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

After

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

After

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.

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

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. The city had already lost over 500,000 residents between the end of World War II and the 1967 riots. Most of that was because of at-least 8 major car company bankruptcies and at-least a dozen more car plant shutdowns in the city between 1945 and 1960 plus lots of jobs lost as suppliers and in the service industry.

    There were a number of other issues that also contributed such as Detroit’s strong middle class even in the 1920s that enabled lots of residents to buy cars as City public transit had an under-capacity problem that resulted in would be trolley riders often having to wait 90 minutes at intermediate stops just to board a trolley.

    The City’s trolley service also had a long-running disagreement with the operators of suburban trolley and interurban lines, and forced those operators to unload their passengers at outlying transfer stations for the ride into the city on City-owned streetcars, which wasted more time and encouraged greater auto ownership.

    Detroit and its suburbs had good-quality roads before many cities had. The original designer was French and wanted to copy the grand boulevards of Paris so he left lots of extra road right of way in his design, a luxury that many city designers neglected.

    Detroit’s Woodward Ave was paved and 4-6 lanes all the way to the city limits by 1918, and opened as a divided 4-lane high speed boulevard all the way from downtown Detroit to downtown Pontiac 28 miles away in 1923. Commuting by car was possible from Royal Oak, Birmingham, and even Bloomfield Hills and Pontiac after Woodward was finished.

    Other major boulevards were built away from downtown Detroit like spokes on a wheel on all sides of the city except toward Canada in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Detroit was the car capital of the world in the 1920s.

    The thing that killed the city the worst happened during World War II. During the war the War Department built hundreds of major single-story outlying defense plants and military bases, and connected them to nearby cities with modern divided highways and even some freeways, so that war workers and supplies could get to and from these facilities.

    In Detroit’s case the War Department built the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant 39 miles west of downtown, almost to Ann Arbor, and then they built a simple 4-lane freeway to connect it to Detroit’s far west side, so that the 60,000 employees that worked around the clock could get to and from their jobs The road was called the Detroit Industrial Freeway, and today’s I-94 follows the same route. Several more war plants were built north of the city and major roads were built out to service them too.

    The new freeway ended on its east end at the intersection of Michigan Ave and Wyoming, which is right on the city’s west border. Nearby were several car plants that made parts and subassemblies for the B-24, and the freeway began just-in-time delivery of those parts at a speed that railroads could not compete with. Parts made overnight were rushed to the plant by heavy truck and within a hour or two after arrival were already assembled into new bombers, which eliminated the need for warehousing huge amounts of assembly parts.

    As it turned-out, single-story manufacturing using just-in-time supply by truck was less than half the cost of operating old multi-story inner city factories located then on very-expensive land along freight railroad lines. After the war, thanks in-part to the Housing Act of 1934 and its 20% down 20-year mortgage, inner-city factory owners couldn’t wait to move their operations out of town Detroit’s network of major boulevards and other major arteries also helped lots of factory owners to move to the suburbs.

    Detroit was one of the first cities to abandon its trolley system, some of it before World War II, including all the suburban trolley and interurban lines, which couldn’t compete against the area’s modern roads and high rate of car ownership. Less than 2 years after the war ended the city shut down about 40% of its remaining trolley lines and replaced them with buses, and after 1951 the city only operated 4 or its onetime 27 trolley routes all on major boulevards.

    In 1951 there were only two axial freeways in Detroit and a short crosstown freeway only 2 & 1/.2 miles long, and yet the city was losing its major employers as fast as they could build new outlying plants and move out of the city. Other plant owners that were underfunded and couldn’t afford to move eventually were driven bankrupt.

    The first two victims were Huppmobile and Graham-Paige. Right up until World War II both companies made cars, merging just before the war. During the war both plants made war materials, but the combined company did not manage to restart car production after the war. After the war Graham Paige invested in a couple of car ventures that rapidly failed, Kaiser-Frazer and Willys Overland.

    Kaiser Frazer had been making cars in the former bomber plant after the war but after a critical fire at a major GM automatic transmission plant in 1953 they agreed to move to the Willys plant in Toledo if GM paid for it . 1953 was also the last year that they made cars as that same year saw a recession.

