Being Detroit

Being Detroit

The World Health Organization defines a “healthy city” not as one that has achieved a particular health status, but as one that is conscious of its health and working to improve it. A healthy city is thus determined by process, not outcomes.

So as we think about Detroit in the first years of the 21st century, it behooves us to reflect on the city’s 300-year history—and on how that history relates to human health and well-being. The following timeline highlights both the triumphs and trials of Michigan’s great riverfront city, a midwestern emblem of American imagination, drive, and resilience.


  The building housing the Catholepistemiad of Michigan in Detroit in the early 1820s.

In an area long inhabited by native people, the city of Detroit is established in 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French army officer, creates Fort Ponchartrain, the first European settlement in the area. Its site, bounded by Griswold and Larned Streets and the Civic Center, is now occupied by office towers. Cadillac invites natives in the area to join the settlement, facilitating both trade and security, but they are not permitted to live inside the compound.

Many Detroit streets, like Dequindre and Beaubien, still bear the names of the first French farmers around Fort Ponchartrain. Those farmers bring the technique known as “ribbon farms” along with them—long, narrow strips of land, all with water access —and as the city grows, thoroughfares are often named for the farmers who formerly tilled the land they run through.

The University of Michigan is founded as the Catholepistemiad of Michigania in 1817, and conducts a primary school and classical academy in a building at Bates and Congress streets. The name is changed in 1821, but neither school is operating by 1827, and the university ceases to exist except as a legal entity until its move to Ann Arbor in 1837.

Early Arrivals

Because it is generally the final stop before crossing the border, Detroit is one of the most exciting places on the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network that helps enslaved African Americans on their way to freedom in Canada from the 1820s until the end of the Civil War. A Detroiter named Seymour Finney, owner of the Finney Hotel in downtown Detroit, is an important Railroad “conductor,” and Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, Michigan’s first black congregation, is a vital “station,” housing an estimated 5,000 fugitives over 30 years.

In 1827, the Detroit Common Council appoints three doctors to look after the health of the city’s poor residents.

A nascent Detroit Board of Health acts to stem a possible outbreak of smallpox in October 1831.

  • - The Highland Park Ford Plant, ca. 1916.

  • - A 1940s-era postcard showing an aerial view of Belle Isle

  • - The "Gateway to Freedom" monument on Hart Plaza commemorates the Underground Railroad.

  • - Mariner's Church

  • - Eastern market in the 1900s

Just northeast of downtown, today’s Greektown is first settled in the 1830s by German immigrants. When they begin moving into neighborhoods farther from downtown early in the 20th century, they are supplanted by Greeks. The restaurants, stores, and coffeehouses the Greeks establish remain when they move on, resulting in the largely commercial and entertainment district we know today, which includes the Greektown Casino.

A farmers market opens at Cadillac Square in 1841 and moves to its present location, renamed Eastern Market, 50 years later. The largest historic public market district in the U.S., Eastern Market now covers 43 acres and is surrounded by a neighborhood brimming with restaurants, art galleries, street musicians, and retail of all kinds.

The Mariners’ Church of Detroit, 170 E. Jefferson Ave., is founded in 1842 as a special nondenominational mission to maritime travelers on the Great Lakes. A stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, its bells tolled 29 times every November 10 from 1975 to 2006 to commemorate the lives lost in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Since then, the church has broadened its memorial ceremony to honor symbolically the more than 1,000 lives lost on the Great Lakes.

At 982 acres, Belle Isle is larger than New York’s Central Park and is the largest city-owned island park in the U.S., although it is managed as a state park by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources under the terms of a 30-year lease. Named in 1845 to honor Isabelle Cass, daughter of then-Governor Lewis Cass, today’s Belle Isle is home to an aquarium, conservatory, zoo, museum, and a municipal golf course, among other attractions.

Mid-Century Growth

The first official Michigan State Fair takes place in 1849, and a 167-acre site east of Woodward Avenue between 7 ½ and 8 Mile Roads becomes its permanent home in 1905. Attendance peaks at 1.2 million in 1966 but is only 217,000 in 2009, the last year the fair is held in Detroit. The grounds now belong to the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, which will oversee future development there.

Vernors Ginger Ale, created by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor, is first served to the public in 1866.

Wayne State University, originally called Detroit Medical College, is founded in 1868.

During the 1870s, the Parke-Davis and Company pharmaceutical plant, including the first pharmaceutical research laboratory building in the U.S., moves to the Detroit riverfront, below.

  • - The first official Michigan State Fair takes place in 1849.

  • - Vernors Ginger Ale, created by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor, is first served to the public in 1866.

  • - During the 1870's, the Parke-Davis and Company pharmaceutical plant, including the first pharmaceutical research laboratory building in the U.S., moves to the Detroit riverfront.

  • - The Corktown neighborhood surrounding the former Tiger Stadium is the city's oldest.

