The Depopulating of Detroit  

by Theresa Welsh  Author of “A Guide to Post-Industrial Detroit: Unconventional Tours of an Urban Landscape”

I wrote this essay in 2008, my last full year of working at a regular job before retiring in 2009, making time to explore and document a city in trouble. The photos here are all from before 2010.

Every day on my way to work, I leave my street in Ferndale and drive a few blocks to Woodward Avenue, the main drag through the City of Detroit. Ferndale is an older suburb located just north of 8 Mile Rd, and a nice place to live. The houses are old, but well-kept, and the neighborhood is friendly and safe. But as I drive south on Woodward, lots of things change. I've become fascinated with the landscape of Woodward Avenue and have been taking pictures of what I see.

Woodward Avenue got its name from Judge Augustus B. WoodwardA modest fellow, he named it after himself when he rebuilt the city in its current street layout in 1805 after a devastating fire swept through the city. Today Woodward Avenue is lightly trafficked, as so many people have left the city. It's a short drive to work for me, with nary a traffic jam.


As I turn onto Woodward Avenue, it just takes a few minutes to reach the bridge over 8 Mile Rd, a bridge built and recently renovated, because at one time the traffic was very heavy at this intersection of two major highways; 8 Mile Road separates the City of Detroit from its Oakland County suburbs. Many local citizens had wanted the bridge taken down, since it is no longer justified by the traffic, but the Michigan Dept of Transportation decided to restore it, and adorned the exterior of its three levels with large reproductions of old photographs of the area.

Former Glory, Shrinking Population

Detroit has a wonderful history, and landmarks and evidence of that history are everywhere. There are so many historic sites along Woodward Avenue that in 2002 it was named one of America's "Scenic Byways." Founded in 1701 as a fort and trading post, Detroit was once the stove capital, building the sturdy "Detroit Jewell" gas stoves, and later became, as almost everyone knows, the auto capital. The Motor City. Home of the Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings. Home of Henry Ford. Birthplace of General Motors. And once home to close to two million people. But how many are left? Beginning with the riot in 1967, the year I married David and the year I was living less than a mile from where the riot started, the city began a steadydecline. I have lived in and out of the city over the years, and my daily drive down Woodward brings back memories of those years.

But mostly what I do is count the empty lots and derelict buildings. There are so many of each. The most beaten-down section is the short drive through Highland Park, which you reach just past 6 Mile Rd., beyond the former State Fair grounds, the cemeteries and golf course. North of 6 Mile are beautiful homes, built to last, and most still occupied by people who love them and take care of them.

But as you drive by the Déjà Vu Club at Woodward and 6 Mile, a building with a giant billboard on top advertising its sexy dancing girls, with a safely fenced-in parking lot in back, you begin to see crumbling brick buildings, empty storefronts, the Tabernacle Revival ministry in a former theater, a seedy motel with a sign proclaiming "weekly rates" and lots of vacant lots. I drive by the strip malls located on both sides of Woodward, built to replace a former downtown, retaining none of the urban look of what used to be there. Beyond that is the remains of former businesses, the Highland Appliance sign still in place over the storefront it once occupied, probably more than 20 years ago.

Home of Henry Ford and the Assembly Line

On the east side, the mall is named Model T Plaza for the old Model T factory just beyond it (the photo on the right —the red building— is Henry Ford's historic office building, with the factory beyond it). Highland Park is where Henry Ford built his original automobile for the masses, home of the moving assembly line and the $5 a day wage. At the Detroit Historical Museum (also located on Woodward Avenue) there is a photograph of this building with 12,000 workers standing in front of it. Henry Ford shut down the assembly line that day so the workers could assemble for the picture, which was taken during the boom period of the 1920s. Today, with a little imagination, you can still see the beautiful details of the office building, which was designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn. No one uses the building anymore, but there is a historical marker in front of it.

I drive by the Hotel Normandie, which is open for business. It is an elongated brick building next to one of the ubiquitous vacant lots, with a new sign out in front that says "Back Bills Forgiven." They must be trolling for business, in this city of ghost buildings. The hotel doesn't look like a place you'd want to stay, but its front door is propped open and the stairs up to a tired-looking small lobby becken. A few men are hanging around in front of the building. Beyond the vacant lot next to the hotel, on the side street, is an empty house, whose bricks have been stripped off.

