Archaeologies of Displacement and Urban Renewal in Detroit

Last week I attended the “Archaeology and Revitalization in Detroit” sessions at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network‘s annual meeting in Detroit, on the campus of Wayne State University. The session, which was split into two parts, featured the research of several Wayne State faculty members and graduate students and Robert Chidester from the Mannik & Smith Group in Maumee, Ohio. In this post, I’ll be discussing some of the main themes of the session, focusing on the cycles of displacement and ‘renewal’ that structure the city’s history (and future).

Documenting Detroit in flux

Thomas Killion’s presentation described how a sacred mortuary landscape along the Detroit riverfront–one that predates Anishinabe history in the area, but which was used by and sacred to different Anishinabek communities before and during the French and British periods of Detroit’s history–was altered and partially destroyed during the construction of Fort Wayne in 1840. Previous activity along this section of shoreline, including looting in the early 19th century, had already damaged/destroyed some of the mounds prior to the fort’s construction. (For more information about Native American burial mounds and earthworks in Detroit, see Paul Szewczyk’s detailed post at Detroit Urbanism.)

Samantha Ellen and Daniel Harrison’s presentations outlined Detroit’s transition from an agricultural to industrial base after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. By 1870, development had spread to and beyond what is today Midtown, and between 1910 and 1920, Detroit’s population more than doubled as manufacturing jobs drew people to the city. While this period is widely regarded as the city’s ‘golden era’ of industrial innovation and design, the growing population would result in housing shortages through the 1950s, and these deficits would disproportionately impact lower-income and minority residents.

Krysta Ryzewski’s presentation on the City Beautiful movement’s impact on the Corktown neighborhood during the construction of the iconic Michigan Central Station and esplanade (Roosevelt Park) highlights the ways in which present-day issues like blight removal can be linked to policies and strategies of urban renewal that were employed by city planners more than a century ago. After Michigan Central Station opened in 1913 (causing the first wave of displacement), city planners grew concerned that visitors to the city were exiting the beautiful, ornate station to be greeted by the working-class Corktown neighborhood, considered a slum, and so planners sought to clear the surrounding blocks and create what they viewed as a more welcoming landscape for visitors and newcomers.

Roosevelt Park in 1915, via Krysta Ryzweski 

From 1911-1918, Corktown residents resisted the purchase (through eminent domain) and demolition of their homes and businesses, effectively halting construction of Roosevelt Park for 4 years (Ryzewski 2015: 423-424). Ryzewski gives two primary reasons for this resistance: with the influx of new residents during this time period, the city’s housing market was saturated, making it difficult for residents to find other places to live; also, relocating would mean that residents couldn’t take advantage of the new economic opportunities afforded by the opening of the station. After several years of general mismanagement, confusion, and frustration, remaining homes at the site (at this point there were just 3 that had not been demolished) were ceremoniously destroyed in 1918 by the British Army tank, Britannia (426).

Many of these issues are still relevant in Detroit today: there are housing shortages in the city’s more viable neighborhoods, and the displacement of long-term, impoverished or working-class residents to make way for newcomers in certain parts of the city is still a controversial and widely-debated subject as the city begins another cycle of ‘renewal’ and ‘slum clearance’ (blight removal).

Sometimes displacement is an unintended consequence of urban renewal efforts. Robert Chidester’s presentation focused on archaeological research at the site of the former Brewster Homes near Eastern Market. The Brewster Homes, part of the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, were townhouses built in the 1930s in the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. Originally settled by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the 1880s-90s, this area became the residential, cultural, and economic hub of Detroit’s growing black community after WWI.

Children playing at the Brewster Homes Photo credit: Emil Lorch Collection/Bentley Historical Library/University of Michigan

The 600% increase in Detroit’s black population between 1910-1930, combined with segregationist housing policies that limited where in the city black residents could live, lead to overcrowding and degradation of the existing housing stock in Black Bottom by the 1930s. The Brewster Homes were built to address these issues, and were created through a partnership between the city of Detroit and the federal government (part of FDR’s New Deal), making Brewster the first federally-funded housing project for African Americans in the country.

