World Facts Index > United States > Detroit

Los Angeles may have perfected urban sprawl, but Detroit invented it. Following the dictates of the auto industry, Detroit abandoned its efficient streetcar system in the 1950s and built a network of freeways. Many fine city neighborhoods never recovered and no adequate mass transit system was ever built to replace the trolleys. The old spoke pattern of main roads (Jefferson, Gratiot, Woodward, Grand River, Michigan and Fort) emanating from downtown was eclipsed by the freeway system, and these main thoroughfares suffered declines that are yet to be reversed.

Not surprisingly, the Motor City is impossible to navigate without a car. The metropolis has expanded into seven counties, with no end in sight, and the suburban population is more than three times that of the city proper.

Although the landscape is mostly flat, recreational opportunities abound, most of them centered around water. To the northeast of the city sprawls Lake St. Clair, a shallow but large lake filled with boats and fish. The Detroit River is a resource that the city has never fully exploited, though a system of parks and greenways is now gradually taking shape. To the south, the western end of Lake Erie has marshes and great fishing spots. Inland lakes dot western and northern Oakland County, which lies to the citys northwest and has the regions hilliest terrain; here the battle over sprawl is most intense. The area boasts three major river systems: the Clinton, the Rouge, and the Huron, which drain a vast area. The wonderful Metroparks system provides a ring of family-friendly recreation sites around the region, all of them accessible within an hours drive.

In the 1950s, downtown Detroit was such a bustling area of shops, theaters, restaurants, and night life that residents of dreary, staid Toronto rode trains to Detroit for weekend excursions. In subsequent decades, the two cities switched places, but now Detroit is making a comeback.

The old downtown of grand movie houses and department stores is all but vanished, but lively areas have sprung up around the perimeter of the aging banking-and-commerce center. The north end of downtown is the latest hot spot. Comerica Park, a new baseball stadium for the Detroit Tigers, opened in 2000. The National Football League Detroit Lions, who abandoned downtown in the 1970s for suburban Pontiac, are set to return to Ford Field, being built adjacent to Comerica Park. Nearby is the glamorous Fox Theater, the renovated crown jewel of the citys opulent movie houses, as well as the aptly-named Gem Theater, a Second City comedy theater, the Music Hall, and an assortment of restaurants and bars.

On the eastern edge of downtown is Greektown, once just a block of Greek restaurants, now the center of Detroit nightlife, with eateries, bistros and clubs. One of Detroits three temporary casinos is drawing additional people to the area. Adjacent is the restaurant-and bar area known as Bricktown, and near that is towering Renaissance Center. East of the Renaissance Center, along Jefferson Avenue, new housing and retail developments are taking shape beyond the eateries and clubs of the warehouse district known as Rivertown.

Other pockets of activity include Cobo Convention Center and Joe Louis Arena, home to the National Hockey Leagues Detroit Red Wings, and the western outskirts, where two more temporary casinos have opened. Most of downtowns sites are linked by the People Mover elevated train system. Three permanent casinos are scheduled to open on the eastern fringes of downtown in 2003.

Cultural Center/New Center
Detroits Cultural Center is situated between Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center, an impressive complex of hospitals and research facilities. The Detroit Institute of Arts is famed for its Diego Rivera murals, which chronicle history through the eyes of laborers, and Auguste Rodins sculpture 'The Thinker.' Nearby is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the largest museum of its kind in the United States. Families can also enjoy the Detroit Science Center and the Detroit Historical Museum.

Farther north, the New Center Area boasts the ornate, golden-towered Fisher Building and its Fisher Theater, home to touring Broadway shows, as well as the General Motors Building and Henry Ford Hospital.

South of the Cultural Center, a major renovation effort is underway to preserve acoustically rich Orchestra Hall.

The West Side
Near the Ambassador Bridge is Mexicantown, the heart of Detroits growing Hispanic community, with dozens of great restaurants. Dearborn is home to Ford Motor Company world headquarters, Fairlane Mall, and the areas foremost attraction, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, where the intertwining history of America and the automobile are chronicled. With a large Arabic population, Dearborn also has an intoxicating array of authentic Middle Eastern restaurants.

Farther west is bustling Metropolitan Airport, undergoing a major expansion to handle increasing traffic. A new trade center is taking shape in nearby Romulus. Livonia has Laurel Park Place, a major shopping and entertainment area.

Oakland County
Oakland County is vast and diverse. It is one of the nations wealthiest counties, and the site of the worlds first enclosed shopping mall (the Northland Center). Many other shopping opportunities abound, including the upscale Somerset Collection and the new Great Lakes Crossing.

In the southern part of the county, a vibrant restaurant and nightclub scene has sprung up in once-stodgy Royal Oak. North along Woodward Avenue, Birminghams thriving downtown features upscale shops of taste and variety.

In the northeastern part of the county, Auburn Hills is home to the Palace of Auburn Hills, the home of the National Basketball Associations Detroit Pistons. It also has the new Chrysler Technology Center. Nearby in Rochester are Oakland University and its acclaimed Meadowbrook Theater. In West Bloomfield Township is the deeply moving Holocaust Memorial Center.

Each August, the Woodward strip from Ferndale to Pontiac hosts the Woodward Dream Cruise, the worlds largest rolling participatory auto show and the ultimate 1950s and 1960s nostalgia trip.

The East Side and Macomb County
Go east from downtown along Jefferson Avenue parallel to the Detroit River and you will pass the bridge to Belle Isle, one of the worlds great urban parks. The Grosse Pointe area boasts mansions of auto executives and scenic Lakeshore Drive. The nondescript suburbs of Macomb County include some items of interest: The Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, and Metropolitan Beach on Lake St. Clair.