Former Glory, Now in Ruins

Continuing down Woodward, off a small stub street on the east side, is what remains of the former city center, the once-imposing City Hall building with its fancy brickwork and gargoyles along the top, and the old Fire Station next to it, with three big doors that must have once had flashy red fire trucks ready to roar out should there be a fire. But now the doors appear permanently shut and five-foot tall weeds protrude from the numerous sidewalk cracks. Across from City Hall is the old Police Station, an elaborate building made of brick and stone, with so many weeds pushing up through the concrete in front of it that you can hardly make out the entrance. I have turned off here to take a closer look and found the street that circles around the front of these buildings is so rutted with pot holes and cracking pavement and weeds popping through every crack as to leave me worrying about my tires.

The old City Hall, with a few plywood pieces nailed to windows, has mostly lost its plywood and the front door is wide open. Inside, a Directory board clinging to peeling plaster lists offices for Public Saftety, with room numbers for Citizens Complaint Investigator, Criminal Investigation, and Commanding Officer. This seems to indicate city offices and police functions were combined at one point in this building. The marble pieces decorating the walls lie on a trash-strewn floor; broken glass is everywhere, and there are empty cans and bottles from visitors who have wandered in here, perhaps to find a place to shelter from storms or take a nap. I step gingerly past the old Information desk and imagine the graceful winding stairway full of people going about their business in what used to be a solidly middle-class community. Where are all the people who once worked here? Where are the residents who once got services here? People walk by on Woodward Ave and no one comes here, unless they are looking for a place to sleep off too many bottles of Wild Irish Rose.

The old Police Headquarters building has been torn down and a new Fire Department building, financed with federal stimulus funds, has risen on the location. The old City Hall and old Fire Station are still standing, in an advanced state of ruin.

Driving past the former City Hall complex just off Woodward, you get an impression of bricks covered with grafitti, lots of green plants in wild disarray and the look of an abandoned property. Which is what it is.

Back on Woodward, on the west side, just south of the old city buildings and down a side street (Grand St.), is the Hotel Granwood, a graceful and charming old place that has fallen into ruin. Its roof is completely gone and trees or giant weeds are visible growing on its upper floors. This building too has lost any plywood it might have had, and all doors are open, and the inside is filled with trashed furniture and artifacts left by squatters. In the alley behind it are more broken and battered pieces of furniture and formerly elegant rugs lying about in the weeds and dirt. A sign painted on the side facing Woodward proclaims "Color TV" and "Air Conditioned." Not anymore.

The Hotel Granwood finally met the wrecking ball and is gone.

I cross over the Davison freeway, a short but historic freeway because it was the first freeway in the US, and there is the Oasis Shelter for Men, a former YMCA, a large older five-story building of attractive red bricks, and there's the usual sprinkling of men loitering out in front. It, and another well-kept building across the side street, a former YWCA, are operated by the Detroit Rescue Mission. Just beyond it is the New Mt Moriah church.

A bit further down is a tree-shaded block, surrounded by a recently-erected wrought iron fence, with a spectacular building, the McGregor Public Library. It is a majestic grey stone structure on its own green oasis. I admire its recessed entranceway with the elaborate carvings on a half-dome ceiling, the door flanked by twin Corinthian columns. Soaring two-story windows are evenly spaced along the building, and you can imagine the place full of dark wood furniture and bookshelves from floor to high ceiling. Except that when you take a closer look, you see the heavy piece of plywood nailed over the tall front door and realize there probably aren't any books in there anymore. The windows have grates over them and it is obvious the place is not in use. At least someone is taking care of the grounds and it does not look like anyone has vandalized the place. Yet.


Architectural Gems in Highland Park

I drive by the Highland Towers apartments, with its Moorish-looking architecture, yellow brick façade rising three stories above street-level storefronts, an elegant arched entranceway on the side street, corner niches and fancy brickwork along the top. The small roof over the stores facing Woodward has orange pottery tiles. A former friend used to live here and my husband used to patronize the camera store that once occupied one of the store fronts. The beautiful architecture remains, but the camera store was long ago replaced by less viable businesses.

In the fall of 2009 the building was abandoned by its owner and residents had to move. In September of 2010 the building was torched by an arsonist; the fire left the building a burned-out wreck.

