The Motor City at War: Mobilization, Wartime Housing, and Reshaping Metropolitan Detroit


“New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie,” commented former Punk rock queen Patti Smith in recent weeks. “New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.”  Today, Detroit usually receives attention for all the wrong reasons: industrial decline, corrupt mayoral administrations, and racial tension to name only a few issues assailing the city.  Add the seemingly ubiquitous spread of ruin porn – photography that tends to capture Detroit as if it were nothing but municipal ruin and squatters – and Detroit’s main attraction seems to be, at the moment, its desperation. Desperate New York of the 1970s and 1980s produced Basquiat, CBGBs, Blondie, Jay McInerney, and the Ramones, among others. What might a distressed Detroit produce?

Whatever its value as a future center for artistic creativity, as evidenced by the past two decades of urban studies and history, few cities provide a window in the politics, economics, and racial struggles of twentieth century America like the Motor City. Thomas Sugrue’s classic Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) depicted a Detroit that wrestled with racism, a declining automotive sector, the rise of sunbelt locales offering cheaper labor and few unions, and an FHA home mortgage system that encouraged working class whites to take recalcitrant stands against integration.

Equally important works followed. David Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America (2007) stalked the suburbs of Detroit, discovering how integral the racialization of federal and state policies were to white homeownership and the damaging effects of naturalizing these kind of discriminatory government programs. Despite the fact that government policies played critical roles in securing their ability to purchase homes, suburban whites came to see housing as driven by unfettered markets, “free from politics,” thereby believing FHA policies that favored white homeownership were as American as apple pie and as natural as universal gravitation.  In Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (2004), Andrew Wiese studied the rise of black suburbs and the beliefs of African American suburbanites in places like metropolitan Chicago and Detroit. Unlike many other works about housing segregation and suburbanization, Wiese revealed how black homeowners  viewed suburbanization and the kind of values that many carried with them. Many black suburbanites harbored similar values to their southern white counterparts, expressing discontent with urban conditions of the day. Nostalgic for environments reminiscent of southern or rural childhoods, midwestern suburbs like those that formed around Ford’s famous River Rouge plant proved a powerful draw for many African Americans.

Willow Run Bomber Plant
Willow Run Bomber Plant

With this formidable if all too brief historiography in mind, Sarah Jo Peterson delivers Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, a work that straddles a number of disciplines including urban planning and studies of metropolitan and military history.  If Patti Smith looks to Detroit as a space pregnant with artistic possibility in the present, the Motor City and its suburbs circa 1941 served as ground zero for manufacturing and wartime mobilization. More than a few of the buildings so often at the center of Detroit ruin porn vistas today came into being during mobilization. With the construction of the Willow Run bomber plant came thousands of in-migrants and the need to reshape metropolitan Detroit with infrastructure of every kind.

More than anything, Peterson demonstrates the democratic, and yes often contentious, impulses at the heart of mobilization. In the vein of Roger Lotchin’s Fortress California, 1910 -1961: From Warfare to Welfare (1992),which traces the ways that municipal California governments competed for and attracted military and defense industry spending, Peterson documents the dizzying array of government agencies, unions, municipal departments, and state officials among others that played critical roles in constructing housing for Willow Run workers. “Working toward the common goal of winning the war held them all together, sometimes barely,” Peterson concludes in the introduction. “But ultimately they had to decide for themselves when bridging differences was necessary for victory, and then they had to figure out how.”[1] In the end, Peterson’s book focuses on the messiness of democracy, particularly how a democratic state, eschewing authoritarianism for the more inclusive but more difficult federalism, mobilizes for war

Known as participatory planning, the process of wartime mobilization, notes Peterson, involved a top-down/bottom-up approach in which “federal production objectives joined local objectives for building communities, and interest group politics were harnessed for total war.”[2] Mobilization proved an impressive if ultimately confusing process that created the oddest of bedfellows. For example, even if motivated by different reasons, both business leaders and the military opposed permanent wartime housing: business because it threatened private markets, armed forces leadership because permanent housing undermined their control of wartime labor and took away from the production of armaments and provisions. Whatever one makes of such alliances, for urban and suburban residents and federal officials, three forces defined the American home front and mobilization efforts: industrial expansion, migration, and suburbanization.

