Detroit, Michigan
United States of America


Detroit, city in southeastern Michigan and seat of Wayne County. Detroit, the largest city in the state, is one of the nation’s leading industrial centers and the world’s foremost automobile manufacturing center. The automobile industry gave Detroit its nickname, The Motor City. Its official name, Detroit, comes from a French word that means “the narrow place.” The city is located at the narrowest point of the channel connecting the upper and lower regions of the vast Great Lakes water system. This strategic location greatly aided the city’s economic growth, as it became a major port of the Great Lakes industrial basin, linked to global markets in Europe and Asia.

Detroit is located on the Detroit and Rouge rivers, opposite Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It is on a flat glacial plain that rises to rolling hills and lake country in the northwest. Detroit has temperate summers and moderately cold winters. Average temperature ranges are -9° to -1 °C (16° to 30 °F) in January and 16° to 29 °C (61° to 83 °F) in July. The city averages 830 mm (33 in) of precipitation a year.

Detroit and its Metropolitan Region

The city of Detroit has a total area of 359 sq km (139 sq mi). Detroit's metropolitan region includes Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Saint Clair, and Wayne counties, and has a total area of 11,204 sq km (4326 sq mi).

Together, Detroit and its environs form a roughly semicircular area separated by the Detroit River from the Canadian province of Ontario. The semicircle is bisected by Woodward Avenue, which extends north to the city of Pontiac, Michigan. Detroit is crossed by other major thoroughfares, among them Gratiot Avenue, extending straight to the northeast, and Grand River Avenue, extending straight to the northwest. Connecting these in an arc is Grand Boulevard, which once marked the outskirts of the city and still contains many lovely homes, interspersed with commercial sections. Other major avenues are Jefferson, which parallels the Detroit River and Lake Saint Clair in the northeast; and Michigan Avenue and Ford Road, running southwest and west respectively.

Detroit's major streets, many nine lanes across, give priority to the easy flow of cars. Strip-mall style commercial buildings along these streets typically hide comfortable and sometimes elegant residential neighborhoods. East side streets follow the original French riverbank settlement pattern, causing the streets to run at an angle to the west side's north-south grid.

Slightly north of downtown Detroit is the New Center area, which was built in the late 1920s. This area is home to the Fisher Tower, an ornate skyscraper done in the art deco style, and the world headquarters of General Motors Corporation.

In the city center, several newer public buildings front the Detroit River facing Canada. There are found the Civic Center, a complex that includes the City-County Building, where government offices and courts are housed, and the Cobo Hall convention center, which contains some 28,000 sq m (300,000 sq ft) of floor space. Also on the river are the five skyscrapers of the Renaissance Center, an office and hotel complex that includes one of the world's tallest hotels. General Motors, which has purchased the entire complex for its new world headquarters, is currently engaged in a multiyear process of renovation. The downtown area is circled by a monorail that follows the outside perimeter and has seven stops.

The Detroit city center also houses one of the largest collections of early 20th-century skyscrapers in the United States. The Guardian Building, built in 1929, is strikingly accented with Detroit's signature Pewabic pottery, glazed ceramic tiles that were an important architectural element in buildings of the 1920s. Other buildings from this period include the 47-story Penobscot Building, constructed in 1928, for many years the tallest building in Detroit; the Book Building, constructed in 1917; and the David Stott Building, which is modeled on a design by famous architect Eliel Saarinen.

During the 20th century, Detroit became a center of the growing automobile industry, and both industrial and residential suburbs grew in the metropolitan area. The industrial suburbs, dependent on the transportation systems of the center city, formed in a ring around Detroit, while the residential areas formed in a larger ring around the industrial suburbs. By 1997 these inner- and outer-ring suburbs covered much of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, with the western outer-ring suburbs extending almost 65 km (almost 40 mi) to the city of Ann Arbor.

As businesses have gradually moved out of the city center, economic growth in the suburbs has become concentrated in the northern outer-ring area, beginning with Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills about 24 km (about 15 mi) north of Detroit and stretching well past Pontiac into Oakland county. The southern suburbs, which include the older inner-ring areas of Dearborn, Ecorse, and Grosse Ile, are slower growing than their counterparts. Hamtramck and Highland Park are independent cities that are entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit.

