How Detroit’s borders were drawn — and why it ...

How Detroit’s borders were drawn — and why it matters

We’re still experiencing the effects of border disputes 100 years later.

detroit map turn of the century

Map of Detroit c. 1899. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Detroit’s borders are infamously contentious. Grosse Pointe has erected barriers at various entry points to discourage traffic from Detroit. 8 Mile Road comes with its own baggage, a delineation between the city and suburbs that people have at times been discouraged or prevented from crossing.

But how did Detroit’s borders come to be the way they are? Were they always this contentious? And what can we learn from these decades-old border disputes?

These are the questions that a new series in Detroit Urbanism is trying to answer. Started by historian Paul Sewick in 2015, the blog looks at the history of Detroit’s “roads, borders and built environment.” Through old maps, newspaper clippings and photography, it has previously covered Native American trails in the city, Augustus Woodward’s master plan and the genesis of each radial road in exacting detail.

The latest series will cover the origin of each line on Detroit’s border, beginning on the east side, and include events like the acrimonious Grosse Pointe Park “border war” that lasted until the 1980s, the creation and annexation of St. Clair Heights and the saga of the Mack-Seven Mile Subdivision.

We spoke to Sewick about the Detroit borders series he began writing last month, how Detroit got so big, the legacy of annexation and why this all matters today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Dig: Why did you want to write about this subject? 

Paul Sewick: Ever since I was little and began looking at maps, I wondered why there were these seemingly arbitrary lines and who decided that this weird anomaly surrounding Detroit would be shaped this way. 

And there aren’t a lot of resources that explain things bit by bit in the way that I want it explained. I write for myself — so I can know how things happened. When I take on a topic, I don’t know what I’m going to learn. I’m not drawing on some vast ocean of information. 

Talk about your research methods. Where do you get your information, how do you compile it, and then write it into a readable history?

The best place to start is the digitized Detroit Free Press archives. For example, if you’re researching borders, there’s a beautiful 1926 annexation map. Then you know a border formed here after that annexation. So you go to the Free Press and the entry pretty much starts writing itself. 

But you do have to have a high tolerance for extremely tedious searching and sifting through information. You have to have a lot of free time, which you’d possibly only have in a pandemic. And you have to be obsessed enough, and want to know enough, to tolerate it all. 

As for the writing, I try to lay it out as if the reader knew nothing or very little. Afterwards, hopefully, they’d understand why this is line here and why this event happened. 

In the first entry, you wrote that you nearly gave up on the project because of the history of “ugly divisiveness” on Detroit’s borders. What has made this history especially ugly?

Simply put, there was a lot of spoken and unspoken racism, classism and one side wanting to make another feel powerless. 

Timing played a role, too. When I started the series at the beginning of lockdown, it was also around the time when there were protests against police violence and it seemed division was at an all-time high. I worried that if I did this series, I would be fanning, however small, more flames of hatred. I didn’t want to contribute to that. 

It is remarkable how these invisible lines create such a stark delineation in demographics and the physical landscape. What do you think it is about borders that create such a sense of possessiveness and antagonism?

It’s about people’s identities. If I’m in this city, and someone in that other city says something negative about mine, I feel that my identity is being attacked. So I’ll respond by saying that everyone in that city is a moron and I’ll feel better about myself. Even when people behave in hateful ways, I try to remember that they’re often acting because they feel weak and powerless, even when they’re in a position of strength. This is just my personal opinion and I obviously don’t include these thoughts in my post, but it’s the lens through which I view things.

Visualizing Detroit’s growing borders through land annexation, 1806-1926. Created by Alex B. Hill/Detroitography

In the first part of the 20th century, Detroit was a powerful entity gobbling up and annexing municipalities. Was there a grand strategy behind this growth? Or was it just an organic process that proceeded case by case?

What I was surprised to learn was that city government itself had very little to do with annexations. Early on, the city did want to grow and the government advocated growth, especially when the state of Michigan had the power to draw city and village lines. Detroit had a lot of sway and could easily convince the delegation in Lansing to support bills to change the lines one way or another. 

But by 1920, it seems to me, the city didn’t want any more unnecessary annexations. Let’s back up a little bit: In 1909, the law changed with the intention of giving local control over boundaries. To annex a neighboring town, you’d need a petition. When you get enough signatures, you then go to the board of supervisors, then the clerk, and an election is held. The voters of Detroit and the proposed town had to approve the annexation. City Council does not play a role. The mayor does not play a role. 

Later on, real estate developers would take all these corn fields and farms, stake out a subdivision, promise that they’d go up in value indefinitely — which in the Roaring ‘20s seemed plausible. Then they’d organize petition drives to get these annexations on the ballot by saying Detroit is growing, it’s rich, so the people vote for annexation. 

Before the very last annexations in 1925 and 1926, the mayor and City Council said, we have to stop these annexations. They were talking about building rapid transit and subway lines. But these real estate guys come along, get dozens of additional square miles added to the city, which then has a legal obligation to extend sewer lines, police and fire, trash collection, etc. If they had a subway plan, too bad — they now have other priorities. 

There were instances, like in Greenfield Township, where people quickly built a $200,000 school that was constructed right before annexation. But there were only six students in that district. So when the city annexed the land, it took on the bonded indebtedness as well. When these towns voted for annexation, it became Detroit’s problem. It was a huge suck on resources.

Is that one reason why Detroit has so many single-family homes today?

Yes. Detroit was one of the first cities to grow in a “suburban” way. It built 100 square miles of sprawl in a very short amount of time. You can’t fault people’s motivation to want to live in a beautiful tree-lined street. But when you add 100 St. Clair Heights, the city will turn into one big St. Clair Heights. 

I read an article from the 1920s that the bonds from Redford were about 11-12% of the total taxable valuation, and 7% was considered the absolute maximum you should do. Detroit was taking on parts of Redford that were already insolvent, even though it was brand new. Everyone loves Outer Drive — it’s a beautiful part of the city. But it couldn’t even pay for itself.

We could change that with relaxed zoning laws, which foster density. I don’t want to sound like a libertarian because I’m not. But take minimum parking for example. It creates sprawl. If you need parking, it doubles the size of the land you need and maintain taxes on. But we’ve decided that we want cars. So Mr. Donut Shop owner, you not only need to own a fryer, but also an extra parking five spots so people can park their machines. 

How many entries do you think there will be in the series?

I honestly don’t know. I thought at first it would be in five parts. Then maybe the east side from the river to Mack would be one post. But no, this one annexation in 1917 needs its own post, and it ties into 50 other things that are at the root of a lot of Detroit’s challenges today, like the way the city was developed and how it was built upon the modern subdivision scheme. That’s the problem with these kinds of research projects — one thing’s connected to everything else. For example, when I was learning about annexations, I found that it was tied to new things people were doing in subdivision development, like restrictive deed covenants, which lead to racist housing policies. 

Explaining all these details ends up making the posts pretty long, so have no idea how many entries there will ultimately be.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.