  • - Navin Field in the early 1930s.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is founded in 1885 and moves to its current site, at 5200 Woodward Ave., in 1927. Its collection is among the top six in the U.S. Its most famous feature, the Diego Rivera mural in the Grand Court, is considered by the artist to be his finest work. The DIA and its neighbors, the Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit Public Library, Michigan Science Center, Charles Wright Museum of African-American History, and Wayne State University campus, are now the core of the city’s Cultural Center Historic District.

Major league baseball is played at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street from 1895, when Bennett Park opens, until 1999, when Tiger Stadium (formerly Navin Field and Briggs Stadium) is host to the final contest in its history. The park is demolished 10 years later. The Corktown neighborhood surrounding the stadium is the city’s oldest, tracing its origins to the huge influx of Irish, most of them from County Cork, in the wake of the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

The Auto Age

At over 120 acres, the Highland Park Ford Plant is the largest manufacturing facility in the world when it opens in 1910. In 1913, it becomes the first automobile production facility in the world to implement the assembly line, lowering the production time for a Model T by almost 90 percent and its price by half. Ford offers nearly three times the wages paid at other unskilled manufacturing plants.

To provide more space for Detroit’s sick poor, the city’s Board of Poor Commissioners constructs the first unit of the Detroit Receiving Hospital in 1913.

Designed by the same architects responsible for New York’s Grand Central Station, the Michigan Central Station, 2405 West Vernor Highway, opens on January 4, 1914, and closes 74 years and two days later with the cessation of Amtrak service. The tallest railway station in the world at the time of its construction, it has stood vacant and decaying for 27 years, best known now as a favorite subject of so-called “ruin porn.”

Epidemiologist Henry Frieze Vaughan, eventual dean of U-M SPH (1941–1960), joins the Detroit Department of Health in 1914. He serves as Detroit’s health commissioner from 1919 to 1941.

Funded and built by its namesake, Henry Ford Hospital opens in 1915 on Hamilton at West Grand Boulevard, with room for 48 patients. Today’s Henry Ford Health System maintains 30 medical centers, including the original Henry Ford Hospital, and is the state’s fifth-largest employer.

Established in 1917 by Drs. Davis and Daisy Northcross, the 20-bed Mercy General Hospital is the first African-American-owned and operated hospital in Detroit.

With the aim of creating a nonprofit institution to serve Detroit’s African-American population, Dr. James W. Ames and others establish Dunbar Memorial Hospital in 1917.

Between October 1 and November 20, 1918, a total of 18,066 cases of influenza are reported to Detroit’s Department of Health. Another 10,920 cases come in early 1919, when the disease makes a significant comeback.

  • - The Ford Model T

  • - Diego Rivera's mural on the north wall of the DIA Grand Court depicts laborers working at Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant.

  • - Dr. James W. Ames (front row, second from left) and the staff of Dunbar Memorial Hospital in 1922.

  • - Michigan Central Station

  • - A Detroit Urban League Clinic nurse examines a patient in 1945.

  • - Edgewater Park, at Grand River Avenue and Seven Mile Road was open from 1927 - 1981.

  • - Ford's Rouge Plant opened in 1928.

  • - The Ambassador Bridge, completed in 1929, is the longest suspended central span in the world.

  • - The Detroit Stars at Hamtramck Stadium, ca. 1930

  • - Ells Fitzgerald performed at the Black Bottom on the Near East side.

  • - Mexicantown

In 1919, in response to the influenza pandemic, the Detroit Urban League opens its baby clinic within the Columbia Community Center to treat the underserved African-American population. For many clients, this is their first contact with professional health services.

Famed for the “Wild Beast,” a wooden roller coaster, and its 110-foot Ferris wheel, Edgewater Park, at Grand River Avenue and Seven Mile Road, provides inexpensive entertainment for Detroit’s working classes from its opening in 1927 until 1981, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II. Greater Grace Temple now occupies the 20-acre site.

Designed by Albert Kahn and completed in 1928, Ford’s Rouge Plant is for decades where raw materials from all over the world are turned into cars—the greatest example of vertically integrated manufacturing ever seen. More than 100,000 people work here in the 1930s. The site is now home to Ford’s Rouge Center, an industrial park that includes a sustainably designed truck factory.

The Detroit Zoo has been located at Woodward Avenue and 10 Mile Road in Royal Oak, two miles north of the city limits, since 1928. The first zoo in the U.S. to use barless exhibits exclusively, it welcomes more than 1.1 million visitors annually to its 125 acres of exhibits, where more than 3,300 animals representing 280 species live.

When completed in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, is the longest suspended central span in the world. Today more than 25 percent of all trade between the U.S. and Canada crosses the bridge, which on a typical weekday carries more than 10,000 commercial vehicles. A new bridge further downriver has been approved for construction by the Canadian and U.S. governments.

Hamtramck Stadium, 3201 Dan St., is home to several Detroit Negro League baseball teams in the 1930s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s one of only five remaining Negro League ballparks, and at least 17 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame play here.

