Detroit Bankruptcy

Detroit, Michigan, USA
July 18, 2013
Benson Worthington and Michael Montalvo

Ilegally dumped tires sit in front of a vacant, blighted home in a once thriving neighborhood on the east side of Detroit
“Detroit: Largest Municipal Bankruptcy in History.” 1800Politicscom RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.


Due to the publicity of the event many people have assumed Detroit has completed its bankruptcy, but that is not the case in fact there is speculation that the process will not be completed until Fall 2014. Detroit is one of the oldest cities in America and for the past century has been fueled mainly by the success of GM (General Motors), earning it the nickname “Motor City.” Given GM’s extreme success no one foresaw the gradual arrest of many functioning factories, but over the years decisions to replace factory lines with an automated car production process would replace the countless jobs that made up the core of Detroit’s economy. Long story short, demand weakened, the competition went up, failure to adapt to changing times and the replacement of jobs with automated machines developed the “perfect storm” for Detroit’s foundation to crumble out from underneath its feet. Detroit “mismanaged” their finances and the repercussions of their actions are now evident to the public hence the declaration of bankruptcy. A culmination of mishandling debts, taxes, investments, and an overall low ‘financial IQ’ were the reasons for the slow decay, if you will, of the Motor City. With all of that being said, the U.S. looks continuously for solutions to revitalize this long lived city. Many ideas are being thrown around anywhere from consolidating Detroit, to giving the city to Canada. We know Detroit’s current population is much too small to occupy such a vast urban expanse, and there are thousands of vacant buildings and complexes within the city. It is evident that approaching these two main concerns will involve a re-evaluation of the city’s architectural integrity, we will need to shrink the city to comply with the population/economy change, and renovate used or vacant buildings to serve proper functions in the new and improved culture of Detroit.

A more recent and in depth study shows there has been a drastic population decrease in the core of Detroit since 2000. It is also evident there was a population increase in Michigan outside the city, which suggests local migration to outside of the city.
Cohn, Nate. The Decline of Detroit in Five Maps. 2013. Photograph. n.p. Web. 16 Sep 2013.
Simple Diagram showing Detroit’s constant population change over the past 100 years.
2013. Photograph. The Economist, DETROIT. Web. 16 Sep 2013.

Unable to adapt and change with the times Detroit declined in wealth and population throughout the decades, and became unattractive to its home residents. “Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950 and declined to just 700,000 people in the last Census,” wrote the New Republic in its article published on July 18, 2013. With a population decrease of this extremity, shrinking the city on a massive scale is exactly what Detroit needs to sustain optimal function. The citizens, community and businesses would thrive more readily off a compact environment than one of scarcity. The mayor suggested to shrink the city back in 2011, however not enough action was taken and the extent of the continued size decrease was not foreseen. Today Detroit is recovering, but is still in need of some work, “reality has turned out to be less dramatic, but the city is definitely working to reduce its footprint — to abandon some neighborhoods in order to focus on making others thrive. That could help with cutting costs and improving services, but — groovy urban farms aside — it’s not what you’d call an entirely positive development,” states a Harvard Business review blog. Overall, initial steps are being taken in the shrinkage department, but it’s essential to the vitality of the city to keep expanding the shrinkage and come up with new ideas to make Detroit a more attractive place. “It’s a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They’re turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They’re tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move,” wrote, Haya El Nasse ,in an article for USA TODAY. For example The Dequindre Cut, a decimated area turned into public park & trail opened in May 2009, exemplifies a broken down railroad (deserted area) re-imagined, redesigned, and renovated into a public space that host events, gatherings, and begins to build a new culture within the ‘New Detroit’. Beyond the steps Detroit has already taken officials should be looking at New Orleans, a city that has been losing its population since the 1960’s (the same timeline as Detroit), and it is clearly ‘ahead of the curve’ compared to Detroit. Their approach towards a declining population has proven to be effective thus far, and Detroit should focus on researching and learning from the cities that have been in similar situations and then continue to recover based on their findings. Roberta Brandes Gratz writes on New Orleans successful strategies saying, “By moving the few remaining residents out of the most diminished neighborhoods and into underutilized spaces in healthy areas, the theory goes, the now-smaller city saves money, strengthens neighborhoods worth saving and prepares for a better future.” Detroit could easily adapt a similar game plan where shrinking the city allows architects to focus on smaller more effective urban areas. By focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses, and by bettering their cultural landmarks and the resurgence of its downtown Detroit can attract tourist and residents. A key factor involved in the compacting of the city’s urban field will involve an intricate and innovative renovation process that will take advantage of vacant or underutilized structures.

