In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Detroit

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Industry, Labor, and the Making of Black Detroit
  • “Shrinking Cities” Perspectives and Critiques
  • Austerity and Neoliberalism
  • Social Movements: Labor, Civil Rights, Black Liberation
  • Regional Perspectives
  • Urban Planning
  • Important Historical Events
  • Bankruptcy and Emergency Management
  • Music and Culture
  • Ruins and Blight
  • Housing
  • Education and Youth
  • Transportation
  • The Urban Environment

Urban Studies Detroit
Dana Kornberg, Mo Torres
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0074


The Motor City, Motown, the “D”—Detroit has had many monikers since European colonization fashioned the region into a major center of capitalist extraction and production. As the birthplace of the auto industry and Fordism, center of the labor movement, generator of radical organizing, place for innovative arts and culture, and destination city for African Americans during the Great Migration, Detroit has experienced changes so dizzying over the decades that their consequences have reverberated throughout the world. Often looked at as an extreme example of more general trends, the City of Detroit has experienced severe population decline and capital disinvestment since the 1950s, when capital paved the way for white flight to the suburbs. As the Blackest large US city by the late twentieth century, Detroit’s African American population rose through the year 2000, while the metropolitan region’s population overall remained relatively stable. In 2013 the city declared a historic bankruptcy, the culmination of decades of fiscal austerity. A robust urban studies literature has accompanied these changes, examining the causes, consequences, and reimaginings of Detroit’s austerity landscape—from redlining, suburbanization, and deindustrialization to the civil rights and Black Power struggles and the devastating decline of housing and city services. Perhaps most of all, Detroit has become known in the urban studies literature for the questions the city raises about the labor and civil rights movements, persistent racist segregation, Black autonomy, urban environmental issues, fiscal austerity, and the consequences of population decline. Detroit continues to challenge urbanists to reimagine what cities have been and offers generative examples of what they could yet be.

General Overviews

Several monographs offer critical historical perspectives on colonization, deindustrialization, urban planning, social movements, depopulation, and bankruptcy in Detroit. Perhaps the most influential text has been Sugrue 2014 (originally published 1996), which offers rich narrative detail on the production of durably racist housing and workplace institutions that accompanied the city’s postwar deindustrialization. Sugrue’s text captures a definitive time in the city’s history—from the relative bounty of industrial production to the 1967 uprisings, which Sugrue argues were incorrectly blamed for the city’s decline but that nevertheless remain a crucial moment in the city’s history and memory. Thomas 1997 is an important companion text to Sugrue’s, offering a perspective from the racialized effects of postwar urban plans and policies, which shaped the city’s trajectory for decades to come. If these books examine the transforming institutionalization of racial divides, Miles 2017 offers a view of Detroit during the eighteenth century, when the employment and trade of enslaved African and Indigenous people laid the bedrock for an enduring racialized economy. These foundational histories usefully frame more contemporary concerns with Detroit’s depopulation resulting from white and middle-class flight. Dewar and Thomas 2013 offers a timely contribution, outlining planning approaches that the city could adopt around the time of bankruptcy instead of the problematic concept of “shrinkage.” These foundations become evident in the resistance chronicled in several additional works. Thompson 2017 (originally published 2001) details the rise of the Black labor movement, bridging the period between the Great Migration and the years following the 1967 uprising. Kurashige 2017 describes the “fifty-year rebellion” in an analysis that connects the 1967 uprising with Detroit’s contemporary politics. Hackworth 2019 situates Detroit’s economic conditions in a history of racism and conservative political mobilization. Jay and Conklin 2020 offers a Marxist perspective on Detroit’s history as a center for both capitalism and labor movements. Similarly, Rector 2022 excavates the city’s past in order to address urgent environmental justice issues of the present. These texts all share an interest in crystallizing processes and lessons gained by attending to Detroit’s storied past. Howell and Stephens 2020 usefully offers a briefer treatment of many key themes.

