I’ve had a paper accepted to the 2006 Urban History Association conference in Phoenix. I’m fairly excited, as this is my first major paper acceptance I’ve gotten on my own. I’ve done others of varying sizes, but those usually involved people going to bat for me — not so with this one. Additionally, I was in an 0-for-3 slump, including a previous proposal on this topic, so this is a vote of confidence. In the interest of helping out fellow young scholars, I’ll present a development of the proposal after the jump.
I wrote this paper in my first semester at Michigan, for a methods seminar with Dr. Fishman. He thought it was pretty good and I did some pretty intense research at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. I used it as my writing sample for the application for the Sally Kress Tompkins fellowship for HABS, which I received, so it seems like it holds up. However, at about that same time (late January of 2005) I wrote an abstract for SACRPH, the Society for American City and Regional Planning History. I had a hard time doing it and it shows:
“Out of the Congested Zone”: Annexation and Real Estate Development in Detroit, 1915-1926
The population of Detroit, Michigan, grew from roughly 286,000 in 1900 to nearly 1,570,000 in 1930 during the era of the most intense growth in the cityâ€™s history. Responding to this increase, Detroit expanded its boundaries more than a dozen times during this period, quadrupling the area within the cityâ€™s borders. This rapid growth stands out as an anomaly among major cities of the era, most of which had experienced such growth several decades before.
Ken Jackson, in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, established the idea of municipal annexation among larger cities as largely a nineteenth century phenomenon. Ann Durkin Keating, in Building Chicago: Suburban Developers & The Creation of a Divided Metropolis, goes on to illuminate how existing suburbs outside Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s dealt with the prospect of annexation. She particularly places annexation within a framework of evolving suburban government. This paper examining suburban development and the chief period of annexation in Detroit identifies a unique set of circumstances that came to shape the cityâ€™s boundaries and built environment.
During this period of intense growth and unbridled boosterism, opportunistic real estate developers not only promoted but drove the process of growth and outward expansion, operating in a number of public and municipal venues to effect annexation. Key among these strategies was the developersâ€™ use â€“ as customers and as city representatives â€“ of the expanding city water system to help develop subdivisions outside the cityâ€™s borders, making annexation necessary for the cityâ€™s continued viability. This paper revises the existing paradigm of suburban opposition to city growth and annexation during the 20th century, illustrating how in Detroit, nascent suburbs and a growing city worked in concert under the influence of a handful of integrated development interests to expand the auto-making metropolis.
In retrospect, this was too much background and summary — I only spent the last paragraph talking about my argument, didn’t talk about my sources, and barely addressed ongoing issues in the field. I did get this in well in advance, so it wasn’t really thrown together. However, take a look at my successful abstract:
â€œOut of the Congested Zoneâ€: Annexation in Detroit, 1915-1926
The historical process of annexation in growing cities is poorly understood. Urban historians have recognized the importance of the results of annexation in shaping the landscape of cities but scholars have neglected the essential role of real estate developers in the annexation process.  This paper examines the city of Detroit in its most active period of annexation, the decade from 1916-1925, and the role that a handful of real estate developers played not merely in exploiting the result, but in driving the process. This series of expansions of city limits turned Detroit from a city of approximately 40 square miles in 1916 into a sprawling city of 138 square miles by 1925, a physical legacy Detroit still struggles with today in the midst of repeated revitalization efforts.
This paper builds upon existing interpretations of annexation as part of the suburbanization process and as a form of government evolution to argue that annexation in Detroit was, at heart, the fulfillment of a real estate investment strategy.  By looking at city administration records, real estate publicity and advertising, and analyzing local financial networks, I will show how real estate developers employed several strategies to promote annexation as a means of realizing their speculative investments in land at the urban fringe. However, this paper also revises our understanding of the cooperation of cities like Detroit with business interests in urban growth coalitions. It demonstrates how real estate developers can drive city policy and even state-level urban policy, and the enduring consequences of that cooperation.
1. Alison Isenberg explicitly calls for more emphasis on real estate history, â€œa remarkably understudied topic.â€ Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
2. Kenneth Jackson. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Ann Durking Keating. Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988).]
Here I gave some insight into my methods, addressed some enduring issues in urban history and suburbanization, and made a case for why this is important to the field and to cities today. Overall a better abstract, I think, but I should note that I threw this together in a coffee shop on the day of the deadline while my wife was negotiating with her new department over terms, which was incredibly stressful. So maybe it wasn’t any better and I just got lucky. Either way, I’ve got to get cranking on this paper again.