When typhoid strikes Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus while playing Detroit in 1934, Don W. Gudakunst, the city’s deputy health commissioner and a non-resident professor of public health at U-M, investigates. The circus subsequently institutes new measures to protect the health of both employees and the public.

Black Bottom, a predominantly black neighborhood on the Near East Side, becomes known for its contribution to American music from the 1930s to the 1950s. Stars such as Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie regularly perform in its bars and clubs. In the early 1960s, the city razes the entire Black Bottom district and replaces it with the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park.

In continuous operation since 1940, the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant services almost 1,000 square miles of the state of Michigan, encompassing 35 percent of its population. It is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S.

Mexicans begin settling southwest of Corktown, in what is now known as Mexicantown, in the 1940s. Known for its abundance of restaurants and brightly decorated buildings, its main thoroughfares are Bagley (the community is originally known as “La Bagley”) and Vernor streets.

In 1948, control of the Detroit Receiving Hospital; its branch, the Redford Receiving Hospital; and the City Physician’s Office is transferred from the Welfare Department to the Health Department.

Held at U-M SPH, the first Selby Discussional, in 1950, brings together medical directors, teachers, consultants, industry leaders, and researchers—among them U-M SPH faculty member Clarence Selby, former medical director of Detroit-based General Motors—to discuss industrial and occupational health.

Motown and Beyond

Detroit’s Motown record label issues its first release in 1959. Tens of thousands of visitors a year now pass through Hitsville, U.S.A., home of the Motown Museum, at 2648 W. Grand Blvd.

In the early hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, Detroit police officers raid a “blind pig,” or unlicensed drinking club, at 9125 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard), triggering five days of violence and arson that leave 44 people dead and cause $50 million in property damage.

In the early 1970s, U-M SPH Professor Sy Axelrod works with the UAW to promote the establishment of health maintenance organizations.

Conceived by Henry Ford II and financed primarily by the Ford Motor Company, the Renaissance Center is intended to revitalize the economy of Detroit. The first phase, comprising four 39-story office towers surrounding a 73-story hotel (still the third-tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere), opens in 1977.

In 1985, the Detroit Medical Center is organized as a union among Harper University Hospital, Grace Hospital, Hutzel Women’s Hospital, and Children’s Hospital of Michigan. With the addition of other hospitals, the campus of DMC and its adjacent partner institutions now takes up most of the area bounded by Mack Avenue, Warren Avenue, John R., and Beaubien.

The Detroit Incinerator, opened in 1986, is the target of repeated complaints about its odor and suspected public health problems. Grassroots organizations such as Zero Waste Detroit, with assistance from U-M SPH, fight with some success for tougher regulation of the plant.

In the mid-1980s, U-M SPH Professor Noreen Clark tests the Open Airways asthma self-management program in the Detroit Public Schools. Results show marked success in significantly reducing asthma symptoms and health-care use and in improving school performance.

In 1991, the U-M Air Quality Laboratory undertakes the first of a series of studies of atmospheric mercury in the Great Lakes region.

The Detroit Community–Academic Urban Research Center is founded in 1995. A partnership involving three U-M units, including SPH, and ten community-based organizations, the Detroit URC aims to eliminate health inequities in Detroit.

  • - Motown label record "My Guy" by Mary Wells

  • - Starting in 1998, MIChild provides eligible children of the working poor with regular checkups, dental and vision care.

  • - The Detroit Renaissance Center

  • - The Detroit RiverWalk opened in 2007.

Starting in 1998, community partners and SPH researchers launch the Michigan Center for the Environment and Children’s Health, to conduct assessments of children with asthma in Detroit and to develop initiatives to improve indoor air quality and asthma-related health.

In 1998, the East Side Community Health Insurance Program for Children, an SPH-led coalition, begins enrolling eligible children of the working poor on Detroit’s east side into MIChild, which provides them with regular checkups, dental and vision care, and other basic medical services.

The Ford F-150 Plant, which opens in 2004 on the original Rouge plant site, uses special paint on its vehicles, employs strict emission controls, and features a “green roof” planted in grass and other vegetation.

In 2005, U-M SPH alumnus and Professor Gail Warden, President Emeritus of Henry Ford Health System, helps launch the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority, aimed at meeting the health needs of uninsured and underinsured residents of Detroit and Wayne County.

Through a 2005 project funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, SPH Professor Jerome Nriagu and others raise environmental health awareness and reduce the impact of environmental exposures among Arab Americans in Metro Detroit.

Stretching from Joe Louis Arena to Belle Isle, the Detroit RiverWalk, which opens in 2007, offers breathtaking views of the Detroit and Windsor skylines, as well as pavilions, fishing piers and benches.

In 2012, Detroit and Flint public schools introduce a genomics curriculum for high school biology classes developed jointly by U-M SPH and the U-M School of Education.

By 2013, after undergoing a recent $2.2 billion expansion, the 250-acre Marathon Refinery, first built in 1930 by the Aurora Gasoline Company, is one of the most controversial sites in the city.