To deal with congestion, the road was widened from four lanes to eight, which meant razing trees and demolishing buildings. Churches were cut in half. But widening Woodward Avenue into a modern “super highway” didn’t work out the way the project’s boosters (or the Detroit taxpayers) planned. The suburbs grew while the city itself hollowed out, and Woodward Avenue in Detroit began to crumble.
Once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., Detroit has lost about two-thirds of its population since 1950. By 2013, the city Augustus Woodward envisioned as the grandest of the American interior was home to ”tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets.” It was also groaning under a mountain of debt. When the city declared bankruptcy that year it became the largest municipal bankruptcy by debt in American history, eclipsing the previous dubious record by a factor of at least four.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn once wrote an article titled “We Are All Detroit.” The temptation, he said, is to dismiss Detroit as an outlier. But that’s the wrong lesson: Detroit isn’t different from us, just ahead of us. “The auto-centric style of development undermined the resiliency of the city,” Chuck wrote, “tearing down social, political, and financial strength that had made Detroit one of the world’s greatest cities. Once this strength was undermined, once Detroit became a fragile city, it was only a matter of time.” A whole continent of towns and cities went all-in on the same development pattern, and, sure enough, many of them are now slipping inexorably toward a similar future—if not outright bankruptcy then at least functional insolvency.
Woodward Avenue: Our Future?
If “we are all Detroit,” then Woodward Avenue is Everyroad.
At least that’s what came to mind when I read a recent story in Governing magazine called ”Small Cities Can’t Manage the High Cost of Old Infrastructure.” It describes how the mayor of Ferndale, Michigan—a northern suburb of Detroit—is trying to convert her city’s stretch of Woodward Avenue into a safer, more productive place.
Mayor Melanie Piana recently explained in a webcast that the number one reason people move to Ferndale is for its walkability. But Piana also said that the number one complaint she gets from residents is that they feel uncomfortable and unsafe trying to get across the eight lanes of Woodward Avenue.