Satellite view of Detroit and Windsor, showing Lake Erie (bottom) and Lake St. Clair
Detroit’s street map has often been described as a palimpsest. I’ve called it the broken hub of a wheel dumped beside the river (which isn’t really a river; it’s a strait), but my metaphor actually leaves out most of the streets. How the map came to look as it does today is a story of…well, palimpsest, really: the occasional plan, destruction, expediency, and economic interests. (Neglect and decay affect the look of the map on Google Street View, but so far don’t seem to play a huge role in altering the map itself.)
Detroit lies on the northern side of the Detroit River, a strait (in French, un détroit) running between Lake Erie (a Great Lake) and Lake St. Clair (a Still-Decent Lake). It’s the only city in the US where you head south to get to Canada. That means that Canada is beneath us. On a map, anyway.
Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit was founded in 1701 by a rather colorful character, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, whose achievements also include (in no particular order) inventing a fake noble lineage (the “de la Mothe Cadillac part)—complete with a fake family crest, a simplification of which you can see today on the Cadillac next to you in the parking lot; losing his entire fortune (reputedly by ignoring a fortune teller’s admonition to not do anything foolish like poke the Nain Rouge with a stick); and moving to Detroit’s younger, more popular sister, New Orleans. Couldn’t stay put, that Antoine. Physical and social mobility, and reinventing yourself were things you could do quite easily in the “New World” where no one knew you. They became popular hobbies in Detroit, where people came for opportunity and left when it dried up, often reinventing themselves in the process.
A statue of Cadillac in Hart Plaza. On the right, he stakes his claim on a Lexus.
I took these photos in 2008, I’m not too proud to admit..
The city’s original white settlers brought with them from their native Normandy a method of divvying up land. That method was to lay out “ribbon farms”: very thin, long strips of land that gave each farmer his own access to the river. The oldest roads in Detroit mostly reflect the locations of the ribbon farms and/or are named for their owners. That’s why so many of Detroit’s streets have funny French spellings, despite no one pronouncing them in French anymore.
Ribbon farms: Notice they did the same thing on the other side of the river, too.
Fast forward about a century, and in 1805, Detroit stakes its claim as a city by doing what all cities do at some point in their history: burning to the ground. (Just ask Chicago. Or San Francisco. Or London. It’s a cliché, really.) Two major Detroit tropes occur with that fire: (1) the Nain Rouge is seen dancing in the flames, the bastard; and (2) Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the Catholepistemiad (later sensibly re-named the University of Michigan) and priest at Ste. Anne de Détroit Church, said something along the lines of “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” which, being translated, means, “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” Whatever language he actually said or wrote it in, it was such a great line it was eventually made into the city’s motto, and has been kept ever-relevant by generation after generation of Detroit pyromaniacs (the bastards).
Detroit city flag, incorporating the motto and the 1805 fire, as well as the three national flags that have flown over the city.
In 1806, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory Augustus Woodward produced a plan for rebuilding the city. He laid out broad avenues in interlocking hexagonal patterns with parks or plazas at the intersection points. The plan was supposed to have been expandable with the city’s future growth: just add more hexagons! (W. Hawkins Ferry calls the plan “so French in its geometric precision.”) Woodward’s plan inscribed a new pattern over the surviving traces of the old ribbon farms. Residents hated it at the time, because they no longer recognized their hometown.
The Woodward Plan. Grand Circus Park makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
Someone drew up this image of what the interlocking hexagons would have looked like,
had Woodward’s plan been expanded.
Woodward’s plan was never expanded, though, despite the city’s growth. Through the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was taking place throughout the U.S., and Detroit was no exception. Thanks to its location in the Great Lakes system, Detroit became known for ship building, making stoves, and doing all manner of things that involved bending or shaping metal. (That eventually proved useful when the automobile came along.) As the city expanded, thanks to industry, it did so according to the demands of economic interests. Detroit was not alone in this. There was a growing sense throughout the U.S. that its booming industrial cities were dirty and unpleasant, organized as they were around industry rather than civic life. In Detroit, for example, the river front was crowded with shipping yards, with no public recreational access to the river.
In the 19th century, most U.S. architects trained only by apprenticeship. The few that did pursue academic study had to go to Europe to do so. Even then, most of them didn’t bother to finish their programs; a diploma was simply not necessary to their practice back home. The fashionable place to study was the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which urged a return to classical architecture, and other things you can read about on Wikipedia.
