Normally, when we try to understand historic maps, we at Neatline tend to highlight how maps often embody change. They encapsulate a particular state of progression or knowledge, making palpable both what had occurred until that moment, but also what was still to come. In that sense, we perceive maps as highly processual. The process that maps embody is usually one of growth and expansion dictated by favorable historical circumstances. In the case of this mid-century wall-map of the city of Detroit, however, we are dealing with one of those rare occasion in which the opposite is the case.
To be clear, this highly decorative Master Plan is as ‘processual’ as any map we have had the privilege of handling at Neatline. The difference is that in this case, the process that this map highlights is one of deterioration and decline. This hard truth does not make the map less interesting; on the contrary, to our mind it adds a compelling layer of complexity. The plan tells a story of how The Motor City achieved greatness and lost it again. At the same time, it allows for a brighter future; one in which Detroit, despite almost insurmountable odds, pulls itself up by its bootstraps and once again becomes cornerstone of industry, albeit a different type.
The map is highly graphic, with vibrant colors signifying how different parts of the city have been put to use by 1950. Being a mid-century representation of Detroit, we are privy to a time of great expansion and growth, in which Detroit had become the fourth largest city in the country. This was in large part due to the allure of the city’s almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs. The Master Plan, as it is called, was commissioned by the City Planning Commission as a means of visualizing the different ways urban space was utilized. This was done through a system of color coding that differentiates between a plethora of use-characteristics. The wide array of uses naturally means that a broad spectrum of colors were necessary, lending the map part of its aesthetic quality. The color-code allows us to distinguish between institutions and public buildings, residential dwellings, major businesses, and general commercial districts, but also has separate shading for areas of light and heavy industry. Within the residential areas alone, the map even subdivides housing into one and two family homes. Major public recreation areas are noted in a darker green than smaller open spaces, but other public spaces such as playgrounds, schools, and community facilities are not included in the map, revealing the limited municipal interest in such features at this time.
Context is everything
While the city and people of Detroit have suffered much economic hardship over the last decades, at the time of printing this map, Detroit was a true boom-town. In 1950, its population reached 1.85 million, making it the country’s fourth-largest city. It was known as The Motor City due to the massive automobile industry present in and around Detroit. As mentioned, it sported almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs at the end of World War 2. While parts of the automobile industry had set up shop in Detroit in the 1930s, the war meant that demand for industrial production surged, and that the number of employees followed suit. Companies like Studebaker, Packard, and Hudson all saw tremendous growth during the War and this growth was at least partly sustained afterwards by a new form of consumerism. Consequently, what started as a small town on the land bridge between Lake Huron and Lake Erie had by the end of the 1940s become one America’s industrial hubs.
After the war, many of the industrial manufacturing jobs moved out of the city and into the suburbs; there was more space there and the constant advances in automation and manufacturing required space to unfold. Moreover, heavy industry in the 1950s was dirty, and there was a growing awareness that locating it next to domestic or commercial areas might be unsuitable. Movement out of the cities was in part made possible by the expansion of the American highway networks. These provided a new access for workers coming in from further a field, which in turn meant that one’s pool of employees (and potential employees) was suddenly distributed over a much larger geographic area.
The move of manufacturers out the inner city and into the suburbs was of course only the beginning. During the course of the 20th century, a combination of advancement in automation and the gradual seeping of American manufacturing jobs to lower cost labour markets, meant that Detroit saw a massive decline in wealth and living standards, and a proportional growth in unemployment rates. With this followed all the detrimental social effects that one could imagine: violence, crime, justified social unrest, and substance abuse.
Happily, the curve seems to have bottomed out and Detroit is once again moving in the right direction. The Midtown Area and Central Business District have attracted a significant number of high-profile investors in recent years. More importantly perhaps, the people of Detroit have begun reclaiming their city and changing things little by little through citizens’ initiatives. An important element in this process has been the formation of public-private nonprofit partnerships, many of which have been set up to protect and maintain Detroit’s most valuable natural and cultural assets (e.g. the riverfront).
In conclusion then, this Master Plan of Detroit from 1950 harkens back to the city’s greatest era and from today’s point of view, it inevitably spells decline. But it is also a visualization of Detroit’s potential, and of a much brighter future ahead.
This map (OCLC #43971117) is held in some of the most important institutional collections in the United States, including the Library of Congress and the University of Michigan. It is rarely seen on the private market.