A Haunting Glimpse at How Detroit Gave Way to Asphalt and Cars

A historic house used to sit at 3539 Russell Street, which is now a distribution center. Before photo: Dave Jordano; comparison via Detroit Street View
A historic house used to sit at 3539 Russell Street, which is now a distribution center. Before photo: Dave Jordano; comparison via Detroit Street View

These before and after photos of Detroit, compiled by Detroit Street View on Twitter, capture how the mass motoring era hollowed out American cities.

Detroit may have changed more than most urban places, but it was subject to the same forces as other cities — white flight and suburbanization facilitated by car infrastructure, the loss and dispersal of manufacturing jobs, migration to the Sunbelt. These haunting images portray a transformation that happened all over the country.

Detroit before 5

Detroit after 5

It’s barely recognizable, but the blue building on the left corresponds with the white building on the left in the top photo. Since the 1960s, asphalt to carry car traffic has swallowed up the buildings and businesses that made this area walkable.

Here’s one that captures the city in an in-between phase. In 1975, elevated highways had arrived, but people like the residents of this well-kept little house still persevered:

Detroit before

detroit after

Today, that house is gone. This section of 22nd Street was removed to widen the Ambassador Bridge to Canada in the late 2000s, a project that has met with a barrage of legal challenges.

Here’s a shot of a more central neighborhood, already looking neglected in 1980.

Detroit before 2

Detroit after 2The corner retail in the foreground of the before photo, at Clifford and Sibley Street, was removed to make way for the Detroit Redwings arena and a parking garage, according to Detroit Street View.

These photos show Elizabeth Street in Downtown Detroit. The large brick building in the foreground on the right was demolished in the 1970s after a long period of vacancy.

Detroit before 7


In the background of the photo below, of 3rd & Selden, you can see the Jeffries Homes, public housing built in 1953. It was demolished in 2001 and replaced with low-rise housing.

Detroit before 6


These photos capture Detroit at various stages in the cycle of disinvestment. As urban land values become lower, facilitated by highway sprawl and plant closures, more and more space becomes vacant or devoted to low-value uses like parking.

Obviously, if Detroit’s economic fortunes had been different, the city would look a lot different today. But with few exceptions, every U.S. city has succumbed to this same pattern, albeit less dramatically.

Thanks to Detroit Street View for helping us see clearly what has been lost.

  • Folicle

    Your point may be a good one but Detroit isn’t a very good example to use because there is no major US city that has seen such a decline in population (well over 50%) in this time period. For me the overwhelming sense from these images is of a city in structural decline and not one ravaged by autos.

    Contrast that with US cities that have seen huge growth and prosperity, and the images would show the opposite trend. Probably along with complaints of “gentrification”.

    If anything, the decline of Detroit can be seen more as the decline of the auto industry.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    True, though the Detroit metro as a whole has around the same population as when the city proper was at its peak!

  • Michael

    That may be the case, but the fact that Detroit had a 20-plus year head start on constructing the car-based society should give us all pause. It’s worth considering whether they are the canary in the coal mine, versus writing them off as an outlier.

    1 thing we can say with 100% certainty from the Detroit model is that the car-based society is certainly not a “sure thing” or a “guaranteed success.” We only have 1 city that’s been doing this for 100 years and it’s failed more or less catastrophically.

  • WQ4

    Great photo documentation. Some of the “after” photos not only portray places devoid of people: they also portray places devoid of automobiles.

  • How much of Detroit’s decline was because of automobiles and how much was because of severe issues with racism? Both are at fault, in my opinion. Both have done their damage. But if I had to pick just one thing that’s done more damage to the City of Detroit over any other thing, I’d go with racism. It has seeped into all areas of life, and into every corner of not just Detroit but of Metro Detroit. It is an ever present under current in education, employment, social activities, government operations,… you name it.

  • ED
  • Vooch

    at least Detroit finally has enough car parking

    look at the bright side

  • You know!

    A good article but…Detroits population didn’t exit because of the freeways .They left due to the 1967 riots and federal mandated public school busing. The election of Coleman Young exasperated the population fight too.

  • EcoAdvocate

    if the downtown, more urban areas were not bought up and given to the motor vehicle, there would have been a) a more economically stable downtown b) more urban density in the center c) a better tax-base–the properties were bringing in property taxes, when a municipality owns the space, parking lots, added lanes it not only brings in 0 property tax but 1) devalues the surrounding space 2) instead of being income, it’s a major cost to maintain
    I’ve read at one point someone who referred to parking lots in downtown areas as missing teeth. A missing tooth or two might not be much of a problem, but when you have missing teeth in a row, several of them, they lead in the vicious cycle of further breakdown.

  • EcoAdvocate

    The automobile infra allowed the white flight to happen. If there was no money, no motivation to build all of these highways and overpasses so people could get in and out of the city in their personal automobubbles every day, people would have chosen to live in a more central location.

  • Brandon

    Detroit doesn’t have good bones. few things are within walking distance. Its major museums are unceremoniously placed along Woodward, a 6+ lane road. Its most prominent park, belle Isle is not within walking distance of almost any residents, and it has a surprisingly large amount of parking and roads. Sadly the city is designed like a lower density suburb, with downtown just a somewhat dense office park.

    There are exceptions but overall Detroit wasn’t designed at a human scale and the era of highway building only made it worse. ITs been a challenge to create a modern walkable city out of the cities exiting road network


Vehicle City

Foreign correspondence from Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces: I was working in Flint, Michigan the first part of this week. Remarkably, for a city that was planned for everything but people, there are still some great people working to create a genuine "Steets Rennaissance." Flint originally built itself around the car and, after […]

The 2015 Parking Madness Championship! Camden vs. Parkersburg

Welcome to the World Series of asphalt. The Super Bowl of lifeless city blocks. Today is the Parking Madness championship — the culmination of our 16-city tournament showcasing the worst parking craters to scar America’s downtowns. Are you excited? We are! Streetsblog readers have winnowed the field down to two of the finest examples of poor urban land […]

Parking Madness Final Four: Niagara Falls vs. Louisville

Only three cities are left in the running for the Golden Crater in Parking Madness 2016. Today’s matchup will determine which insane parking will take on Federal Way, Washington, in the championship match. Read up on the case for these two semi-finalists and vote below. Niagara Falls Niagara Falls is stunning, isn’t it? This is downtown, just a few […]

Detroit Gets Back to Its Pre-Motor City Roots With Bike Manufacturing

In all the havoc this latest recession has unleashed upon Detroit, a few refrains have been echoed repeatedly: recapture the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, embrace the green economy, and reduce dependency on the auto industry. There’s no better example of Detroit taking those recommendations to heart than Detroit Bikes. Todd Scott at M-Bike.org has this report: They […]