For many when they think of the richest cities in America the cities that come to mind are New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, to name a few. And they are not wrong. However, in the 1950’s, the richest city in America and in the world was no other than Detroit.
Detroit is the largest city in the US state of Michigan. Detroit is also the largest city that borders the United States and neighboring Canada. Downtown Detroit is located on the Detroit River. The main street is Woodward and it heads north out of downtown.
With that said, let’s look at some of the things that made Detroit so prosperous in the 1950’s and would lead to its decline in growth (population, GDP, etc).
AUTOMOTIVE GROWTH 1910 TO 1950
By 1910 Henry Ford had created the automotive assembly line which revolutionized the automotive industry. With that creation, Ford’s competitors began to adopt his car assembly line manufacturing techniques.
These competitors would eventually build commercial and office buildings in Detroit. Including the General Motors Building (1919), the General Motors Research Laboratory (1928), and the Fisher Building (1928). The automobile assembly and related manufacturing became the dominant industry in the city of Detroit.
A key factor that made Detroit attractive to automobile makers was its central geographic location and accessibility to the Great Lakes. This primarily made Detroit an attractive site for automakers, along with other factors including labor force, etc.
The exponential growth raised the city of Detroit from a second tier industrial city to a world renown city. This is what led to Detroit eventually being dubbed the Motor City.
DETROIT GROWTH IN THE 50’S
In 1950 the population of Detroit was in the top 5 among all US cities. It rounded the top five at number five with a whopping population of 1, 850,000 people. The slots of one through four were occupied by New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, respectively.
Detroit, in 1950, was home to roughly one third of Michigan’s population. The driving force behind this population was primarily the automotive industry. An industry that generally saw aggregate production and sales growth setting new records.
It wasn’t all growth in the 1950’s for Detroit. In the 1950’s highways were in place across America and plans were manifested to convert Detroit into a central hub in the coming Interstate Highway System. These highways had funding advantages over mass public transit. That is because of the availability of federal highway money and the availability of matching state money. Though the highway funds were ultimately paid for by drivers via gasoline taxes.
Bridge Michigan states regarding the Interstate Highway Program: The interstate highway program tore through Detroit and, in the process, destroyed the vibrant commercial and cultural center of the city’s African-American community along Hastings Street, while the federal urban renewal program wiped out the adjacent Black Bottom neighborhood.
WATER, SEWERAGE & HOUSING
Additionally, Bridge Michigan goes on to state that “flawed government policies were” the reason for Detroit’s decline. They continue, “Water and sewerage services there were inadequate, but in 1956 Detroit officials made a business decision to extend thousands of miles of water and sewer lines beyond 8 Mile Road, eventually building a 1,000-square-mile metropolitan system, helping to drain Detroit’s jobs and tax base for decades to come.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stood by and watched as foreclosures sparked by their housing initiatives where banks were fully reimbursed, issued very high closing fees and continued to make subprime loans. Foreclosed homes in Detroit reached 20 percent of HUD’s national inventory, blighting neighborhoods and depressing housing values.
With all of the turmoil that was happening around Detroit, politicians exacerbated it with their lackluster policies. All the while, industries, jobs and people left the city in droves.
As stated in the opening of this post, Detroit’s population peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million people making it the fifth largest city in the US. It was still the largest city in the United States in 1960, but the population had declined to 1.67 million.
In the 2020 census Detroit had a meager population, compared to its prime, of 639, 111 people. This made it the 27th most populous city in the United States. A substantial drop from number 5 in 1950.
And as always we like to close with a saying, quote or adage and today’s is from Patrick Bet David (video below): DETROIT WAS THE RICHEST CITY IN AMERICA UNTIL POLITICIANS SHOWED UP.
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