The book is subdivided into four sections with benign sounding titles that you might find in an introductory tour of Detroit—“Situating the City,” “Getting to Know the City,” “Communities and Neighborhoods” and “Places in the City.” Photo credit: Belt Magazine

Maps do a lot more than just help us navigate physical space. They also help us navigate the social, economic and political dynamics that have shaped places. 

“Detroit in 50 Maps” by Alex B. Hill ($30, 144 pages), published by Belt Magazine, is a clear demonstration of this ability. Detroit is a geographically flat city but becomes filled with peaks and valleys when viewed through the filter of a map. 

In (more than) 50 original maps, ranging in theme from the concentration of pheasants and Coney restaurants to population density by race, Hill presents a varied portrait of the city he’s been mapping for the last decade. 

The book is subdivided into four sections with benign sounding titles that you might find in an introductory tour of Detroit—“Situating the City,” “Getting to Know the City,” “Communities and Neighborhoods” and “Places in the City.”

But right from the first map, readers are given a clue about the book’s intentions. We’re shown a map of Detroit’s radial streets (Grand River, Woodward, etc.) and old indigenous pathways, which line up almost perfectly. In an explanation of the map on the following page, Hill writes, “The city’s current layout bears the mark of all of its past residents.”

It’s a simple but effective framing: The people who lived here the longest shaped the structure of the city. But they also weren’t given credit, as planner Augustus Woodward claimed the designs were based on those in Washington, D.C., and Paris. Colonizers not only took the land but also denied any influence of those who had lived in Detroit for generations.

Today, those long-time residents have largely been African Americans. Before a series of maps on racial segregation, the book notes that almost 80% of the city is Black (78.3% to be exact, according to the U.S. Census). That’s in stark contrast to the white population that’s clustered in yellow dots outside the city’s borders—with exceptions in Midtown, Corktown and downtown—making metro Detroit one of the most segregated areas in the nation.

And, as “50 Maps” seeks to show, those Black residents have been the ones to suffer most from housing discrimination, lack of economic opportunity and poor health outcomes. 

The clearly illustrated segregation adds force to maps like one on car access showing pockets of the city where few people own cars, followed by the surprising statistic that “70% of all jobs in Detroit are held by those who commute into the city, typically by car.” There’s also a map of the city covered in green to indicate housing built between 1900-1950. Interrupting the monochromatic landscape are only a few streaks of yellow and flecks of red to indicate houses built after 1950. Some of those red and yellow areas include the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods, which were “demolished in the 1950s and 1960s under the Federal ‘urban renewal’ program that focused on ‘slum clearance’ and ‘blight reduction’” and “renewed” with freeways and flashier neighborhoods. 

Alex B. Hill, author of “Detroit in 50 Maps,” is geographic information system director at Wayne State University (essentially, the university’s mapmaker) and project director of the Detroit Food Map Initiative. He also runs and is the primary contributor to DETROITography, a blog that creates and shares maps about Detroit. Photo credit: Matt Elliott

Hill drives home this point about inequality in more obvious ways, with maps showing the large number of non-local property owners and foreclosures. But he does it in more subtle ways as well, like with maps of coffee shops and coworking spaces, which are largely clustered downtown near those yellow dots. 

Housing inequality also has dramatic impacts on health, as shown by a depressing series of maps on the drastically lower life expectancy of city residents—by as much as 10 years when compared to suburban neighbors—mapped onto the high prevalence of obesity, diabetes and asthma. 

Another implicit argument the book makes is that people have long tried to define Detroit based on their own interests. In recent years, some have declared Detroit a “blank slate,” giving newcomers the moral license to do as they please with vacant land, abandoned buildings and the neighborhood names. 

This framing is also made at the start with Woodward’s rebranding of the city’s “existing indigenous trails.”

Later, Hill overlays 100 areas that represent “Detroit” on top of one another, some of which contain surrounding counties and even Windsor—kind of like how your suburban friend, when in another city, might say they’re from Detroit.

Hill gets this message across time and again, like with a map trying to find the “heart” of Detroit, whether literal or metaphorical. Or one showing the myriad ways planners, the city and foundations have sliced and diced neighborhoods. But as we know from other maps on Corktown and Midtown, these boundaries and the ways residents define them are in a state of steady flux. 

Hill runs and is the primary contributor to DETROITography, a blog that creates and shares maps about Detroit. Since starting in 2013, there have been more than 800 posts. He’s also worked at the City of Detroit’s Health Department where he said he made more than 250 maps and is the geographic information system director at Wayne State University (essentially, the university’s mapmaker) and project director of the Detroit Food Map Initiative. 

In other words, Hill really likes maps. He even includes a clever, if not anatomically perfect, way to draw a map of Detroit with a few shapes and your hand. 

One criticism of the book is that abrupt changes in tone undercut some of the most powerful maps, images and ideas. A larger point about racial segregation can get lost after spending a few minutes on a map about the most common dog names in each ZIP code. I’ll admit, the latter is a playful addition, but the contrast is perhaps too jarring. 

The design of the book also lacks consistency. Some maps, like one comparing the size of Detroit to other cities, really pop and perfectly illustrate their subject. But more often than not, the maps reuse the same generic overlay and basic colors. Making fifty-plus maps is no easy task, so I understand the urge to keep the design simple. But given how gorgeous and dynamic maps can look, it would have been nice to see more variation, especially for a coffee table-style book.

But on the whole, the portrait “Detroit in 50 Maps” presents is dynamic and varied—which is exactly how any book about Detroit should be.

Or, as Hill writes in his introduction: “To truly understand the city is to comb through its layers.” 

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.

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