The Detroit Evolution Animation

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

.

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

.

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 1960s racial unrest, 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

.

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

.

Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.

.

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?

.

Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant

The time-lapse history of Manhattan in two minutes

.

This two minute time-lapse reconstructs the 400 year evolution of Lower Manhattan’s skyline. Watch as the city evolves from a small village into a glistening metropolis.
This is also a film about the history of technology. Changing methods of representing urban space influence our perception of time and the city. When New York City was founded, Dutch settlers captured their town’s appearance through seventeenth-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, photographers started capturing their city from above through aerial photos. For the first time, New Yorkers could view the entire city in a single panoramic photo.
In tribute to this long artistic tradition, this film constructs the city as each generation of New Yorkers would have represented it: through the subsequent technologies of drawing, printing, photography, and film.
.
New York City: Past and Present, 1870 and 2017

.

Sound effects from Freesound
Water and cloud effects from YouTube

The Urban Development of Newark: 1660-2016

Audio from Freesound

.

As Newark celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1666, I created this series of drawings based on historical images and maps. As Newark develops from a small town to a bustling and industrial metropolis, the sounds shift from quiet woodlands to the din of the vibrant city with rising skyscrapers. This two minute time-lapse aims to represent history as a living and fluid process.

.

Pictures of Newark

.

As a lifelong citizen of Newark, I spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by classical music. Five of Modest Mussorgsky’s pieces from his composition Pictures at an Exhibition are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:
1. THE PASSAIC RIVER – music: Mussorgsky’s Promenade
2. OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – music: With the Dead in the Language of Death
3. MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – music: Promenade
4. DOWNTOWN NEWARK – music: Mozart’s Death March (k 453a)
5. PORT NEWARK – music: Promenade
Growing up in Newark, I am inspired and saddened by the inner city. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of what is called progress.
Curious about the history of the old Essex County Jail? Explore this interactive exhibit.

 

.

 Featured work from this film

Mount Pleasant Cemetery

.

Mount Pleasant was the resting place of Newark’s leading industrialists, politicians, and first families. Opened in 1844 and landmarked in 1988, it fell into neglect as Newark’s wealth flowed away to foreign factories and Newark’s people fled to suburbia. It is now a tranquil spot in a hectic city. Cars may speed by on the nearby interstate and the surrounding neighborhood may shrink or grow, but this city of the dead moves at a slower pace. The cemetery stones crumble and weather with rain, its trees grow larger, and its grass taller. Names carved in stone are just as susceptible to the erasing power of time as anything else. The names of Newark’s proud families are memorialized here, while their memories and histories fade away away as slowly as murky waters flow past in the nearby Passaic River.
Click here to see a film featuring more of my artwork about Newark history.

.

Renaissance City

Growing up in Newark, I was inspired and saddened by my inner-city environment: I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of ostensible progress. My Renaissance City photo and art series depicts the Newark of my childhood with garish signage and decayed structures blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.
Click here to see a film featuring more of my Newark-based artwork.

.

Urban decay in Newark to the tune of Mozart’s death march (k 453a)

Port Newark

.

Port Newark is America’s largest port on the Atlantic coast. On weekdays, hundreds of cargo ships deliver thousands of Chinese-made products to waiting trucks and trains. On weekends, the port is empty of life, an unintentional and empty urban monument to America’s economic might.
Click here to see a film featuring more of my Newark-based artwork.

.

.

.

.

PLEASE BE KIND. DO NOT LITTER. FAPS INC. CARES ABOUT YOU.

– signage adorning truck depot

.

Pulaski Skyway

When I left home to attend Columbia University, I knew the transition to college would leave me homesick for Newark. To remind me of home, I painted this watercolor panorama. Every night, in my dorm room, I gazed at this painting and traced the streets and buildings of my childhood memories.

The Old Essex County Jail

.

The old Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights neighborhood, the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America and the oldest civic structure in the city. Abandoned for over fifty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.
The urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners once pruned and weeded is now overrun with nature. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry that defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.
Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd valuables, cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they wander city streets in search of donations, food, and work. The physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into the no less oppressive prison of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

.

Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.

 

.

North Wing (left) and West Wing (right)

West Wing

Warden’s House

.

Ruins of Warden’s House Interior

.

Newark’s Hidden River

.

It is ironic that Newark should ignore the very river it was founded on, the Passaic River. It was the pristine wooded river our city’s founding fathers first saw in 1666. It was our city’s artery to the sea and our industries’ source of wealth. It was the throbbing, flowing heart of our city.
After the automobile drove people to the suburbs and globalization exported jobs abroad, the Passaic was no longer a water highway. It is now this industrial town’s polluted heart. The corporate towers of Newark’s “Renaissance” meet industrial history at the riverbank. The murky waters contain secrets of illegal dumping and toxic pollution that will remain buried for eternity, leaking their oils and toxins down stream. The industrial past clings on, refusing to vanish in forgotten waters. The river of change, the Passaic River, is a place of shifting contrasts, where past meets present.
The river flows on.
View this artwork as part of a short film titled Pictures of Newark

.