally increased potential commuting distance over Detroit’s older boulevards. It was because they enabled general-commodity freight and fresh food to move far more-efficiently than railroads could move those cargoes. Once the Interstate Highway system was 75% complete by the early 1970s companies were supplied by truck freight rather than rail freight and then could locate anywhere along those freeways.

    The loss of all those expensive to operate multi-story factories on expensive land along inner-city rail lines did major damage to our older industrial cities. As their factories fled to wide-open land in the suburbs through the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1967 and effectively even longer cities were forced to house their high service level minority populations in designated minority neighborhoods while White people fled the cities with their employers.

    Of course a number of big race riots in the 1960s also helped cause White flight as did the discriminatory Housing Act of 1934 and its revisions, and its practice of redlining available mortgage funding.

    No, freeways didn’t kill Detroit as the anti-car crowd seems to so fervently believe, just-in-time manufacturing in giant single-story suburban factories killed old expensive to operate multi-story factories in the inner-city, which up until the 1950s or 1960s sat on very-expensive land along inner-city freight railroad lines. The Interstate highway system made it possible for factories to locate anywhere along them and made nationwide time-sensitive shipping by heavy truck that railroads couldn’t compete against a reality too.

    Of course, factory workers and white-collar workers alike followed their employers to the suburbs. Obviously there is a whole lot more to what killed Detroit than freeways built through the inner-city after the city was already in serious trouble.

    Imagine your city losing 75-80% of its middle-class jobs over 60 years. The primary issue that so badly damaged Detroit was the loss of several hundred thousand middle-class jobs plus the spinoff in service and supply. Having to maintain infrastructure built for a much more-populous city is one of Detroit’s current problems, but at-least after lots of effort downtown Detroit seems to be coming back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


8 Monster Interchanges That Blight American Cities

Ramming highways through the middle of American cities was undoubtedly one of the worst mistakes of the 20th century — demolishing urban habitat, dividing neighborhoods, and erecting structures that suck the life out of places. What could be worse than a highway through the middle of town? How about when two highways intersect, with all […]
One of Michigan DOT's new principles for its I-94 project in Detroit is to improve walking and biking access on the bridges that cross over the sunken highway. Photo: Google Maps

Highway Planners Pause to Consider the Effect of Road Widening on Detroit Neighborhoods

Standard practice for the highway planners at state DOTs is to sacrifice all other concerns at the altar of fast car traffic. Nowhere has the effect been more obviously detrimental than Detroit, where the overbuilt freeway system helped hollow out one of America's largest cities. But highway planners in Michigan are starting to listen to people who say they want something different.

What Else Could Cities Do With the Space Devoted to Cars?

Steve Mouzon’s aerial comparison of an Atlanta interchange to the center of Florence has a lot of people thinking about the sheer amount of space that gets sacrificed to make room for cars in our cities. Darin at ATL Urbanist is thinking about how much space within Atlanta’s Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood, where he lives, is devoted to car […]