    The next victim was Hudson, which was once America’s 3rd-largest car company. They had 3 plants in Detroit. Their main plant on the east side was a 7-story behemoth that once employed 25,000 people. Hudson bought their automatic transmissions from GM and the GM transmission plant fire set Hudson back too. Their last year was 1954.

    Another car company that foundered right after Hudson was Nash, which had an old multistory plant on the city’s northwest side. Rambler, Nash, and Hudson all merged and production was moved into Rambler’s Wisconsin plants. The new company was known as American Motors. You remember the Javelin, the Gremlin, and the Pacer? Those were AMC cars .

    Then in 1956 another recession started and got fairly bad in Detroit with 16% unemployment. The next victim was Packard, which had a huge old plant also on the northeast side. In financial difficulty Packard made an ill-advised merger with Studebaker and then abandoned their costly old multistory plant in-favor of a smaller plant that had recently been vacated by Briggs Body, at the time a competitor for Fisher Body. Packard went bankrupt in 1958, while Studebaker retreated to Fort Wayne, where they died in 1963.

    Then in 1959 both Federal Motor Truck, a Detroit company that built trucks all the way from pickup trucks up to truck tractors went bankrupt, as did Chrysler’s Desoto Division. Desoto had 3 Detroit plants, one of which was on the east side just down the street from where Hudson’s plant was . After Studebaker went under, Continental Engine, which supplied Studebaker and a number of other small Detroit car companies with engines, also went bankrupt. A Budd wheel plant north of Hudson also went under.

    Frankly, just between 1945 and 1960 Detroit saw the loss of about 250,000 middle-class jobs with several smaller auto companies going bankrupt combined with the job loss as dozens of major plants were moved to the suburbs into new single-story plants, plus the spinoff in service and supply. Both GM and Ford also moved their corporate headquarters out of Detroit to its suburbs in the mid-1950s too.

    The same year that the Interstate highway act was signed into law Detroit’s last surviving trolley line up Woodward Ave closed. The city still only had two freeways, the Ford Freeway, now I-94, which runs crosstown just a couple miles north of downtown, and the Lodge Freeway, US 10, which was the only freeway that came into downtown at that time, plus the short crosstown stretch of the Davison Freeway which is at-least 5 miles northwest of downtown.

    Detroit was in serious trouble after losing so many jobs in the big late-1950s recession. While the 1960s were fairly stable there were two small recessions in the 1970s before a giant recession almost as bad as the Great Recession started in 1979 and Detroit didn’t really recover from it after losing another 25 or more major car plants and a number of other major suppliers until the 1990s, by which time city population had fallen by half from its 1950 high.

    Anyone who thinks that building I-75 and I-375 in the 1960s somehow destroyed Detroit doesn’t know what they are talking about, as the city was already in bad shape before those roads were built. I-75 was built through a low-income minority neighborhood and I-96 was partially built through a run-down industrial area through abandoned factories but both highways did in-fact destroy some housing too.

    The 1967 riots were at-least as big a contributor to the ongoing demise of the city as building the two freeways built there in the 1960s. If we will recall there was another big race riot in Detroit during World War II also. The city’s violent crime and murder rates through the 1960s and 1970s were very high too.

    If it just hadn’t been for the big 1979 to 1984 double-dip recession which saw Detroit’s jobless rate shoot up to 25%, the big 1990-1991 recession, which saw 20% unemployment, and then free unfair trade, which killed all but 5 remaining car plants there adn dozens more suppliers, out of more than 100 car plants at one time, Detroit wouldn’t be in nearly as bad shape as it is today.

    The main reason for Detroit’s demise is the fact that the city has lost 80% of all its middle-class jobs since World War II ended. It only took one 4-lane freeway built by the War Department that didn’t even enter the city, along with just one big outlying single-story defense plant to absolutely murder Detroit’s heavy multistory manufacturing base, which had paid a lot of the city’s tax revenue and had employed a large share of its residents.

    End of story. Inner-city freeways were only a very minor contributor to Detroit’s demise and without them, a lot less suburbanites would be willing to come downtown for sporting events, concerts, festivals, or to work.

  11. What highways are you talking about? Detroit was in serious trouble after losing about 200,000 middle-class jobs just between the end of World War II and 1960. Only one freeway came into downtown until the late 1960s, the Lodge Freeway, US 10.