In recent years, heavy industries such as automobile manufacture and metal production that had supported many of the older inner-ring suburbs have relocated many of their high-wage factory jobs. Although some have been replaced by work in diversified light manufacturing, these areas are burdened with high unemployment and a reduced tax base. They are attempting to rebuild and solve problems of crime, poverty, and underemployment.

The relationship between the city and the suburbs is one of the many problems that Detroit faces today. Fragile for much of the past four decades, relations have improved somewhat since the election of Dennis Archer as mayor in 1993. By 1997 the metropolitan region combined a battered inner core showing impressive signs of new investment, an economically challenged inner ring of older suburbs, and an outer ring marked by intense investment, typically in large homes, office or manufacturing parks, and shopping malls. As the suburbs expand, conflicts about zoning the outer fringe for either farming or development have also increased.


Detroit's population has declined dramatically since its peak of 1,850,000 in 1950, and in 2000 the population was 951,270. This population decline is a concern to city government because a population below one million might jeopardize funding from the federal and state governments and other forms of revenue, hurting city services. At the time of the 2000 census, African Americans made up 81.6 percent of the population of Detroit; whites 12.3 percent; Asians 1 percent; and Native Americans 0.3 percent. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders numbered 251. People of mixed heritage or not reporting race were 4.9 percent of inhabitants. Hispanics, who many be of any race, were 5 of the population.

Detroit's metropolitan area had a population of 5,456,400 in 2000. The metropolitan area also includes significant minority groups, including the largest community of Arab Americans in the nation, numbering 102,000 people in 2000. There are very few distinct ethnic neighborhoods within Detroit or its metropolitan area.

At the turn of the century the population of Detroit was about two-thirds native-born, mainly of French, Canadian, and American ancestry, but with some descendants of German and Irish immigrants. In the first half of the 20th century, the percentage of foreign-born residents declined, even though many immigrants arrived from eastern Europe. During World War II (1939-1945), both whites and blacks were attracted to the city from the South. In 1950 foreign-born and black residents each made up about 16 percent of the total population.

In the five decades after 1950, the city lost almost half of its population, as many white residents moved to adjacent counties. As businesses and industries gradually spread to the suburbs, much of the white population followed. Detroit's outlying areas grew much faster than the inner city and by the mid-1960s had twice the population of Detroit proper. Two other factors also contributed to white flight from the inner city. Blacks moved into inner city neighborhoods, and government programs were established to provide housing loans.

Mortgage and insurance companies actively encouraged white flight by refusing to guarantee housing mortgages in predominately black areas. This policy, known as redlining, made it much easier and cheaper for a white family to buy a new house in the suburbs than to buy or repair an existing house in a black inner-city neighborhood. The attraction of jobs and cheap land, together with concerns about crime, the quality of schools, and declining property values, made the suburbs attractive throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

During the same decades that whites left the city, Detroit’s black population grew. The substantial number of factory jobs that still remained in the city attracted African Americans. Many blacks successfully found higher paying jobs, but their success was often short-lived, as the auto plants and their related industries either closed or moved in partial response to foreign competition. At the same time, blacks were often denied housing loans, which effectively prevented them from following whites out of the city.

The Detroit area is home to a large number of religious groups, including a large Catholic population that dates back to the first French families; a large Jewish community; Muslims (both Arabs and members of the Nation of Islam); Chaldeans (Christian Arabs primarily from Iraq); a small number of Buddhist and other Asian denominations; and a broad range of black and white Protestant denominations.

Education and Culture

Detroit is currently undergoing a multimillion dollar renewal of its cultural resources. The 1980s saw renewed investment in the Detroit Historical Museum, most notably in its acclaimed Motor City Exhibition that interprets the influence of the automobile industry on the city's life and development. During the same period, a group of volunteers renovated Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue, which was slated for demolition. This acoustical masterpiece is once again home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and is the centerpiece for an $80 million art-centered educational and office complex currently under construction.

The city's center includes the world-class collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, in particular its signature murals by Diego Rivera, titled Detroit Industry (1932-1933). The nearby Detroit Science Museum with its IMAX theater and hands-on exhibits cooperates with area schools to promote science. The recently completed Museum of African American History, also located near the Institute of Arts, is the largest museum in North America devoted to African American history, art, and culture. Slightly to the north, in the New Center area, is the Motown Museum, formerly the headquarters of Motown Records. Motown Records became famous in the 1960s as the world headquarters and recording studios for an array of popular black soloists and musical groups, including Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Supremes.

