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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Detroit 1965

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The above video was made as part of Detroit’s bid to host the Olympics, and if you have 18 minutes to spare, it’s worth a look. While certainly a period piece, the tone is not so different from those shiny touristy/PR video’s produced about cities today. They all seem completely untrustworthy, and I wonder who this sort of thing convinces of anything. It’s impossible to watch this Detroit film without thinking about the desperation behind it, like a family that doesn’t talk about some horrible thing in has stuffed in the closet while presenting a perfectly nuclear appearance outside the home.

When this film was produced, white-flight was in full gear and racial tensions were already high. Detroit had suffered terrible race riots in 1943 during World War II (check this Detroit News retrospective with some unbelievable photos of that riot) when the city was known as the Arsenal of Democracy, and it was likely clear to anybody paying attention that things were going to explode again. Most remarkable about this film is that despite being one of America’s great Black metropolises, there are only a handful of African-American’s in the video. Mostly they are walking on the street — sort of like film “extras” — but never enjoying any of the positive Detroit depicted. A few years later when the 1967 Twelfth Street Riots occurred and massive swaths of the city burnt to the ground, the young and promising Mayor Jerome Cavanagh (part of a wave of up-and-coming Democrats elected when Kennedy came into power) had this to say: “Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough.” Ten years after this video was produced, Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, shed some light on what was going on just before the riot in his autobiography:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the rebellion, totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.

I have heard, from time to time, that there was something of a mantra going around Toronto from this period onwards, along the lines of “Let’s not become Detroit,” and it fueled everything from expressway protesting to the formation of neighbourhood groups. Do readers who were here at that time remember such explicit connections to our neighbour down the 401, or is this more of a retrospective feeling? Interestingly, when this film was produced, the centre of Detroit’s black community — known as “Black Bottom” and “Paradise Valley” — was recently razed and destroyed to make way for I375, a short Interstate spur that ran to the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel, and Lafayette Park, an (amazing) Mies van der Rohe residential development that viewers can spot in this film. None of what was there made it into this film.

The video above is a Flash/Shockwave embed from If it doesn’t work for you, go here and watch it, or better yet, download it (for free) and watch it in a more appropriate application.



  1. The scenes presented in this film do not represent what I have read about Detroit during that time period, with the exception of the narrator’s comment about the clearing away of poverty and slums for the new medical complex. Thank you for sharing. It is 18 minutes worth watching.

  2. I can’t attest to what was in the air in the late 1960s viz a Toronto-Detroit comparison, but certainly the hollowing-out phenomena, closely associated with Detroit, was a fixture of political rhetoric in Toronto during the 1980s, with the departure of the bank back-offices from the downtown, and even into the mid-1990s.

  3. In the 1980’s banks were COMING to Toronto because of the PQ, thats why Montreal had a downturn over that period.

  4. Wow! Great choice, Shawn. Fascinating… and congrats on the recent Spacing awards!

  5. Interesting how the publicity film does not show any of the beautiful old architecture of Detroit, only the modernist boxes. For a fascinating website on the former, see:

  6. Toronto is Detriotifying. While it may not look like the classical whole in a doughnut pattern (we have a Tim bit in the middle), there is certainly a decaying swath between the core and the 905.

  7. Well, then it isn’t “Detroitifying” — by your description is Parisifying. Completely different things, completely different circumstances/forces.