Another reason the Silverdome and Northland Mall are dead: People here like sprawl

The Pontiac Silverdome has sat mostly unused since the Detroit Lions left for Ford Field downtown in 2002. It is now slated for demolition.
The Pontiac Silverdome has sat mostly unused since the Detroit Lions left for Ford Field downtown in 2002. It is now slated for demolition.

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.

7944929514_5d20ee390c_z
New homes in the Detroit suburbs in the 1950s.

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.

Creative Commons photos by Dave Hogg and Roadside Pictures

2 thoughts on “Another reason the Silverdome and Northland Mall are dead: People here like sprawl

  1. I wasn’t even a teenager when Northland Mall opened in 1954. Having gone downtown as a kid for shopping with my parents, it was exciting to have a huge mall with many stores, especially with J.L. Hudson Co. as the anchor. No need to go downtown and pay for parking in a lot. Northland had thousands of parking spaces, all for free.

    If you look at metro Detroit’s growth, the people with money primarily moved in a northwest direction from Northwest Detroit into Oakland County: Southfield, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield and even further. As you and John Gallagher pointed out, people liked driving, and after WWII were drawn to the wide open spaces a car could take you. New freeways, all leading out of Detroit, made it even easier.

    Racial issues affected metro Detroit more than other cities and accelerated the move out of the city especially after the 1967 riots. Whites were afraid of changing neighborhoods, and except for wealthy integrated areas such as Palmer Woods, working class neighborhoods went from white to black. I remember a co-worker downtown who moved his family to Howell in 1968 so that they would be “safe”. He said that an hour on the freeway each way was worth it to live in wide open spaces. Then, the fear of forced busing made even more people move out.

    Downtown and Midtown Detroit are coming back strong, but that gentrification probably won’t draw middle income families back to the city.

    “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.” You are right.

    Pontiac Silverdome is another story. Terrible location, terrible facility.

    I have no answers to any of this. I just read all 195 reader comments to John Gallagher’s story, and society is more divided than ever.

    Pontiac Silverdome is another story. Terrible location, terrible facility.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, detroit1051. Always enjoy hearing people’s memories of the Detroit of old.

      I too have a lot of thoughts about this phenomenon — in fact, I should probably write more about it — but I always come back to my belief that car culture is deeply rooted here and people by and large aren’t interested in urbanity. Around here, as you achieve success, the gold standard is a big house with a big yard in the burbs, far from the central city. It’s so fundamentally different from what I experienced living in NYC and have seen in other cities, like Chicago or San Francisco, where people aspire to live well in the city.

      Change is definitely under way, as you noted. As I have written on this blog, I see more passion and aspiration in Detroit than ever before in my lifetime, and that’s definitely exciting. But it’s gradual, and I think certain older generations have largely turned their backs on the city. And until schools show marked improvement, middle-class families will stay away and all the young people moving in will leave to start families. That has to change.

      Lastly, I agree with you on the Silverdome. I will not be mourning the loss of that dump.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: