The 1968 Summer Games were held in Mexico City, but they still changed Detroit.
In search of Olympic ephemera, I recently came across a video in the Prelinger Archives that’s a sales pitch for a city “on the move,” hoping to prove to the International Olympic Committee that reinvention and urban development was underfoot. The “new renaissance” that Mayor Jerome Cavanagh had in mind in 1965, when the film was made, was a reflection of the urban planning of the postwar era that would come to many major American cities – planning that sounded great but that actually eroded the city.
In 1960s Detroit, the car was front and center, as the demands of a powerful auto industry superceded the needs of urban space, and massive glass-and-concrete towers set in large open spaces gave over civic wellbeing to “futuristic” monumentality. The massive highway interchanges and terrible architecture that the Mayor says is “creating a new image of beauty and function” are at the center of this vaguely entertaining Detroit promotional film from that year. Absent are Detroit’s historic, pre-war neighborhoods, but at least there is a Disneyland-like tourist village to remind people of the past. Buildings are good because they are “tall” and “modern.” Entire slum neighborhoods will be demolished, as if ending “the ugliness, the poverty and sickness of slums” was simply a matter of demolition. There are many factors behind the city’s decline, but the impact of bad planning was already well known in the 1960s; a 1961 Time Magazine article, “Decline in Detroit” began with this opening graf:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.
The millions in federal funds that Detroit drew from President Johnson’s Great Society programs went almost exclusively into the inner city, where the Washington Post claimed early in the decade that inner-city schools were undergoing “the country’s leading and most forceful reforms in education.” In 1965, the American Institute of Architects gave Detroit an award for urban redevelopment.
But the urban renewal efforts of the ’60s divided the city along racial lines, destroying the “slums” of older neighborhoods and pushing blacks into an increasingly crowded neighborhood around 12th street where businesses were largely owned by suburbanites. A year before the Games, the city witnessed one of the worst riots in American history, which left 43 dead, 467 injured, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Just behind police brutality, respondents to a Detroit Free Press poll listed poor housing as the second most important issue leading up to the race riots.
What would have happened if the city had won its Olympic bid? The experience of Atlanta, the ’96 Summer Games host city, suggests some of the benefits that can come with a giant international event. More likely, the Games would have saddled Detroit with more debt and white elephant stadiums after the torch had passed. (London is just beginning to cope with its own Games hangover, an Olympic-sized debt on top of 20 percent youth unemployment and drastic cuts to agencies like the National Health Service.)
Meanwhile, because Detroit’s venues would have had to be constructed outside the city’s already constrained urban center, the Games would have likely more quickly eviscerated Detroit’s downtown. “That probably would have just accelerated the sprawl that eventually occurred,” said Scott Watkins, senior consultant for the Anderson Economic Group in Lansing, “and made it that much more difficult to reurbanize the city and bring people back to the core of the downtown, which is happening with some success now.”
Fifty years later, what remains of this stillborn future Detroit is being whipped into hip urban spaces and community gardens by young creative people with a go-get-em attitude. (And a future Olympic bid – meant to stimulate the American city some say needs the Olympics most – isn’t out of the question; the city already holds a record for the most Olympic bids: 7) But, obviously, an urban-suburban renewal at the hands of newcomers isn’t uncomplicated. The now bankrupt city is coping with a decline that was fed by another progressive vision, decades ago.