Continuing up Woodward, I am almost past Highland Park. Ford Motor Company left Highland Park for Dearborn, but for many years the city was world headquarters for Chrysler Corporation. When Chrysler pulled up stakes for the further suburbs, Highland Park became impoverished; until 2007, it had no police at all because the city could not afford a police department. Wayne County deputies patrolled the streets to keep it from total lawlessness. Today, there is a new police department, located in a small storefront in a new section of the strip mall, shared with a new Aldi discount grocery store. It's good to see the black and white police cruisers on Woodward. Highland Park is so crime-ridden, I read in a local guy's blog that "Suburbanites are afraid of Detroit and Detroiters are afraid of Highland Park."

If you are absolutely fearless, you can get a heck of a nice big house for little money. Highland Park has so many vacant houses, you can buy one cheap, if you can find the owner (who may have just walked away from it) and pay for it before the vandals get there. Homes in Highland Park tend to be large, many in the Craftsman style, with big front porches, and many with large lots too. Lots of room for a flower garden and to grow some tomatoes and cucumbers in the back yard (or use one of the numerous vacant lots and grow a really big garden!). There are still nicely-kept homes here, but residential blocks are pock-marked with vacant lots, and falling-down neglected homes sit next to nice ones. These were once good neighborhoods and the commercial strip on Woodward once bustled with people visiting the stores and restaurants. There used to be a big Sears store on Woodward and it was the first place where David and I got credit back in 1967. Highland Appliance was where we bought our first TV set. It was a friendly, not scary, place back then.


  Detroit and Highland Park houses. No one lives here.


There are more memories further down Woodward. Highland Park, a city invented then abandoned by Henry Ford, is completely surrounded by Detroit, and you quickly leave it as you continue toward downtown Detroit. I drive by the block that used to have Aknartoon's Eatery in one of the storefronts and then only a peeling sign for it, but has been turned into the latest empty lot. I saw the wrecking equipment take big bites out the crumbling brick walls as I drove home one day. In a few days time, the space had been reduced to a smooth dirt lot, then gradually, assorted rogue plants started to grow in the dirt.


Another block has empty storefronts, doors wide open and filled with trash. And yet another block with brick storefronts where only one is occupied, the rest forlornly covered with plywood or bars over windows. The second floor apartments look deserted, but the lovely brickwork with green tiles along the roof line give hints of its former glory. Abandoned apartment buildings facing side streets show broken glass and graffti.

Home of the Auto Barons

Beyond a Sunoco gas station is the Catholic Cathedral, Detroit's largest Gothic church, and the big fancy brick gateways flanking the entrance to nearby side streets with huge mansions. You can turn onto these wide boulevards —Chicago Blvd, Boston Blvd, Nardin Park— streets with gorgeous homes dating back before 1920, with lovely architectural features from that era. Once the homes of Detroit's elite (including, at one time, Henry Ford), back in my college days they had become shabby and lost their value. No one could afford the heat bills and upkeep. Today, some of these graceful homes, so out-of-place among the ruins, are kept up by brave owners (urban pioneers?) who appreciate their history and their quality.

Avenue of Historic Churches

Woodward Avenue is also host to beautiful old churches, some still vibrant parishes, like Little Rock Baptist Church, and others just sitting there, their stone exteriors turned sooty, the bell towers silent, the parking lots empty. Many have changed congregations over the years and some have funny names, like Prayer Temple of Love Cathedral. You can read the past by taking a close look at these old structures.

Consider the impressive Greek temple on the corner of Gladstone St, with its stone steps and tall Corinthian columns, with scripture quotes runing under the roof line on the side of the building. Large incised letters proclaim "Temple Beth El" along the top, above the Greek columns and tall ornate doors. You realize this is, or was, a synagogue. The Jewish migration out of Detroit began even before I came to live here, going first to Northwest Detroit, then out to Oak Park and now migrating to West Bloomfield and other locations. The former synagogue is now being used by Little Rock Baptist Church, but a perusal of a book on Detroit's historic churches reveals that Temple Beth El is the heritage of Detroit's first Jewish congregation, founded in 1850, and the beautiful building on Woodward was built in 1922, designed by the ubiqitous Albert Kahn, whose work can be seen up and down Woodward.

