The history and future of Detroit, Ren Farley's short course on the iconic American city

November 24, 2015

It’s Saturday at 8:30 a.m. when Ren Farley takes a right onto State Street and pulls to the meter in his red Ford Mustang. For the past eight years, he’s been teaching a policy course at the Ford School on “The History and Future of Detroit.” Today, Farley’s sporting a Diego Rivera tie (one of many Detroit-themed ties in his collection) and leading his students on a guided tour of the city.

As the tour bus merges onto the highway headed east, Farley fumbles with, and eventually starts, a CD of Motown classics, then passes out the day’s itinerary. It’s chilly with a threat of rain, and Farley’s 25-page handout is somewhat intimidating, but Martha Reeves and the Vandellas soon vanquish the early-morning funk.

“15 years ago, few students took jobs in Detroit, but that happens much more frequently now,” Farley tells the class. He challenges students to imagine they’ve taken jobs in the city, and to think about the kinds of policies they might implement, the kinds of programs they might launch, to improve the city he’s grown to love.

Detroit Divided

When Reynolds Farley earned his doctorate in sociology at the start of the civil rights revolution, he knew that racial issues would be critical to the future of the nation. So after taking a job at the University of Michigan in 1967, Farley soon turned his attention to Detroit where, as he says, “many of the nation’s demographic and racial changes were playing out more vividly than in other cities.”

Detroit was the home of the Motown Records label, which had introduced dozens of sensational black musicians to communities all across the nation. Just a few years earlier, Martin Luther King had first delivered his “I have a dream” speech to a packed auditorium in Detroit’s Cobo Hall. Before that, the city had been a major thoroughfare on the Underground Railroad, and a destination city for southern blacks seeking well paid work during the Great Migration.

In recent years, Farley has constructed a well trafficked website,, that documents this history, and a good deal to spare. It’s a massive compendium covering the city’s architecture, industry, culture, government, and more. But Farley’s particular area of interest has long been racial segregation.

Three times, Farley led the University of Michigan’s longstanding Detroit Area Study, and each time, he focused on the causes of segregation. In 2000, that work culminated in the publication of Detroit Divided. Co-authored with colleagues Sheldon Danziger and Harry Holzer, the book explains how Detroit became the least diverse major city in America—more than 80 percent black—and explicates the city’s troubled history of segregation.

History condensed

While Farley’s own research has focused on demographic and racial trends in the city of Detroit, his course—a short one with just four class sessions outside of the trip—is a rapid-fire introduction to the city’s full history.

Farley’s first class is dedicated to the events, decisions, policies, and people that led to the city’s rise. Farley, who often refers to Detroit as “the world’s most important 20th century city,” starts his case with the opening of the Erie Canal, which connected Detroit to major markets in the east, and Central Station, which extended those connections to Chicago. But perhaps the most influential moment, Farley avers, was when Henry Ford decided to go against the advice of his financiers and construct a car for the masses, rather than a luxury automobile for the elite. Ford produced and sold tens of millions, creating well-paying jobs that led to immense wealth for parts-manufacturers and others, but also gave birth to America’s blue-collar middle class and its powerful unions. In the wake of this wealth, the city grew rapidly. Not only were thousands of solidly constructed homes built, but also stunning parks, libraries, museums, office buildings, and on and on.

Farley’s next class, as it must, covers the policies, and lack of policies, that led to the city’s decline. While many Motor City enthusiasts shy away from discussing the city’s former trials, Farley addresses each in rapid succession.

In 1950, he says, Detroit was the most prosperous large city in the nation, but federal housing policies and the construction of new expressways made it easy for Detroit residents to move to the suburbs, which they did in great numbers. “For the most part, those policies benefited prosperous whites,” says Farley. “Discrimination confined blacks to the city, where many of the homes were aging and unattractive.” The city’s tax base declined rapidly as manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers shifted to the suburbs. And as racial attitudes began to shift, middle class black residents moved to the suburbs, as well. “But despite these drastic shifts in population and employment, the state failed to change the system for supporting local governments in Michigan,” says Farley. “Detroit reached a point where it could not pay its bills.”

The bankruptcy followed, of course, and Farley’s third class covers each step in the drawn-out process and introduces students to the macroeconomic trends that today’s city administrators must adapt to if they’re to succeed in their efforts to reinvigorate Detroit’s economy and quality of life. But Farley doesn’t linger on the city’s challenges.

Policy prescriptions

Farley’s final class reviews many of the strategies Detroit leaders are employing to reinvigorate the city’s economy.

There are placemaking activities that work to capitalize on the city’s many assets. There are reclamation activities that attempt to eliminate, and salvage materials from, unsound structures. There are economic development activities that attempt to attract and retain businesses, as well as efforts to make it easier for small business entrepreneurs to get a start. There’s regional cooperation, urban gardening, education reform, and more.

Farley’s last class, in fact, sounds something like a resume book of the Ford School’s student, faculty, and alumni engagement in Detroit. As a result of Farley’s course, nearly 350 Ford School students have developed a deeper understanding of, and a deeper appreciation for, Detroit in the last five years alone. And a good and growing number of those folks, like Leah Ouellet (AB ’13), (p. 12), Heonuk Ha (MPP ’16), and Grace Evans (MPP ’16), are working in the city now, and crediting Farley for the inspiration.

Story by Erin Spanier for State & Hill, the magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2015 State & Hill here.