With many defense contracts going to newer plants that sat on Detroit’s outskirts, much as it did in other cities, the federal government endorsed and “accentuated” the industrial suburbanization that had been unfolding for at least two decades. Willow Run Bomber Plant, Chrysler Tank Plant, and the Hudson Naval Ordinance all arose in the suburbs of the Motor City. From April 1940 to June 1944, Detroit added only 30,000 new residents but the four suburban counties around Detroit and Willow Run added 200,000.[3] This suburban migration included many black families that staked claims in African American communities in Ypsilanti, Inkster, Ecorse Township, and Royal Oak Township.[4] Rapid expansion also meant that infrastructure and public services failed to match population growth, though eventually the public services and agencies that came to be established ultimately reshaped metropolitan Detroit.[5]

Notably, Peterson’s work highlights in local metropolitan terms the very real shifts the nation witnessed in terms of military spending.  Earlier works like 1991’s collaborative effort, led by Ann Markusen, The Rise of the Gunbelt, captured the post WWII/Cold War shift in broader more policy-oriented detail. In contrast, in Planning the Homefront, Peterson captures the social, political and economic struggles endured and witnessed by Detroit’s suburbs. By the early 1940s, urban and suburban Detroit enjoyed healthy levels of defense industry investment as only New York’s metropolitan region could claim a greater proportion of the $180 billion being shelled out by the government for defense manufacturing and wartime provisioning. Almost $14 billion flowed into Detroit’s suburbs along with thousands of war migrants (sometimes referred to as “in-migrants”) who came to work at the plants and live in the housing, private and public, located outside Detroit proper.   Michigan placed second in terms of wartime migration as well, though its rival at number one, California represented the future of the defense industry.[6]

The legendary River Rouge plant
The legendary River Rouge plant

Unsurprisingly, the growth of suburban industry resulted in the emergence of new municipalities and increased political decentralization. Detroit’s metropolitan area went from 26 cities divided between Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to 34 cities with seventeen townships, each township containing at least 10,000 residents. Willow Run’s workers resided within a 50 mile radius of the plant, meaning any attempts to address their collective plight required regional cooperation in an era when competition between suburbs and racial and class segregation made such approaches difficult. Though local leaders recognized the necessity of the regional perspective, they had their own municipal interests to consider, which led some “to respond to Willow Run as simply not their responsibility,” asserts Peterson.[7]

Detroit’s place as the world’s car manufacturer and its industrialized landscape meant that local leaders had long embraced or learned to deal with increasing levels of suburban industrialization. Ford himself favored this approach and due to his, for the time, “relatively nondiscriminatory hiring practices” the communities around his plants grew more diverse by the year. In Highland Park, by 1920, ¼ of the town’s population had been born abroad. Irish, Maltese, Mexican, Japanese, Syrian, and other ethnicities, worked together. The 1922 construction of what then was America’s only mosque for Highland Park’s Islamic residents serves as testament to the diversity brought by industrialization. Ford’s legendary River Rouge plant also shaped local demographics. In 1938, the first section of one of Dearborn’s now several mosques arose in the town’s bulging Syrian section as former Highland Park workers moved to Dearborn to work at the newer Rouge plant. From 1910 to 1940, the population surrounding the River Rouge plant boomed from 17,960 to 158,416. Of course, with greater numbers came greater political fragmentation, as after 1940, four townships emerged as five cities: Dearborn, River Rouge, Garden City, Lincoln Park, and Melvindale.[8]

In this earlier period, African Americans also arrived in significant numbers. The town of Inkster, formed from parts of eastern Nankin Township and western Dearborn Township, emerged in 1927 as white and black residents agreed to establish the suburb.  School districts remained defined by school boundaries such that white and black children attended separate educational facilities, but still, by 1930, blacks accounted for more than 25 percent of Inkster’s 4,400 residents.[9]


Anyone wondering about the prevalence of such a model nationally need only look to Becky Nicolaides’ work, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (2002).  Like the workers who filled in the under-built suburbs of Detroit, newcomers to Southern California in places like working class suburb South Gate bought land, pitched tents, and built simple homes based on the bungalow style that had become so popular in the early 1900s.  If residents of Highland Park of the 1920s lived in jerry-rigged homes with their families, taking in boarders to make ends meet, South Gate homeowners turned to domestic industries like home gardens to supplement income.  In each case, the home provided a productive value rather a purely speculative one.[10] Andrew Wiese noted similar homeownership dynamics and economies with the black workers from the River Rouge factory in his previously discussed 2004 work, Places of their Own.

