This piece is adapted from Dr. Michael McCulloch’s presentation at the Agora Salon on November 15, 2016. The theme of the Salon was “Temporality,” and Dr. McCulloch’s presentation focused on two parallel visions for housing in Detroit, and why one became the standard while the other was lost to time.
The physical history of a city can be used to enrich the perspective of its present, provided one looks closely and simultaneously at its designed and vernacular environments. In 1914, the city of Detroit was transforming world history, with the Ford Motor Company establishing the city as the site of mass production of automobiles. This had a direct effect on Detroit’s physical environment: the siting of Ford’s Highland Park plant literally transformed the geography of work in the greater urban region, with workers forming ethnic enclaves and in the process expanding the geography of the city. Ford itself played a guiding role in this expansion through the provision of housing for its workers.
With many of the houses from this era now demolished, much of the housing that remains in Detroit today is representative of the dominant American typology: single-family residential. But at the time the city was first growing, Ford was experimenting with two different visions for the city, as well as the homes people lived in. At one end was the now-standard grid of single-family homes, strips of independent, privately owned land, representative of an urbanism in which people buy, build on, and sell lots one at a time. At the other was Fordson Village, a comprehensive planned environment similar to Ebenezer Howard’s famed Garden City.
These two dramatically different typologies drew from two different sociopolitical strands running parallel to one another during the 1910s. In 1918–19, development of single-family homes represented a sharp break from Communism, promoting corporate capitalism and sending a clear message that Detroit would not go the way of Moscow. The houses were the products of tradespeople, buyers, and suppliers, in an effort to inform the building industry that building worker homes was profitable.
Fordson Village, on the other hand, represented an opportunity for Ford to have better and stronger social control over its workers by way of a planned environment. At the same time, the design promoted a more communal living environment for workers, in the form of boarding houses where they could eat together, live together, and identify with one another as peers rather than as individual consumers.
The Fordson Village plan was scrapped by 1921 in favor of Ford’s more financially viable single-family vision. Ultimately Ford recognized that when the economy slows down, you can walk away from individual consumers, but not a connected Utopia. But Fordson is still an important failure, representing a path not taken, a housing model in Detroit that didn’t take hold, and a vision of the city that could have been but did not fit into the wider sociopolitical narrative that Ford wanted to forward.