Ethnic festivals at Hart Plaza on the waterfront draw crowds each summer weekend. In addition, Detroit has two traditional events that bring more than one million people downtown. One is the Thanksgiving Day Parade; the other is the fireworks display in early July cosponsored by the United States and Canada.

Outside the city limits, two key cultural institutions consistently attract international attention to the metropolitan area: Dearborn's Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which house a vast assemblage of technological and historical artifacts and buildings, and Bloomfield Hills’ Cranbrook Academy. Founded in the 1920s and principally designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook is a unique cultural center composed of five separate educational institutions. Outstanding collections are housed in the library and galleries of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and in the museum of the Cranbrook Institute of Science.

The metropolitan area is home to over a dozen institutions of higher learning, from two-year programs to major research institutions. These include Wayne State University, the University of Detroit Mercy, and Marygrove College in the city, and Madonna University, Oakland University, and the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses in the surrounding area.


The Detroit River, besides providing lanes for freighters and speedboat races, is home to the city's largest park, Belle Isle. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York’s Central Park, Belle Isle is a 19th-century landmark that offers vistas of Detroit and Windsor, Canada. The park's approximately 400 hectares (1000 acres) provide areas for picnicking and swimming as well as a marine museum, conservatory, children’s zoo, aquarium, riding stable, and the Detroit Yacht Club.

Other large city parks include Rouge Park, Palmer Park, and Chandler Park. One of the most popular parks in the city is Hart Plaza, adjacent to Jefferson Avenue on the waterfront. It is the site of Detroit’s ethnic weekend festivals and features an ice-skating rink and areas for concerts and plays. Metropolitan Beach on Lake Saint Clair is one of the largest freshwater beaches in the world. The Detroit Zoo, which lies just north of the city, has an impressive wildlife collection that draws visitors from the United States and Canada. The metropolitan area also benefits from a series of spacious Metroparks located beyond the northern and western suburbs, which offer biking and walking trails, swimming, and boating.

The Detroit area is home to several professional sports franchises. The Detroit Lions football team plays at Ford Field, and the Detroit Tigers baseball team plays in Comerica Park. The Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League play at the Joe Louis Arena downtown on the Detroit River. The Detroit Pistons professional basketball team plays in The Palace of Auburn Hills on the metro region's northern rim. Division I college teams also call the area home, most notably the Wolverines of the University of Michigan.


Great Lakes shipping played an enormous role in shaping the city. Its economy benefited from the large amount of shipping that passed through the Sault Sainte Marie Canals that link Lake Superior and Lake Huron. During most of the 20th century, more freight tonnage was shipped through these canals than through the Panama and Suez canals combined. Not surprisingly, nearby Detroit became a transportation hub for the Midwest's industrial heartland and developed a strong industrial base.

By 1900 Detroit had evolved from a small fur trade outpost into a regional trade center for southern Michigan. It was also a notable center for metalworking manufactures, particularly rail cars and iron stoves. The construction of railroads by Canada and the United States enhanced the city’s key position on the Great Lakes waterway. The rail and water transport systems worked together bringing raw materials to the city and taking its products—especially lumber, salt, and Detroit’s own manufactured goods—to the Atlantic Coast and markets in the Great Lakes basin.

This mix of transport and manufacturing capacity encouraged the auto industry to take root in Detroit after 1900. The car's hold on Detroit's economy remains strong, despite periodic downturns in the automobile industry. In the 1980s, for example, auto companies downsized many of their plants and moved some to the suburbs, causing serious unemployment among autoworkers. Unemployment also spread to related industries, such as metalworking, tool and die shops, and retail outlets that served autoworkers. The industry began to rebound in the 1990s, however, and now skilled autoworkers and thousands of research and design engineers provide the technological core of a powerful network of assembly plants, high-tech research laboratories, and supplier firms. These production facilities interact with an extensive service sector—such as advertising and accounting—that supports the world headquarters of General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and DaimlerChrysler AG.

Recently, a growing number of "clean" industries, such as medical research, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, robotics, software, and computer components, are bringing increasing diversity to the area. These industries now account for just over one-third of Detroit’s overall economy.