But something happened at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair’s Director of Works Daniel H. Burnham saw an opportunity to showcase his ideas about making Chicago the sort of place people might want to live in, so that the Midwest’s nouveau-riche might settle there (i.e., spend their money there) rather than just pass through on business trips. So he assembled a team of artists, architects, and landscape artists and had them apply the Beaux-Arts aesthetic and ideals to the fair’s site on Chicago’s lakefront. With this project, Chicago’s lakefront was beautified and reclaimed, Chicago’s reputation for its architecture began, and the City Beautiful movement spread like a cliché through the nation (but one that renewed rather than destroying cities).
The Beaux-Arts style prefers to give its buildings and statues a great deal of “look space.”
Today you can drive (or ride a train) from Chicago to Detroit in about 5 hours. Apparently it took the City Beautiful movement nearly two decades to make the trip around the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, Detroit’s mayor, Philip Breitmeyer, founded a City Plan Commission, which immediately set about bringing Daniel H. Burnham and his similarly-middle-initialed associate, Edward H. Bennett, to Detroit to do some much-neglected city planning. Nothing much had been done since the Woodward plan (which was designed for a population of 50,000; Detroit had reached 700,000 by the time of the Burnham and Bennett plan) other than Michigan Governor Lewis Cass’ 1830 development of old “Indian trails” into military roads radiating out, outstate even, from the city’s center: Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and Gratiot Avenue. (Poor Fort Street, only a street…)
I can’t find any images of the Burnham street plan, so instead, enjoy this photo of Daniel Burnham, left, and Lewis Cass, right. Burnham’s eyes look so sincere, but surely he’s hiding something under that moustache. Cass is either reaching for his wallet or having chest pains.
The Burnham plan, completed in 1915, emphasized parks and public spaces, much as Woodward’s had done. Detroit’s Cultural Center, which boasts the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Detroit Science Center (and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul) is credited to the Burnham plan. Not much of his plan actually was implemented, though. For example, Burnham planned two major avenues radiating river-ward from the Cultural Center: one leading to Belle Isle, and the other to the then-new Michigan Central Station (completed in 1913, abandoned in 1988, and currently being stabilized, finally).
I took this photo in October, 2012.
By the early 20th century, Detroit had an extensive and efficient streetcar (trolley) system—at its peak, in some locations, streetcars arrived every sixty seconds! But with the popularity of the automobile and the even greater popularity of moving to the suburbs, the streetcar system fell into disuse and was closed in 1956. It is rumored the streetcars still operate in Mexico City, which purchased them from Detroit. (No, San Francisco, which has the hobby of collecting other cities’ steetcars, doesn’t have them.)
Also with the rise of the auto industry, the need for efficient freight transit into, out of, and across the city led to freeway building. As with many other projects, from the Michigan Central Station to general “slum-clearing” (read: corralling non-white people and poor white people to less desirable locations), the freeways saw the city exercise “eminent domain,” condemning buildings and displacing many people from their homes, and disrupting or effacing historic neighborhoods. I-75 famously had to go right where Paradise Valley, the Black cultural center of the city, was, destroying world-famous jazz and blues clubs among other important sites. Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, was widely razed for the Michigan Central Station and its Beaux-Arts requisite of a really big park in front of it to set it off. Freeways also disrupted Corktown and neighboring Mexicantown, the latter of which has also had to put up with the Ambassador Bridge dumping ¼ of the commercial traffic between the U.S. and Canada right into its residential areas. But thankfully, both neighborhoods are seeing renewal in recent years.
Children enjoying the fountain by the Ren Cen on the Riverfront on a hot and muggy summer day, 2008.
So, as with any city, the street map will continue to change, as will the landmarks and features on that map. Happily, in recent years, the riverfront has been transformed into delightful public space, where children play in fountains or ride the carousel, and people of all ages bike, walk, take lunch breaks, just hang out, or even fish in the Detroit River. All while looking down on Canada.
We’re watching you, Windsor.
(Actually, I have nothing at all against Canada. Vive la Windsor!)
Sources for this post include:
- Having lived in Detroit
- Ferry, W. Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History.Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
- Historic Detroit
- Herron, Jerry. AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.
- Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
- and various websites, newspaper articles, and other sources absorbed over the years – especially regarding the city’s early history.
- Ferry, Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History. Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
I’ve linked to wikipedia often here for convenience. The interested reader is welcome to google other sources.