Early Medieval Detroit: The Motor City as a Mirror for Illuminating Urban Shrinkage in the Late Antique West

Early Medieval Detroit: The Motor City as a Mirror for Illuminating Urban Shrinkage in the Late Antique West

By David Powell

Paper Presented at the Brian Bertoti Innovative Perspectives in History Graduate Conference (2010)

The inside of the abandoned church in Detroit

The inside of the abandoned church in Detroit

Abstract: This paper surveys the potential parallels between the depopulation-based transformations of the landscape of modern Detroit and the reconfiguration or disappearance of formerly Roman urban settings in western Europe between the 3rd and 7th centuries.

Detroit’s population has fallen by half from a high of about 1.9 million in 1950. Postwar racial tensions, the growing difficulties of the U.S. auto industry, and the destruction of the 1967 riots are among the factors that are widely acknowledged to have contributed to the city’s population decline, the effects of which are readily evident in Detroit’s urban fabric. Entire sections of the city have been depopulated, leaving a hash of abandoned buildings, vacant or overgrown lots, and crumbling infrastructure. Wildlife not seen in Detroit since preindustrial times has begun to reappear. Some remaining residents of these areas have taken up semi-agrarian lifestyles, hunting raccoons or raising crops in formerly urban spaces and selling their goods in ad-hoc markets. Police and other agents of municipal authority are regarded as either ineffectual or irrelevant. Many of those who remain in the urban core do so because no other option is available to them.

These developments may hold clues for revealing the form of changes in western Europe during the 5th and 6th centuries, when similar shrinkage of the urban footprint took place in many cities and towns. Fifteen centuries of subsequent development prevent us from knowing with certainty how and why these changes took place, what they looked like, and what they meant for people living through them. Archaeological efforts focused on this period have picked up momentum in recent decades, but the shape of the earliest medieval urban landscapes remains mostly hidden from view. Do modern Detroit and its residents, with their various adaptations to the changing circumstances of their environment, provide, to any extent, a model for shrinking post-Roman cities? This paper argues that they do, though the problems of scale and of anachronism are obvious and must be navigated with care.

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