After many industries started moving their facilities to the suburbs, the city proper began a concerted effort to bring small and large firms back to the region's center. In 1996 and 1997, Detroit attracted $5.74 billion in new investments, divided mainly between new factory capacity, entertainment venues, medical and educational facilities, and new housing starts. This impressive sign of confidence in the city economy remains small compared to investments in the suburbs, however, and many observers see an on-going problem in the city's agencies that deal with new projects. Obtaining permits and licenses from city officials is often difficult and time consuming, which frustrates many potential business ventures and new construction projects in the city.

The remarkable return to profitability of the auto manufacturing industry has put pressure on the metro area's transportation infrastructure. This has prompted calls for an extensive upgrading of the existing transportation system, including improving links with Canada, which are currently limited to a bridge, a rail tunnel, and an auto tunnel. In addition, a new terminal to handle Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s increased national and international air traffic is slated for completion early in the 21st century.


Detroit is governed by a mayor and nine-member city council. The mayor and the council members all serve four-year terms. Council members are elected at-large, that is, they do not represent specific districts, which favors incumbents over challengers. The mayor has broad administrative powers, including the right to appoint several administrative officials, and can also veto the council’s legislation. The majority of Detroit's suburbs are also governed by popularly elected mayors and city council members elected at-large.

Many suburbs, whose populations have migrated to avoid the city’s problems, guard their autonomy closely. Relations between the city and the suburbs have often been difficult, although they have improved notably in the 1990s.


Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, established Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit in 1701 at a point on the narrowest section of the channel linking Lake Erie and Lake Huron. This spot marked the shortest crossing of the Great Lakes water system for 800 km (500 mi) in either direction. The French used the fort to block the British from competing in the fur trade, which the French dominated. These early French settlers gave Detroit many of its principal street names: Chene, Beaubien, Dequindre, and others.

In 1760, during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British captured Detroit; however, relations between the British and the Native Americans who traded there quickly deteriorated. The British did not follow the French example of attempting to understand the views of the Native Americans and avoiding liquor in trade negotiations. Angered by the British trade practices, a confederacy of Ottawa and other tribes led by Pontiac attacked the fort in 1763. A five-month siege ensued, but the confederacy was forced to end the war in 1764 due to disagreements among the tribes, a lack of ammunition, and British reinforcements. Pontiac and the Ottawa tribes were forced west into Illinois Territory.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783) the British withdrew from Detroit under the terms of Jay's Treaty, and the United States took over. Detroit was incorporated as a city in 1802 and named the capital of Michigan Territory in 1805, shortly before burning to the ground the same year. For rebuilding, the new governor Augustus Woodward adopted the Washington, D.C., street plan, with streets like the spokes of a wheel, which still characterizes the central part of the city. The British recaptured the city during the War of 1812, but it was returned to the United States the following year.

As the United States expanded westward, Detroit began its gradual change from a frontier outpost to a regional center. Two events played a powerful role in this change: Steam navigation came to the area in 1818, and the 1825 the Erie Canal was completed, opening a viable freight route across the Appalachian Mountains to immigrants and trade from the East Coast and Europe. They transformed the Great Lakes into the world's largest inland waterway. By the time Michigan became a state in 1837, Detroit’s population had grown to 10,000. Moving the state capital to Lansing in 1847 did little to hinder growth. Railroads connected Detroit with Chicago in 1852, establishing a land and water transportation grid that would form the basis of the city's economic life from then on.

The narrow passage across the river to Canada made Detroit a major stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves travel to free areas in the United States and Canada. Even so, in 1863 a riot drove blacks out of the city for a time. For the rest of the century the black population remained small. The overall population of the city doubled every ten years from 1830 to 1900, and at the turn of the century, Detroit’s population numbered 286,000.

Detroit’s key industries included iron, steel, stoves, wheels and axles, leather, chemicals, engines, railroad cars, and ships. Ransom E. Olds opened an early automobile factory in 1897 with Henry Ford following close behind. Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, broke open the middle-class market by providing a tough, easily repaired, and reasonably priced vehicle.

Market demand drove Ford to design the moving assembly line (completed in 1914), an automated production line for automobiles. To lure badly needed workers and to keep them on the job (employee turnover at Ford had reached 380 percent by 1913), Ford offered the famous five-dollar day. This policy doubled the average daily wage while cutting daily working hours from nine to eight. The powerful symbolic combination of the moving line, the five-dollar day, and a wildly popular Model T transformed Henry Ford into one of the world's most famous people.

Between 1910 and 1930 Detroit's population exploded, and the city leapt from 19th-largest to 4th-largest in the United States, gaining over one million people. Growth brought with it a chronic housing shortage and a massive building boom.

