Detroit, in southeastern Michigan, is the state’s largest city and largest port, and the seventhlargest city in the nation. It is a leading industrial center and, as the world’s foremost motor vehicle manufacturing center, has earned the nickname “The Motor City.” Detroit faces Windsor, in Ontario, Canada, across the Detroit River, which is part of a vitally important waterway linking the lower and upper Great Lakes regions—Lake Erie to Lake St Clair. The waterway continues via the St Clair River to Lake Huron and the upper Great Lakes. The Detroit River is the narrowest point in this waterway. The city’s strategic position on the left bank facilitated its early growth as a major port.
Detroit covers 139 square miles, spreading west from the river across a vast plain; lakes and rolling hills fringe the northwest. Summers are temperate, while winters are fairly cold. The greater metropolitan area includes Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St Clair, and Wayne Counties for a total area of 4,326 square miles. Detroit’s population reached a peak of 1,850,000 in 1950; today the number hovers around 1,000,000. The population over the greater metropolitan area is about 4,700,000. Detroit has a large African-American community and the nation’s largest Arab, Belgian, and Bulgarian communities.
As the motor vehicle industry grew, industrial suburbs formed a ring around the inner city, while residential suburbs formed an outer ring. The soaring buildings that make up the downtown skyline, most notably the landmark Renaissance Center and the Civic Center, are clustered around the shoreline across from Windsor. From here a network of highways and expressways spreads out like the spokes of a wheel. The city plan was modeled on the L’Enfant plan of Washington, DC, which has major streets radiating out from a series of circles. However, in Detroit’s case, the major streets are up to nine lanes wide. Cars were at the heart of this and most other planning decisions in twentieth-century Detroit.
The city has its origins in the Fort Pontchartrain trading post, built on a bluff overlooking the strait here in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his soldiers to protect the waterways for French commercial interests. In 1760 Detroit surrendered to the British, and in the following years many of its French settlers relocated to St Louis, Missouri. In 1763, Chief Pontiac led his Ottawa tribe into battle against the European invasions, but lost out to the British, who retained control of Detroit—and the waterway it commanded—for the next 32 years. By 1805 Detroit was under American rule, although it was briefly reheld by the British in 1812-13. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 transformed the Great Lakes into the world’s largest inland waterway and enhanced Detroit’s role as a trade center. By the 1840s it had grown to a city of 10,000. Abundant raw materials encouraged the building of ships, carriages, and furniture; mining in the Upper Peninsula initiated copper and iron smelting. A rail link with Chicago opened in 1852. Cheap and easy transportation led to another dramatic growth spurt.
By 1900, Detroit was a major metal manufacturing center, the heart of the expanding motor vehicle industry, and the transportation hub for the Midwest. The city attracted inventors, engineers, and innovators such as Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds. The motor vehicle was the dominant influence on the city’s economy until the recession of the 1980s.
Detroit’s other great claim to fame, the “Motown Sound,” was created in the 1960s by Berry Gordy Jr. in a basement studio. Soon the nation’s airwaves were filled with hits from Motown artists Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder.
Detroit has also seen some of the worst racial disturbances in the nation. In 1967 a week-long riot that took 43 lives marked the beginning of the inner city’s downturn. In the last decades of the twentieth century Detroit’s decaying core became notorious for its crime, poverty, and widespread unemployment. The city center was a ghost town after business hours. Arson sprees on Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween) made the headlines in the 1980s and early 1990s.
During the recession, heavy industrial businesses such as motor vehicle manufacturing and metal production moved out of the city center. The 1990s have seen a steady turnaround. Following the election of Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993, much has been accomplished in the fight against urban decay. New industries such as medical research, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, robotics, software, computer components, and high-tech research labs now support one-third of the economy. Ford Motor Company and General Motors (GM) still have their world headquarters here.
A new theater district is emerging on the north side and construction has begun on countless new office buildings, hotels, residences, and two new major-league sports stadiums. Citizen volunteers and city officials have teamed up to quell Devil’s Night activities.
Any visit should include a tour of the Civic Center and Cobo Arena on the waterfront. The city center has one of the largest collections of early twentieth-century skyscrapers in the nation, most notably the Guardian, Penobscot, Book, and David Stott buildings. Lively Greektown, nearby, is known for its bakeries and restaurants.
Just to the north is Trinity Lutheran Church, a small neo-Gothic cathedral dating from 1850, and the Eastern Farmers Market, built originally for hay and wood, and now housing a wholesale produce market, meat-packing center, flower market, fish market, and gourmet food center. North of downtown in the New Center area is the Fisher Tower, an Art-Deco skyscraper built in the 1920s, and the Motown Museum. The Cultural Center, near Wayne State University, includes the Detroit Science Center (with interactive displays for children), the prestigious Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, and the Museum of African-American History (with its chilling fullscale model of chained slaves on a transport ship). The influential 1920s ceramics of Mary Chase Perry Stratton are on display at the historic Pewabic Pottery (on East Jefferson). In the outer areas Fisher Mansion, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Fair Lane, and Meadow Brook Hall are palatial reminders of the wealth of the auto barons. Fort Wayne, in the city’s southwest, houses a museum of Detroit military history; the Great Lakes Indian Museum, Indian burial mound, and Tuskegee Airmen Museum are on the same grounds.
Each Labor Day weekend Detroit hosts the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival. Belle Isle, the city’s largest park, was designed by Frederick Olmsted, also responsible for New York’s Central Park. Its 1,000 acres house a zoo, an aquarium, a conservatory, riding stables, the Detroit Yacht Club, and a marine museum. Each year the park hosts the Detroit Grand Prix, and it is also a popular spectator spot for the Gold Cup speedboat races. Other popular places include Rouge, Palmer, and Chandler Parks, and the large freshwater beach on Lake St Clair.
From Detroit, I-94 runs east to Chicago. Detroit Metropolitan Airport, buses, and trains service the area. As in the rest of the state, cars are essential, though bus tours are available, and a monorail, the People Mover, circles the city center. A wealth of dining and lodging options are available in every price range. Detroit is a much safer place today than it was late in the twentieth century. However, as in any big city, the element of crime exists, so take precautions, especially after dark.