    I wrote an extensive piece on this issue above but I lived in Metro-Detroit and worked there most of my career too. Detroit’s high middle-class income combined with its under-sized trolley system had far more local residents buying cars than was the case in most cities, which resulted in building a fair amount of quality roads in the teens and 1920s there, long before the first freeway was built there.

    Of course the Housing Act of 1934 and its revisions was a major factor along with a major race riot during World War II. However, the most major factor that killed Detroit happened during World War II and it rapidly destroyed the onetime value of hundreds of major inner-city multistory industrial plants within just 15 years after the war ended.

    During the war the War Department built hundreds of major single-story outlying defense plants and large outlying military bases, and connected them to nearby cities with modern divided highways and even some freeways, so that war workers and supplies could get to and from these facilities.

    In Detroit’s case the War Department built the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant 39 miles west of downtown, almost to Ann Arbor, and then they built a simple 4-lane freeway to connect it to Detroit’s far west side, so that the 60,000 employees that worked around the clock could get to and from their jobs. The road was called the Detroit Industrial Freeway, and today’s I-94 follows the same route. Several more war plants were built north of the city and major roads were built out to service them too.

    The new freeway ended on its east end at the intersection of Michigan Ave and Wyoming, which is right on the city’s west border. Nearby were several car plants that made parts and subassemblies for the B-24, and using the freeway heavy trucks began just-in-time delivery of those parts at a speed that railroads could not compete with. Parts made overnight were rushed to the plant by heavy truck and within a couple of hours after arrival were already being assembled into new bombers, which eliminated the need for warehousing huge amounts of assembly parts, as old multistory factories dependent on railroads for supply and shipment were required to do.

    As it turned-out, single-story manufacturing using just-in-time supply by truck was less than half the cost of operating old multi-story inner city factories located then on very-expensive land along freight railroad lines. After the war, thanks in-part to the Housing Act of 1934 and its 20% down 20-year mortgage, inner-city factory owners couldn’t wait to move their operations out of town. Detroit’s network of major boulevards and other major arteries also helped lots of factory owners and their employees
    move to the suburbs.

    Frankly, just between 1945 and 1960 Detroit saw the loss of about 200,000 middle-class jobs with several smaller auto companies going bankrupt combined with the job loss as dozens of major plants were moved to the suburbs into new single-story plants, plus the spinoff in service and supply. Both GM and Ford also moved their corporate headquarters out of Detroit to its suburbs in the mid-1950s too.

    Detroit was in serious trouble after losing so many jobs in the big late-1950s recession. While the 1960s were fairly stable there were two small recessions in the 1970s before a giant recession almost as bad as the Great Recession started in 1979 and Detroit didn’t really recover from it after losing another 25 or more major car plants and a number of other major suppliers until the 1990s, by which time city population had fallen by half from its 1950 high.

    Anyone who thinks that building I-75 and I-96 in the 1960s somehow destroyed Detroit doesn’t know what they are talking about, as the city was already in bad shape before those roads were built. I-75 was built through a low-income minority neighborhood and I-96 was partially built through a run-down industrial area through abandoned factories but both highways did in-fact destroy some housing too.

    The 1967 riots were at-least as big a contributor to the ongoing demise of the city as building the two freeways built there in the 1960s. If we will recall there was another big race riot in Detroit during World War II also. The city’s violent crime and murder rates through the 1960s and 1970s were very high too. Building the Brewster Douglas public housing project near downtown was also a mistake.

    If it just hadn’t been for the big 1979 to 1984 double-dip recession which saw Detroit’s jobless rate shoot up to 25%, the big 1990-1991 recession, which saw 20% unemployment, and then free unfair trade, which killed all but 5 remaining car plants there and dozens more suppliers, out of more than 100 car plants at one time, Detroit wouldn’t be in nearly as bad shape as it is today.

    The main reason for Detroit’s demise is the fact that the city has lost 80% of all its middle-class jobs since World War II ended. It only took one 4-lane freeway built by the War Department that didn’t even enter the city, along with just one big outlying single-story defense plant to absolutely murder Detroit’s heavy multistory manufacturing base, which had paid a lot of the city’s tax revenue and had employed a large share of its residents.

    End of story. Inner-city freeways were only a very minor contributor to Detroit’s demise and without them, a lot less suburbanites would be willing to come downtown for sporting events, concerts, festivals, dinners out, or to work.

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