Remembering the Renaissance City: Detroit's Bicentennial Homecoming Festival and Urban Redevelopment

By Longo, Julie | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Renaissance City: Detroit's Bicentennial Homecoming Festival and Urban Redevelopment


Longo, Julie, Michigan Historical Review


In 1976 the city of Detroit celebrated its 275th birthday. Designed to correspond with the American Revolution Bicentennial, Detroit's "Homecoming" festival promised "to be Michigan's biggest party ever." Complete with "jazzmen, actors, entertainers, artists, doctors, and scientists," the festival was meant to attract tourist and entertainment dollars to a city suffering racial discord, economic uncertainty, and a corporate-driven "Renaissance" whose redevelopment projects would have several unfortunate outcomes. (1) When asked what the bicentennial had to do with the urban crisis, Mayor Coleman Young's office answered, "Everything. If we can build Detroit as a labor history center and promote it as a tourist attraction we shall have more jobs. If our streets are filled with people enjoying fairs, exhibits, and performances, those streets will be safer, and ultimately, to the extent that we are able to involve all segments of our community, the bicentennial can help build bridges in a polarized City." (2)

Site of one of the worst race riots of the late 1960s, Detroit in the 1970s was fast becoming one of the most racially divided cities in America. (3) Unemployment in the city proper had reached 13.1 percent by 1976 compared to the 7.4 percent national average; more than 90 percent of those unemployed in Detroit were minorities. (4) Between 1974 and 1976, at least twenty-three major employers had moved their manufacturing businesses south, taking 150,000 Michigan jobs with them. (5) In this climate of capital flight and job loss, those who could afford to leave the city did. Pervasive racism in the city's municipal departments and Detroit's law-enforcement practices escalated social tensions. The riots of 1967 sped up the exodus of whites from the city, many of whom cited their fear of race-motivated violence as the reason they were moving. Deserted by Detroiters fleeing the city for suburban communities on its periphery, by 1976 the central city looked as if it had been bombed. Both white- and black-run community businesses closed. Houses were abandoned, city services were greatly affected by the loss of tax dollars, and Mayor Young found himself laying off police officers and civil servants as well as reducing the use of street lights to conserve electricity. (6)

Yet in the midst of this social and economic collapse, Detroit planned an urban renaissance, a civic rebirth inspired by dramatic changes to the built environment. These changes were determined by the interests of a handful of Detroit's business and civic leaders, backed by a progrowth local government. The idea for a nonprofit organization that would promote and direct city development came out of discussions among powerful Detroit businesspeople like the head of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II, and local financier Max Fisher, who knew they could attract capital to support large-scale building projects in the downtown area. (7) They created Detroit Renaissance Incorporated, and for the next decade plans to revitalize Detroit took the name of this corporation. Robert McCabe, previously the second in command at New York City's redevelopment corporation, was hired to run it.

Redevelopment in much of Detroit after 1970 reflected new public-private relationships dominated by the belief that attracting capital was the chief responsibility of municipal governments. In this respect Detroit was not unique: urban-planning professionals and city developers have often used partnerships with public redevelopment agencies and municipal governments not only to finance projects, but also to garner public support. Since the 1970s, private-public partnerships have provided urban politicians with impressive and tangible monuments that demonstrate their civic activity while creating profits for the private sector. Marc Levine argues that "private and public interests have become so blurred by the partnership concept that private development projects are praised as the epitome of civic achievement. …

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