Unlike the more polyglot Motor City metropolitan area, South Gate consisted of native born whites from the middle west and south.  As noted by Nicolaides they served as harbingers of the Okie migrations brought on by the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Though South Gate remained for white working men only, many of the early working class residents focused obsessively on taxes to the extent that it undermined segregation.  Many working class residents felt so consumed by the threat of taxation they chose to send their children to interracial schools rather than approve tax increases that would ensure racial purity in education.  Tragically for Detroit area workers, Southern California, among other Sunbelt locations, would compete for future plants as places like South Gate offered tax incentives and other perks to draw industry to their area. This shift had already begun by the 1920s. By the end of the decade, fifteen industries had relocated to areas within or adjacent to the working class suburb.[11] Nor did such developments remain confined to SoCal. In the postwar era, as noted by Robert Self in American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2005), Northern California municipalities in Alameda and elsewhere competed for industries – car manufacturing among them.  This is to say very little about Sunbelt locations in the South and Southwest that chipped away further at Detroit’s automotive dominance by offering non-unionized labor forces, tax breaks, and other economic incentives.

Peterson also highlights a lesser known aspect of Ford’s suburban and rural vision: the village industry model.  For Ford, industry did not have to undermine rural economies or social life. Instead, outlying rural towns served as centers for smaller levels of production. Most produced smaller items, such as gauges and ignition locks, destined for larger plants like Rouge, though several produced soybeans as well. They often employed only a few dozen workers and hired from only local labor pools – an attempt to prevent suburbanites from inundating these smaller production facilities and thereby warping the cycles of rural life. Ford encouraged these workers to pursue agricultural work, even granting time off to those who needed it for farming.[12] Village industries looked to integrate themselves into local “institutional, economic, and political frameworks,” notes Peterson. Therefore, Ford hoped to demonstrate that industry could complement or support rural life, but unfortunately for the legendary automaker this vision of suburban/rural economic development stood in opposition to the dominant garden city model. If village industries “were integrated, interdependent parts of a larger system, based on traditional values, and decidedly rural,” John Robert Mullin argues that the garden city was “‘separatist, self-sustaining, cooperative oriented and located on the urban fringe.’”[13] Ford and his planners identified 212 potential sites for the village industry model and established several others.  Ypsilanti represented the largest model, though the small fraction od 750 workers out of a community of 10,000 led many of Ford’s planners to wonder if at such a size it still counted as a village industry. In the end, Ford’s vision died with him; the Willow Run plant and surrounding communities came to resemble the garden city paradigm more so than Ford’s more rural friendly vision.[14]


Even if suburban/municipal fragmentation plagued metropolitan Detroit politics, wartime mobilization, labor shortages, and the national government’s “carrot and stick approach” forced unions, big business, and local leaders to cooperate.  Institutions like the Detroit Victory Council (DVC) fused these varying interests, meshing the always difficult mix of labor and big business, and through its efforts promoted a level of interracial progress. Through its efforts and those of the local NAACP chapter, Willow Village (to be discussed shortly) would eventually integrate in 1944. Unfortunately, in regard to housing, the DVC worked exclusively in terms of public housing, leaving the for-profit private sector to local developers and the like which negatively impacted black residents. For example, in March 1945, the FHA authorized 5,000 new “private housing priorities” for metropolitan Detroit, from which 1,500 were reserved for African Americans. One month later developers had consumed all of the housing priorities designated for whites but 1,400 “of the priorities for black housing languished, awaiting ‘acceptable’ sites,” points out Peterson.[15]

Willow Run’s construction also facilitated the establishment of a public health department in Washtenaw County, even over the objections of conservatives who remained wary of such an organization despite the area’s high mortality rate and outbreaks of scarlet fever and other maladies.   Likewise, partially as an attempt to ensure that new arrivals didn’t degrade local housing stock, suburban leaders looked to establish zoning and building codes.  The result, Peterson notes, was a suburban landscape segregated by class. Of course, the construction of the bomber plant hardly initiated this process. Historian Oliver Zunz’s study of the area from 1880 – 1920 revealed a metropolitan region increasingly organized according to “specialized land uses – industrial, retail, service, and neighborhoods organized by class.”  Self-sufficient and “occupationally diverse ethnic communities” soon found themselves reshaped, with the exception of African American communities, as the burgeoning middle and professional classes abandoned their working class counterparts.[16]

