John Gallagher, an astute urbanist who writes for the Detroit Free Press, has an interesting piece looking at the demise of both Northland Mall and the Pontiac Silverdome, two venerable symbols of Detroit’s ever-outward-pushing sprawl.
Headlined “8 reasons why the Pontiac Silverdome and Northland Mall failed,” the column is really about the forces underlying Detroit’s suburban sprawl, which Gallagher conflates with economic unsustainability.
Two icons of Detroit’s late 20th century suburban sprawl now face the wrecking ball. That a major suburban mall and a huge domed stadium could fall within the lifetimes of the people who built them represents waste of staggering proportions.
Those of us who criticized suburban sprawl over the years as a vast game of musical chairs now feel justified in saying we told you so. The demolition of Northland and the Silverdome exemplifies the throw-away culture that can discard infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of dollars when tastes change.
Gallagher cites most of the main culprits, including racism, federal policies on highway construction and mortgage deductions, and Michigan’s Home Rule law. And he hits on a couple I was less aware of, noting for example that local leaders wildly over-inflated estimates of Southeast Michigan’s population growth by 2000.
But there’s one factor that I would argue plays a big role.
People around here actually like suburban sprawl. As in, they don’t mind having to jump in their car literally every time they leave their house, no matter what the purpose. They apparently see nothing aesthetically wrong with 10-lane divided highways lined with strip malls and big-box stores. Hell, some don’t even like sidewalks.
Detroit gave the world the mass-produced, affordable automobile, and in so doing, at some point, it managed to birth car culture. It is now deeply ingrained in the culture here.
I hear it all the time, from parents my age who talk about wanting to move to a bigger house on a bigger lot, which invariably means moving further from the urban core, to people who see nothing wrong with our auto-dependent lifestyle and believe our region’s nascent efforts to build mass transit and bike lanes are a folly. How many times have I heard older suburbanites talk about how they fled Detroit and haven’t set foot inside city limits in decades as a point of pride?
So yes, home and road builders deserve some of the blame for our ever-outward ethos, the fact that we now have traffic reports from 32 Mile Road and McMansions in muddy farmlands far from any real employment centers.
But the simple fact is, people for years bought up those houses that necessitated the new roads. The demand was there — and to a degree, still is.