Here we see one of the 79 schools that were shut down.
Beshouri, Paul. Bankrupt and Shrinking, Detroit Selling 79 Abandoned Schools. 2013. Photograph. CurbedWeb. 16 Sep 2013

After having its population more than chopped in half, Detroit was left with many abandoned housing complexes, abandoned factories and empty lots. Today we see that “79 schools across the city are up for grabs right now” and with the main goal of compacting the city there is no choice but to revamp many abandoned buildings giving them a function in the ‘New Detroit.’ “Not only do we understand the widespread lack of use for schools but we can understand the drastic decrease in population of elementary age children. In all, Detroit has 20 square miles of vacant land, roughly equal in size to Manhattan”, and for this reason renovating the city will be the primary concern. Not only with this help bring back the density of the city it needs to survive, but revitalizing the small shops downtown, putting an emphasis on old culture and new beginnings will draw crowds, immigrants, and tourist. The idea of walking through Detroit and seeing a renewed sense of culture would bring people to love the city again.. Imagine, you’re walking the streets of downtown and you see a “Mo-Town” museum and then a cultural center and small shops and old hotels renovated and refurbished for a classy style. One example of this in world history occurred in a relatively small city in Spain called Bilbao. “If the founder of the town of Bilbao, Mr. Diego López de Haro, could rise from his grave, he would probably not recognize that little early settlement that emerged around seven streets. This northern city has experienced such changes that have little or nothing to do with the industrial appearance it offered some years ago. The so-called ‘Guggenheim effect’ still attracts not only celebrities from show-business but also ordinary tourists. Hotels are increasing in number aimed at meeting tourists’ demands.” This very old city has brilliantly adapted and attracted new tourist, residents, and people from all over the world. Although the guggenheim effect was proven effective in the city of Bilbao, we are not suggesting that Detroit use the same exact strategy but rather provide an evidence to the fact that creating a culture is central to the rebuilding of a city. Furthermore, that architecture plays a key role in establishing this ideal not matter what specific strategy is used. In the case of Detroit, utmost potential is seen in the renovation of abandoned buildings that were once deep rooted in Detroit’s booming culture. Detroit has all the potential in the world to develop that revitalized appeal to it, and even incorporate elements of its previous cultural generations. All things considered, this bankruptcy may be exactly what Detroit needed to “find itself” again.

Here we see a high concentration of vacancy in and around the city.
Cohn, Nate. The Decline of Detroit in Five Maps. 2013. Photograph. n.p. Web. 16 Sep 2013.

The future of Detroit has already begun to form and is still searching for that “master-plan” that will have everybody talking. Well maybe the “master-plan” has been standing right in front of them but they just needed to change their glasses. Detroit officials should take a new perspective at the revitalization of the city. Go back, identify their strengths as a city. Take in new ideas for any project that would build a strong sense of the culture they want to be present in this ‘New Detroit’ and renovate the old vacant buildings that are necessary for places like small shops and different venues throughout the city. Detroit can have a beautiful surrounding landscape if they shrink the city and convert highways into something environmentally friendly and sustainable. Detroit has the opportunity to totally take control of their future, shrinking the unnecessary and renovating the necessary, learning from predecessors, and becoming crystal clear on the type of culture they want to build up for this ‘New Detroit.’ These are the steps to revitalizing the greatness of the long lived and long loved “Motown.”