Federal wartime housing worried more than a few congressional legislators, including Texas Congressman Fritz Lanham, the source of the most successful wartime housing legislation, the Lanham Act, which ultimately provided the avenue for defense projects like Willow Run and San Diego’s Linda Vista.   Concerned that federal officials would use defense housing as a kind of Trojan horse for an expansion of public housing, Lanham and others promoted amendments to the Lanham Act that required complexes like Willow Run to set rents based on value rather than on the income levels of residents and that the units would be sold off after the war “as expeditiously as possible.”[17] Pragmatism played a role too, since income limits would have required documentation of resident wages, a task that amidst war proved daunting.  Moreover, wage earning laborers resented any idea that they somehow were the recipients of government largesse; rather, many workers viewed themselves as reliable tenants and hoped to prove as much through regular rent payments instead of income limits that suggested a certain level of social welfare. Many also aspired to homeownership and viewed Willow Village and other wartime housing as a temporary destination along the journey to a suburban home.

In an effort to undercut the United States Housing Authority (USHA),  many legislators worked to channel funds through the Public Buildings Administration (PBA) and added amendments that required federal consultation with local public leaders and housing officials.  New projects needed to align with local planning traditions regarding location and design, which in practice prevented unwanted “modernist architecture” in Detroit suburbs but perhaps more importantly also promised to maintain local class and race based segregation.[18]

Unsurprisingly, the issue of race bedeviled Detroit and its suburbs. The Sojourner Truth housing complex  endured controversy when local white residents protested its designation as an African American wartime project. The conflict highlighted the delicate racial balance of wartime America and the critical place housing occupied in such debates. Later, Willow Lodge, the first public war housing project to open to tenants in southeastern Michigan since the Sojourner Truth homes, struggled with integration.  For African Americans, by 1943, housing options remained very tight. As a result, the local chapter of the NAACP used Willow Lodge’s opening to push for integration of all wartime housing. Since Willow Lodge operated under the supervision of the federal government only, no local housing authority had assumed responsibility for the project, and its integration policy took on increased importance. “[I]f the decision against negro war workers is sustained, it will mean that discrimination has been adopted as a policy of the NHA,” an advocate of integrated housing pointed out to observers.[19]

The NAACP and its allies appealed to officials on the basis of democratic principle. “’[T]his war will be fought in vain if every man does not have decent food, clothing, and housing,” Glen Brayton, a Local 50 union representative, argued. Unfortunately, a more effective argument, notes Peterson, might have been to focus on war production, the single-track obsession of federal and military officials. Ford officials wanted no truck with integration controversies and the Detroit Housing Commission’s (DHC) policy of segregation had already established the “community pattern” upon which Federal Public Housing Authority officials determined housing regulations. Needless to say, workers that failed to fit into the American black-white racial binary that dictated housing policies ultimately lost out. “The DHC had to decide what to do with applications on file from three American Indians, one Mexican, one Chinese, two Japanese Americans, and one native of India,” observes Peterson. “The commission concluded that it should stick with its decision not to mix races. To be eligible for public war housing in Detroit, one had to be white or black.”[20] Eventually, by June of 1943 new segregated black wartime housing came into being in Inkster and Ypsilanti, but this failed to mollify many pro-integration housing advocates who believed, correctly, that such policies undermined black workers. As noted, the Detroit Victory Council’s efforts secured integration in 1944 for the Willow Run town site, but affordable quality housing remained a problem for black residents and workers.

The housing debate also revealed the importance of regional identities in 1940s America. After decades of the homogenization of American culture, and what historians like Bruce Schulman identify as the rise of the “demi redneck” or “faux Bubba” as a national ideal, we think less about differences between North and South. Yet, though African Americans easily endured the worst discrimination at the hands of federal and state policies, Ford officials viewed white southerners with nearly equal levels of disdain. “Why are there only forty five states?” went one popular joke at the time. “Because Kentucky and Tennessee are in Michigan and Michigan has gone to hell.” Josephine Gomon, Willow Run’s director of women workers, held numerous prejudices toward southern workers, from “impatience with their stupidity to disgust for their religion” but did push for racial integration of Willow Run and elsewhere.[21]