Continuing down Woodward, a dark pinkish stone church with a circular tower structure rising from its midsection and two square towers flanking hefty stairs leading up to two massive red doors, has clearly been through some changes. "Woodward Ave Presbyterian Church" is carved in stone above the door, but the sign planted in the grass in front says "Abyssinia: An Inter-Denominational Church." Research shows this lovely church was built in 1911, and was part of a section of Woodward known as "Piety Hill" because it had so many churches. Most of them are still here, but for many, their congregations, like the baseballs our Tigers used to hit out of Tiger Stadium, are long gone. Many congregations departed the city during the influx of southern blacks who came for jobs during the boom years of World War II. The Neo-Gothic church across the side street from Abyssinia has a historical marker in its lawn and I'd noticed workers doing cleaning and maintenance on the grey stone structure. The historical marker reveals that this building dates from 1909 and was originally the Woodward Avenue Congregational Church but was sold in 1953 to an African-American congregation that continues to worship there, a better fate than has befallen Abyssinia. Some of Abyssinia's stained glass windows in its round turret are broken and its weed-infested parking lot looks like it hasn't seen Sunday worshipers any time recently.


All the vacant land, all the derelict buildings betray the depopulating of the city. Down every side steet are abandoned homes and apartment buildings, many with beautiful architectural features, lost gems of a time gone by. There is never enough money, apparently, to keep up with tearing down unwanted and unused buildings. So many buildings boarded up or wide open for drifters and drug sellers to move in, with weeds and trash filling their front walks and long courtyards. Where have all the people gone?

Every time I make this trip with David he begins speculating as to where the Carrier Air Conditioning place was and I answer that I'm not sure. When we were both students at Wayne State University, where we met, he had a wonderful apartment upstairs over the Carrier store. The place had no hot water or heat, but he only lived there during one summer season, and he paid only the first month's rent, refusing to pay after that as a protest againt the lack of heat and hot water. The apartment, with big windows that looked out onto Woodward, was large, with lovely woodwork, and we once gave a great party there. There was a bar across the street (with the oddly inappropriate name, Library Bar)patronized by the locals and frequently visited by police when fights broke out. But now we search the empty lots, looking for those places, or where they once were; which of the numerous weed-filled stretches that increase as you get closer to New Center and Wayne State were the places we remember? The Color Perfect photo lab we used to patronize. The optical place where I got my first set of contact lenses.

City of Ghosts, City of History

The sad thing is that as old buildings fall linto disuse, nothing replaces them. The weeds - the Queen Ann's Lace and blue cornflowers - add a little color to the cracked concrete, and tall weeds replace tall buildings. The city is full of ghosts and I sometimes feel like I am one of them.

The spire of the Fisher Building and looming structure of the former General Motors headquarters are up ahead. New Center! And I'm there. This area was developed to be a second downtown, anchored by the massive General Motors Building, now called Cadillac Place and housing offices for State of Michigan workers. The beautiful art deco Fisher building, a marble and gold-leaf temple to the once-prosperous city, was another of Albert Kahn's many contributions to Detroit architecture. The office buildings here, along with the facilities of the Henry Ford Health System, with its huge historic hospital on West Grand Blvd, make this area still seem alive; on a nice summer day people who work in these buildings are strolling the sidewalks.

The city reached its population peak in the prosperous 1950s, with nearly two million people filling its homes, driving its streets, and enjoying its riverfront charms. But in recent times, Detroit has been losing about 5000 people every year, and even the dead are leaving. According to an article in the Detroit News (August 12, 2008), suburbanites are having their deceased family members moved from Detroit cemeteries to cemeteries in the suburbs. It seems they don't want to drive into Detroit to visit grandma's grave.

But today, people have come here to work, and so have I. I've completed another drive down Woodward Avenue, and I'll see it all over again on my way home.

    UPDATE, 2015: The years 2008 to 2010 were rock-bottom years for the City of Detroit. Conditions in the city have improved very much since the bankruptcy of 2013, the election of Mayor Mike Duggan, and emergence from bankruptcy in 2014, with the city shedding a huge burden of debt. Since writing this, I have explored the many ruins of the city and produced two ebooks full of photos of the abandonment in all parts of Detroit. See all my essays about Detroit's past and its resurrection.

    Mayor Duggan has said we will know Detroit is coming back as a Great American City when its population begins to to rise again. I believe this will happen.


  ~~  Index to all Detroit Web Pages

  Read My Reviews of these:

 Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young

 Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle

 Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

 The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey

 Made in Detroit by Paul Clemens

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