Taylor III, Alex. “Detroit: After Bankruptcy, Then What?” FORTUNE Features RSS. N.p., 24 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

This article is more gloomy and to the reader it comes off as pessimistic and dull. The concepts Alex was throwing around were not really concepts at all, they were more predictions. He mentioned the bankruptcy process of Chrysler and GM and how that went according to plan. However, he feels with such a large scale the city has another thing coming if they want this process to go ‘according to plan’.  


Detroit, City Of. “Dequindre Cut.” The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy -. Detroit, MI, 09 May 2009. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <>.

The Dequindre Cut is Detroit’s unfinished public park that was a redesigned and renovated train track in 2009. The park is a trail for families and people all over Detroit to utilize and come together within the city!


Beshouri, Paul. “Bid on the Free Press Building Now, David Stott at Noon.” Curbed Detroit. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

Although not a content heavy article, this source provides some astounding data on the shrinking of Detroit and the selling of almost 100 schools. This information not only shows a widespread trend population wise within detroit, but it could have a large effect on future decisions within the world of architecture.


Encyclopedia Entries

Arvan, Frank X. “It’s Time to Envision A Better Built Detroit. Are Architects Ready?”ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

I love this article! It is absolutely inspiring to see an article that writes on the hope that detroit still has as it gazes upon the horizon. Frank Arvan provides the reader with questions, concepts, and ideas that give architects a challenge! To envision a better tomorrow for detroit- right now.


Quirk, Vanessa. “Why Bankruptcy May Be the Best Thing for Detroit.” ArchDaily. N.p., 25 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

 This article is great in that it gives hope to the situation rather than bombarding the event with negativity. The author looks at this event as a turning point rather than an ending point. From an architectural standpoint, this event allows for new advances and essentially a new start.


Scholarly Articles

Fox, Justin. “HBR Blog Network.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 24 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

This article first states that many other sources simply say what went wrong, the author moves on to say that the main point of the bankruptcy, which has been looming for decades, is to get a fresh start. Optimism is clearly what is going to bring the city back to life and that is exactly what this article brings to the table. It goes on to mention how in many ways, the bankruptcy will simply open up new opportunities.

Macomber, John, Robert C. Pozen, Eric D. Werker, and Benjamin Kennedy. “Detroit Files for Bankruptcy: HBS Faculty Weigh In.” — HBS Working Knowledge. N.p., 24 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

Harvard Faculty weigh in on the historic event and many of the faculty believe this bankruptcy is just the first of many for major cities. The faculty offers good advice as to how detroit should look to the future and why it is not just going to be just ‘another walk in the park’ to get this city moving onward! The article was insightful and educational.


Orthographic Documentation

Cohn, Nate. “The New Republic.” New Republic. N.p., 18 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.<>.

This source depicts the decline of the “Motor City” over the past few decades by use of 5 graphics. By using maps we are able to visually understand changes in population, vacant housinf units, income levels and race based population demographics. Seeing theses changes visually give the viewer a much better understanding of the magnitude of this event.


Woods, Ashley. “A Guide To Detroit’s Chapter 9 Default And How Bankruptcy Could Change The City.” The Huffington Post., 24 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.<>.

Not only does this source offer an in depth infographic that breaks down the 18 billion dollar debt, but we are also given many pictures depicting the change that has occurred. In addition to this media, the article goes into depth about what effects bankruptcy may have on the city and how things could change.


Video and Audio

Holman, Kwame. “News Wrap: City of Detroit Files for Bankruptcy.” PBS. PBS, 18 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

This audio voices the opinion of many credible people and is very helpful for understanding the event from different perspectives. Some relate to architecture more than others, but all provide context to the overall concern.

Goodman, Amy, and Juan Gonzalez. “Richard Wolff: Detroit a “Spectacular Failure” of System That Redistributes Pay From Bottom to Top.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013. <>.

The video explains that Detroit, “is an example of a failed economic system,” says economist Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at University of Massachusetts. “There are so many other cities in Detroit’s situation, that if the courts decide that it is legal to take away the pension that has been promised to and paid for by these workers, you have [legalized] theft. It is class war, redistributing income from the bottom to the top.” This pretty much sums up how that interview went, another debate, another conversation. We need to see more action.


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