A major suburb
, it lies in southern Oakland County
, bordering the northwestern extremity of the city of Detroit. In many ways it is a microcosm of the suburban experience – right down to the meaningless name. The city is a rectangle, six miles wide from east to west and about four miles wide from north to south., with a population around 80,000.
Southfield was one of the first truly suburban areas to develop in Metro Detroit. Until the 50s it was farm and swamp land, broken up by a major Catholic cemetery and a Nike missile installation, along with some small residential development right near Detroit. A major development was the construction of the Northland Mall, right across Eight Mile Road from Detroit in the early 60’s. Northland was one of the first large-scale suburban shopping centers in America. The completion of the Lodge Freeway from downtown Detroit facilitated further development. Some residential subdivisions followed, and so did some twisted 60s looking office parks, beginning the relocation of office space from downtown Detroit to the suburbs. In an ironic twist, these first generation of office parks are now as empty and abandoned as the buildings of downtown Detroit they supplanted.
Southfield largely developed in the ‘white flight’ following the Detroit riots of 1967. It received much of the Jewish population of Detroit, lasting as the center of the Jewish community in the area and one of the most heavily Jewish cities in the United States for several decades - until the Jewish population relocated to more distant suburbs. The western portion was developed with Leavittown style residential subdivisions and endless strip malls and parking lots on the main grid of streets, while the more northern and eastern portions were less densely developed, with houses on larger lots. Huge low-density apartment and condominium complexes were built as well. In the 80’s, gigantic and fancy glass and steel office buildings sprung up at a furious pace, giving this bedroom community a ‘skyline’. These buildings would resemble those in the downtown of a major city except they are amidst huge expanses of grass and parking lots. For the past ten years Southfield has had more office space than Detroit. It also has what must be the most far flung freeway intersection anywhere, covering at least a square mile.
Beginning in the 80’s and accelerating through the 90’s, middle and working class blacks from Detroit moved to Southfield, while people who had grown up in Southfield moved away, either to other parts of the country or to newer farther flung suburbs, giving rise to some interesting demographics. The young population of Southfield today is almost entirely African-American while the diminishing Jewish population is almost entirely elderly. There is a divide in the black population as well, with the middle class and upper middle class living in the north and west and the poor living in the areas adjacent to Detroit. In fact, these areas, where there was once such a distinction between suburb and non-suburb, are now indistinguishable from Detroit. A series of gang-related movie theatre shootouts in the late 80’s and early 90’s that made national news and came to symbolize the decline of Detroit actually took place in this part of Southfield.
As my late grandmother once said, “I wanted to live on the right side of the tracks, but the tracks keep moving.”