In addition to adding to the depth of knowledge regarding twentieth-century suburbanization and the effects of wartime mobilization on municipalities, Peterson engages recent work by Carol Lynn McKibben, Catherine Lutz, and Andrew Myers. In their respective works, these scholars explore the dynamic between military installations and suburban/metropolitan residents. In Racial Beachhead: Diversity and Democracy in a Military Town (2012), McKibben delves into the ways in which Fort Ord in Seaside, CA has contributed to local diversity and a politics of inclusion based on the conservative ethos of military service. Similarly, in Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century (2001), Lutz traces the impact of Fort Bragg on Fayetteville, NC. Lutz focuses far less on the municipal electoral politics created by Fort Bragg and approaches the discussion more from a military vantage point, though one that remains sharply critical of the armed services’ gendered and racial reverberations. Still, her work overlaps with McKibben in that each examines how military expansion has shaped their respective localities racially, economically, and politically, even if the kind of politics each explores differs. Finally, Andrew Myers’s Black, White and Olive Drab: Racial Integration at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and the Civil Rights Movement (2006) accomplishes similar tasks, though like Lutz focuses less on the metropolitan politics of Columbia, SC and more on the intersection of the military, Columbia, SC and the mid-century civil rights and Black Power movements (though far more detail on the former than the latter).

Obviously, Planning the Home Front focuses on a discrete time period from roughly 1940 to 1945 rather than more time expansive studies of those above, but Peterson certainly examines many of the issues and topics at the heart of these new works on military-municipal relations. Moreover, Peterson adds a Midwestern location to works on California, South Carolina, and North Carolina, thereby providing a greater understanding of how national mobilization was impacted by local contexts. In addition, Peterson focuses far more on the planning aspects of Willow Run — for the military, Detroit and its municipalities, and the federal government —  and what that meant for an expanding metropolitan region overwhelmed with infrastructural needs and migrant labor. Finally, Peterson wades deep into the wonkiness of wartime mobilization and provides, at least for this historian, one of the few narratives regarding the debate around and the creation and implementation of the Lanham Act, which proved so important for expanding housing and infrastructure in places ranging from Detroit and San Diego to Oakland and Norfolk, VA. For historians of public housing, it would be hard to underestimate the importance of Peterson’s work.

“All urban planning involves trade offs, and urban planning in a democracy, to its credit magnifies the trade offs instead of hiding them,” argues Peterson in her introduction. The debates and sometimes byzantine politics that arose around mobilization policies and implementation definitely weighed options and attempted to balance trade offs. Class, race, and even regional affiliations all played a part in these discussions and the actual enactment of policies at the local level. Even if the housing disappeared, Willow Run remained well into the 1950s before its controversial redevelopment, and the infrastructure that developed around it permanently recast Detroit’s metropolitan region, transforming isolated rural areas into suburbs and townships while bringing increasing diversity to the region even if limited by racial and class segregation.

Regrettably, Peterson’s study also reveals the problems of race that loomed in Detroit’s then present and future. When Washtenaw County redeveloped Willow Run in the 1950s, displaced residents, most of whom were African American, were forced to navigate the segregated housing markets of western Wayne and eastern Washtenaw Counties. Those who somehow managed to resettle on the older site found that realtors steered them to segregated communities. Without the federal government or the needs of a nation at war, African American residents encountered even stiffer and somewhat paradoxically less transparent resistance to integration. “[W]e had no idea that the Townships, the school district, and the developers would band together to segregate the schools again, but that’s what happened,” one grizzled Willow Run African American activist told interviewers.[22] In the aftermath of WWII and the Korean War, participatory democracy remained racially tinged and exclusive; planning for the home front unfolded within these dynamics and nothing but metropolitan strife and the courage of civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s would change that.

[1] Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 17.
[2] Ibid., 4.
[3] Ibid., 7.
[4] Ibid.,  7.
[5] Ibid., 44.
[6] Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front, 7.
[7] Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front, 9
[8] Ibid., 45.
[9] Ibid., 46.
[10] Ibid., 44.
[11] Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in Working Class Los Angeles, 1920-1965, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) pgs. 24 – 26.
[12] Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front, pg. 53.
[13] Ibid., 54-55.
[14] Ibid., 55.
[15] Ibid., 267-268.
[16] Ibid., 46 – 47.
[17] Ibid., 108 – 109.
[18] Ibid., 109.
[19] Ibid., 244.
[20] Ibid., 248.
[21] Ibid., 196.
[22] Ibid., 281.