The Detroit Evolution Animation

Created in gratitude to the University of Michigan’s PhD program in architecture

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Soundtrack: “Pruitt Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and composed by Philip Glass.

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This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.
The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic race riots, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.
However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.

View map bibliography and project methodology

Includes links to download all source files on which the film is based

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The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.

View music in original context

Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi; composed by Philip Glass with images by Godfrey Reggio

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Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.

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The influx of black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-black city surrounded by majority-white suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is black, and only 11% is white. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-white until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% white. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-white city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-black city in 2020.
A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban whites over urban blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.
As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?

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Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant

Neon Night

Cities of consumerism and spending, wherever they are, realize the human desire for energy and movement. Neon Night is a triptych representation of urban life. Each image of city lights is the accidental result of sudden camera movement during the long shutter speed required for night photography.

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Neon NightLeft to right: lights from Newark, Detroit (Fox Theater marquee), and Santander (Spain)

Detroit: visual essay

Detroit represents the shortcoming of American-style, car centric urban development. Wide highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods now serve a city devoid of people in whole neighborhoods. In a city that lost 60% of its population since its 1950 height, extensive infrastructure designed to serve millions of people now serves thousands. After Detroit’s July 1967 riots, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit in fewer than five years. Now over 50,000 homes lie vacant and decaying.
During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment that rolled out of its auto factories. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit, too, has been bombed. Except this time, it’s a city destroyed from within by the American forces of racism, the automobile, and anti-urban government policies.

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Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen status fall short. Everywhere there are fields of surface parking lots, where there were once businesses, people, and wealth. A near-empty monorail system circles a quiet downtown. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full rotting Art Deco architectural gems and empty storefronts. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the aging and indebted city. The imposing appearance of the nearby Greektown Casino abuts the ominous city jail. Suburban residents travel to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field; they return afterwards by car to their safe, quiet, and white communities.

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the failure of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a city divided along borders of race and class.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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