  • Dewar, Margaret, and June Manning Thomas, eds. The City after Abandonment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

    Growing out of the “Detroit School of Urban Studies” organized through the University of Michigan, this important volume includes a range of voices from across urban studies, with an emphasis on urban planning approaches. Eschewing problematic notions of “shrinkage” and “rightsizing,” the authors draw on examples from Detroit, but also places like New Orleans and Youngstown, to offer fresh approaches that prioritize issues of equity and quality of life.

  • Hackworth, Jason. Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7312/hack19372

    Geographer Jason Hackworth has been a consistent academic voice on austerity, neoliberalism, and fiscal crisis in the American Rust Belt. This book combines new scholarship on racism and conservative political mobilization in the construction of “decline” in Detroit with revised versions of previously published journal articles.

  • Howell, Shea, and Thomas Stephens. “The Unsettling of Detroit.” In Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions. Edited by Brian Tokar and Tamra Gilbertson, 161–178. New York: Routledge, 2020.

    Usefully orients the reader to Detroit’s history, focusing on key political cleavages that have shaped the contemporary city and fomented critical resistance. Offering a perspective from community activists, this article traces histories of political mobilization in Detroit before offering important case studies of industrial alternatives, urban agriculture, the movement against Detroit’s waste incinerator, and water struggles.

  • Jay, Mark, and Philip Conklin. A People’s History of Detroit. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1131811

    Jay and Conklin take a long-range perspective on the workings of capitalism in Detroit in order to adequately situate and better understand more recent claims of Detroit as a “comeback city.” Offering a novel theoretical argument, the authors include a range of Marxist voices from within and beyond the city in order to demonstrate the dialectic promotion of and resistance to processes of creative destruction.

  • Kurashige, Scott. The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the US Political Crisis Began in Detroit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

    Historian and ethnic studies scholar Kurashige develops the case of Detroit as a microcosm of political trends that have spread across the country, from attacks on Black political power to the decline of labor unions. The book shows how the neoliberal turn in US politics can be understood, in part, as a counterrevolutionary attack on demands made by local activities in Detroit and other crisis cities—activists who remain committed to social transformation even through decades of struggle.

  • Miles, Tiya. The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. New York: New Press, 2017.

    MacArthur Prize–winning Historian Tiya Miles offers a groundbreaking perspective on the tangled histories of Native Americans and African Americans in 18th-century Detroit. Traversing the periods of French and then British colonization of the territory and focusing on the fur trade, Miles draws on the relatively few available records to paint a picture of this early modern era.

  • Rector, Josiah. Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469665764.001.0001

    Rector’s motivating concern with Detroit’s contemporary water shutoff crisis leads to a deeper, intersectional analysis of the systems and movements that have caused and responded to environmental injustices over the course of Detroit’s modern history.

  • Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    Historian Thomas Sugrue’s multi-award-winning book was reissued with a new introduction in 2014, updating what has become a classic in the urban studies literature. Over three parts and nine chapters, the book covers a range of events—beginning with postwar Detroit’s industrial decline and explaining the durable legacy of racism that shaped industry, workplaces, and metropolitan housing—all told in exceptional detail with memorable storytelling. Originally published in 1996.

  • Thomas, June Manning. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    Urban planning scholar June Manning Thomas offers a clear-eyed assessment of postwar federal and local planning policies, finding them to be not only inadequate for preventing Detroit’s economic decline, but also instructive in their inability to promote regional cooperation and address racial cleavages. In response, Thomas’s call for “equity planning,” which distributes the benefits of redevelopment programs, remains deeply relevant today.

  • Thompson, Heather Ann. Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501702020

    Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Heather Ann Thompson details the postwar labor movement DRUM, the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement, which was formed by Black workers to address the shortcomings of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Capturing the wider context of this movement in its racial and political context, Thompson uses characteristically compelling storytelling to identify the institutional causes of anger and discontent among Detroit’s Black workers. Originally published in 2001.

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