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 The tight network of small streets and small blocks has been replaced by mega blocks.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

  • Giuliana S

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

  • Giuliana S

    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.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    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.

  • Brandon

    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.

  • Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    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.


  • Kevin Miller

    A bit delayed, but I made a GIF of the images: http://i.imgur.com/jGPzsSG.gif

  • 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?

  • It did happen in Los Angeles too. They bought up the rails going downtown, then shut them down.


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