A MiddLab Project

Detroit: The Past and Present of the American City

Learn more about Sociology & Anthropology and Undergraduate Research at Middlebury College.

Known as America’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” “Most Dangerous City,” and more recently, “Laboratory for Saving the American City,” Detroit, Michigan has functioned as a model city and symbol in American popular culture since the early 20th century. This research explores the significance of Detroit’s role as a representative city through a content analysis of national news publications and other channels of media in the last century. Relying on theories of the narrative construction of social events and actors in public discourse, this case demonstrates the evolving signification of Detroit in American culture. The emergent narrative of Detroit as a model for reimagining the American city in the 21st century relies on previous labeling of Detroit as a symbol of American ascendency and decline. The story of Detroit as a laboratory for reforming America’s cities demonstrates a reclamation of Detroit as a positive American symbol and a reinvigoration of the discourse of civil society through the democratic production of knowledge about the city. Detroit offers American society a new framework through which to think of shrinkage, community, and identity rooted in place.


Julianna Tschirhart

Laurie Essig
Sponsor & Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies

Detroit is America’s 2nd most segregated city with a 77% black population and 84% white suburbs.

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