One of the few places in the United States where one can travel south into Canada is from downtown Detroit. By tunnel or bridge its easy to reach Windsor, Ontario, whose clubs and restaurants are an integral part of the metro Detroit entertainment scene. The popular Windsor Casino served as the impetus for Detroit to start building its own casinos.

History of Detroit

Detroit was founded in 1701 by the French explorer and fur trapper Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. He established a European settlement called Fort Pontchartrain, named after a French count. It was located along the strait, detroit in French, which is now known as the Detroit River, and which connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The settlement was a fur-trading outpost, and fell to the British in 1760.

After American independence, Detroit became part of the Northwest Territory and was incorporated as a town in 1802. A fire in 1805 destroyed 299 of the towns 300 buildings. Territorial Governor Judge Augustus Woodward laid out a plan to rebuild the city, featuring public squares and circular parks based on the model of Washington D.C. The British reoccupied the city for a year during the War of 1812. Woodward established a state university, the University of Michigan, in 1817 in Detroit.

Detroit served as state capital for the first ten years after Michigan became a state in 1837. In the 1850s, Detroit began building railroad cars, ships and stoves, and major industries were established that exploited Michigans vast resources of iron ore, copper and water. The population surged from 2,222 in 1830 to 79,577 in 1870.

When the first automobiles were seen on city streets in the late 1890s, Detroits main industry was stovemaking, but Michigan was a leading producer of carriages, buggies, wheels and bicycles, and Detroit was already making marine gas engines. Its access to water gave it an industrial advantage because freighters could ship raw materials such as iron ore from northern areas. Still, the automobile made little impact on the city at first, as most people believed it would never replace the horse or the bicycle.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford built the first Model T, and cars quickly became popular. In 1914, Ford ran the first assembly line, at his factory in Highland Park, offering the unheard-of wage of $5 a day for eight hours work. By 1921 Ford had produced more than 5 million cars. The citys population more than doubled from 1910 to 1920, reaching nearly a million people, as workers from the South and across the country and the world came for jobs in the automobile plants.

The 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity for Detroit. The booming city was a metaphor for American opportunity. For decades, it enjoyed the highest percentage of home ownership in the nation. Huge, ornate theaters were built downtown for movies and stage shows. The J.L. Hudson department store was one of the worlds biggest and most famous. The city developed a superb system of streetcars and trolleys. Belle Isle became one of the most beautiful urban parks in the nation. The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel were built to link Detroit to Canada. Navin Field (later known as Briggs Stadium and then Tiger Stadium) became one of the nations most acclaimed sporting venues.

During the Prohibition Era, a thriving underground business developed as mobsters shipped liquor across the waters from Canada. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Detroit hard initially, but the automobile industry survived. The modern movement for labor unions began with a famous battle between organizers and police at the Ford River Rouge plant in 1937. Led by Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers survived and grew during sit-down strikes and organizing drives.

During World War II the auto companies converted their factories in short order to production of planes and tanks. The war effort was centered around Willow Run Airport, and the Edsel Ford Expressway was built between downtown Detroit and the airport to facilitate that work. It was the nations first great freeway - but a smaller example had opened a few years previously, the Davison, in Detroit and Highland Park.

Major shifts occurred in Detroits demographics after World War II. The post-war economic boom was accompanied by the construction of a network of freeways that decimated Detroits old neighborhoods while making possible the exponential growth of suburbs. For a while downtown Detroit remained the thriving center of the metropolitan area, and its population peaked at 2.1 million in the late 1950s. In the 1960s it became a cultural center for the nation, exporting the most popular music of the era, the catchy rhythm-and-blues known as the Motown sound.

But as more prosperous people fled the city and left poorer ones behind, racial tensions heightened. They exploded in the infamous 1967 riots, which left dozens dead and hastened white flight. The city plunged into a long decline, as key components of business, industry and culture shifted to the suburbs. Even footballs Detroit Lions left Tiger Stadium to move to a new stadium in Pontiac.

Civic leaders made efforts to turn things around, starting with the building of the Renaissance Center office-hotel-retail complex in 1973. But for years, the Renaissance Center remained an isolated fortress with little effect on surrounding areas. The city kept losing people and money, and its fine housing stock suffered from neglect and abandonment. The automobile industry was hit hard by a severe recession caused by rising oil prices and competition from Japanese imports. Factories in the city closed and thousands of good-paying jobs for unskilled workers disappeared, never to return.

But the metropolitan area continued to grow and thrive, and downtowns resurgence took halting steps. In the 1980s, Joe Louis Arena was constructed as the home of the Detroit Red Wings. The Millender Center opened near the Renaissance Center. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch saved the Fox Theater, and its revival began a genuine downtown resurgence in the 1990s. Through that decade, Detroiters debated the merits of casinos and a new baseball stadium, finally approving both ideas. During the 1990s, the citys population finally stabilized at around a million people, and business investment began returning to the city.

The growth of the suburbs has permanently changed the citys landscape. Most jobs, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and entertainment facilities are now outside the city limits, creating a sprawling metropolitan area that remains heavily dependent on the automobile. Yet a more unified approach to the areas problems and prospects has civic leaders optimistic. Detroit retains its rich cultural treasures, its vibrant entertainment and dining scene, and above all its strength as a genuine melting pot, with immigrants from around the world bringing their own cuisine and traditions and religions. It has proven to be a resilient place and one of Americas greatest cities.

The Weather

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Avg. High 30 34 44 57 68 78 84 81 74 61 48 35
Avg. Low 18 20 28 38 50 58 65 64 56 45 35 24
Mean 25 27 37 48 60 68 74 72 65 54 42 30
Avg. Precip. 1.7 in 1.7 in 2.4 in 3.0 in 2.7 in 3.4 in 3.4 in 3.4 in 3.1 in 2.2 in 2.6 in 2.6 in


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