Ironically, the Brewster Homes also displaced approximately 1,000 African American families in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley when they were built; yes, a project meant to address a housing deficit created one. In the 1960s, during another wave of urban renewal and slum clearance/blight removal, what remained of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley would be displaced by the Chrysler freeway and Lafayette Park (which just became a National Historic Landmark last summer).

Concluding Thoughts on Displacement and Social Justice 

Does urban renewal in its various forms have to result in displacement? This is a question that comes up often in debates about gentrification, which is a more recent term for social and economic processes that (as these presentations demonstrate) have a long history. While urban renewal and gentrification are not the same, they are part of the same socio-historic movements. Most urban geographers and planners don’t argue over whether or not urban renewal or gentrification result in displacement–they instead debate over the magnitude of that displacement and strategies to mitigate its impact (see Stacey Sutton’s excellent talk on this issue).

A common response to arguments about urban renewal and gentrification is that ‘cities are always changing.’ This is true, and the presentations at the MHPN conference illustrate that Detroit, for example, has always been in transition. What we need to be careful not to do, however, is to characterize that change as natural rather than social/political. 

The Brewster-Douglass high rises before demo in 2013. Photo via Motor City Muckraker

As I’ve written about before, one theme that consistently comes up in my research on blight management in Detroit is the characterization of blight as a natural force that seemingly functions on its own and is not tied to human actors, and its removal is represented as a collective good from which everyone in the city will benefit. Discussions of how blight came to be, which involve admitting to both public and private disinvestment in certain neighborhoods and communities, and that this disinvestment is connected to/the result of legacies of economic and racial inequality in the United States, take a back seat to discussions about how its removal or remediation will spontaneously make life better for everyone. 

The same argument is often employed in debates about both gentrification and urban renewal: it’s a collective good that benefits the city as a whole. This was one of the justifications for the clearance of the working-class Corktown neighborhood that Ryzewski discusses, the reason for the slum clearance efforts that resulted in the creation of Brewster-Douglass (and then again later, its demolition to make way for freeways and a housing development for higher-income residents), and it has recently been used as a reason for the demolition of historic structures and neighborhoods to make way for the new Red Wings Arena downtown. What we often fail to see or address is that people drive cycles of disinvestment, then slum clearance/renewal/blight removal to deal with the results of that disinvestment, and then disinvestment again, and so on. And until we acknowledge that people are behind these processes and hold certain institutions and individuals accountable for their actions (for example, holding the City of Detroit accountable for overassessing property taxes from 2009 on, effectively pushing Detroiter’s out of their homes and leaving thousands of properties vacant and vulnerable to scrapping and damage), we will have a hard time changing the way that development and growth play out in our cities.

Stacey Sutton argues a). that gentrification is the spatial expression of economic and racial inequality (she’s citing the work of Tom Slater, an urban geographer), and b). gentrification is fundamentally a social justice issue. These are the same arguments I apply to blight removal, tied as it is to the same processes that drive gentrification. The advantage of taking an archaeological approach to these kinds of contemporary issues is the context the discipline provides in the form of the documentation and integration of the spatial and material dimensions of the social processes (via mapping and the analysis of landscapes and changes in the built environment) with the lived experiences of Detroit residents (via ethnography).

Works Cited

  1. Ryzewski, Krysta. “No Home for the ‘ordinary Gamut’: A Historical Archaeology of Community Displacement and the Creation of Detroit, City Beautiful.” Journal of Social Archaeology 15, no. 3 (October 1, 2015): 408–31.
  2. Sutton, Stacey. What We Don’t Understand about Gentrification. TEDxNewYork. Accessed May 19, 2016.


  1. Having an interest in both Urban Exploration (Vadding) and Industrial Archaeology, and having been on several such expeditions myself this was an interesting read. Thanks.


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