Beginning in World War I (1914-1918) and extending through the 1930s, blacks migrated north in search of jobs. They were used as replacement laborers during strikes at auto plants in the early 1920s and mid-1930s, causing great racial resentment and hindering the establishment of the organized labor movement.

In 1925 a small riot broke out when Ossian Sweet, a black doctor, moved into a white neighborhood. During the violence, a shot was fired from his house, killing a man. The famous lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Sweet on the grounds that any man, regardless of race, has the right to defend his home. Although the all-white jury acquitted Sweet, the trouble influenced and typified race relations in the city for the next 50 years. Sweet received his freedom, but the black residents of the city did not gain better treatment. The Sweet trial had allowed the liberal segment of the city's government to falsely believe that conditions had improved for blacks in Detroit. However, housing segregation and discrimination continued, leading to larger racial disturbances in 1943 and 1967.

The economic hard times of the Great Depression struck the city hard, with unemployment near 40 percent, and labor finally organized in Detroit. General Motors and Chrysler recognized the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union after it conducted sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937 in Detroit and Flint, Michigan. After sometimes violent confrontation and heavy-handed resistance, Ford settled with the UAW in 1941.

World War II brought renewed prosperity to Detroit. During the war, the city gained the nickname Arsenal of Democracy for producing huge amounts of mechanized weaponry, including tanks, jeeps, bombers, and a wide variety of specialized system components requiring skilled machine work. Southern immigrants, white and black, flooded Detroit to work in plants producing war material. This brought tensions over housing and jobs to the breaking point. Public housing controversies and racial incidents sparked a race riot in the summer of 1943 that required federal troops to restore order. In the wake of wartime expansion, Detroit's population peaked in 1950.

In the 1950s, however, recessions eroded the city's prosperity, just at the time when increasing decentralization in industry began pushing jobs from the city. With the growth of the highway system and the increasing use of trucks, factories no longer needed to be located near rail hubs, water transportation routes, or raw materials processing centers. Both raw materials and finished goods could travel by truck anywhere in the country. No longer constrained by transportation limitations, factories moved to inexpensive land on the urban fringe, the same area increasingly occupied by white suburban home owners.

Whites left the city, following the jobs to the suburbs, and blacks arrived. Racial tensions continued to build: about housing, education, a mostly white police department, and job discrimination. Finally, in July 1967, a raid at an illegal after-hours bar exploded in a week of violence and looting, as National Guard and federal troops occupied the city. The riots came to symbolize the problems of America's cities, and even today Detroit finds it difficult to shed a negative image—an image that is often not shared by its own citizens.

In the aftermath of the riots, white movement to the suburbs continued, reaching its highest level in the 1970s. In 1973 the city's first black mayor, Coleman Young, took office. Blunt and colorful, Young brought tough, focused leadership to a city in trouble. His vast popularity in the city—he was elected to five four-year terms—was matched by conflict with the suburbs. Young accused suburban dwellers of evading their responsibility for the overall health of the entire region and attributed their behavior to racism. Suburban leaders typically responded by blaming Young and his administration for problems—crime, deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate public schools—that were located mostly within city limits.

Meanwhile, the auto industry had been declining rapidly in the face of Japanese and European competition, and a recession of the early 1980s eliminated many factory jobs in the city. In addition to unemployment, the city’s administration had to cope with a high murder rate and crumbling neighborhoods. Outbreaks of arson during Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween) brought news teams from around the world. All of these enhanced the city's negative image as a riot-torn city.

In 1993, helped by the Big Three auto companies' economic rebound, a new city administration passed many initiatives, some the legacy of the Young period. With these initiatives, the administration created a striking new optimism in the city. Through citywide volunteer efforts, Devil's Night disappeared by 1997. Private investment in the city increased sharply, along with improvements in infrastructure and city services. City-suburb tensions eased, opening the door for possible cooperation in resolving regional issues.

The suburbs faced challenges of their own. Inner-ring suburbs lacked the tax base to meet the demand for social services. Outer-ring suburbs were growing rapidly and faced pressures on water, sewerage, and traffic systems. Conflict arose between farmers and developers over best use of the rural fringe. However, despite a number of unresolved tensions and problems, the entire metropolitan area is rapidly evolving into a technological center for the region as Detroit approaches its 300th birthday.