Articles and Case Studies

The following essays, case studies, and reflections on racializing space were written by teachers and students at the University of Michigan. They are the product of students’ collaborative research with each other and the urban community. As students explored the six main chapters of this website, they created research projects of their own that fit within the themes of this website. Student research has all been edited and peer reviewed before publication.

Coming soon. Student-led research projects might include specific case studies of places that fall within the larger themes of this exhibit:

– School districts and municipal boundaries as tools of segregation in Royal Oak Township. What new forms has segregation in Detroit suburbs taken after Jim Crow?

– Tireman Avenue as racial color line separating an upper middle class Black exclave of Black Bottom from surrounding working class White neighborhoods. What was the experience of residents living at the color line and looking across the street at people physically close but socially distant from them?

– Detroit streets still named after early farmers and colonists who benefited from the slave trade. How can documenting and advocating for renaming streets help residents come to terms with racism as old as this country?

– “Restrictive covenants” and racism still on the books. Thousands of homes in American cities still have “restrictive covenants” written into the property deed that prohibit the White owner from selling to people of different races. These covenants cannot legally be enforced, but they are still on the books. What does mapping the geography of restrictive covenants reveal about racializing space?

The Detroit Evolution Animation

A film about racializing space and urban decay


Soundtrack: “Pruitt Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and composed by Philip Glass.


This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.

The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic 1960s racial unrest, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.

However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.

View map bibliography and project methodology

Includes links to download all source files on which the film is based


The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.

View music in original context

Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi; composed by Philip Glass with images by Godfrey Reggio


Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.


The influx of Black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-Black city surrounded by majority-White suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is Black, and only 11% is White. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-White until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% White. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-White city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-Black city in 2020.

A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful Whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban Whites over urban Blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.

As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?

“The state is responsible.”

Racial Segregation in Royal Oak Charter Township and Detroit Public Schools, a Comparative History

Written with urban historian Robert Fishman


Black children standing in front of half-mile concrete wall, Detroit, Michigan. This wall was built in August 1941, to separate the Black communities of Royal Oak Township / Eight Mile-Wyoming from a White housing development going up on the other side. (From Library of Congress)

“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men [and women] – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

– Horace Mann (1796-1859) promoter of free public education for all


If an educated public is necessary for democracy to function, then the strength of our nation’s public schools predicts the strength of our democracy. This observation would seem to be obvious and universally agreed, but in many parts of America it is not. Only seven percent of students in Detroit public schools read at or above their grade level when compared to children from neighboring suburbs. In Detroit metro, forty-seven percent of people are functionally illiterate as of 2017; the large majority are Black. These low levels of even basic literacy exist in thousands of places across the United States, not just in Detroit. In large part, this is the result of urban policies that assume that race should determine the quality of public services the state provides. An autopsy of how and why America came to be this way deserves several books and traces back several centuries. Instead, this article will analyze race-based policies that excluded Blacks from well-funded public schools in just one Detroit suburb: Royal Oak Charter Township.

First, the legal background is presented of Milliken v. Bradley, a key case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 that shaped metro Detroit’s current system of school segregation. Second, the historical case study of Royal Oak Charter Township is introduced: how this township came to be and why its present existence is a continued legacy of state-sanctioned racism. Third, the history and present problems of Royal Oak Township are reflected in its failed school system. The case of Royal Oak Township is also situated in the larger context of Detroit and is linked back to Milliken v. Bradley.


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