Place and Pointe: Detroit

Big enough to matter in the world; small enough for you to matter in it.

By Brendan Johnson and Robert Dorigo Jones

The contemporary city is by no means a monolith. Each inhabitant of and visitor to a city experiences the place in different ways. As a decently well-traveled bunch of young people, we want to share our experiences of the cities with which we have some familiarity. Each article will take you on a tour through a city, each stop peppered with history lessons, fun facts, personal stories, and a bit of humor. Welcome to our first “Place and Pointe” city profile.

[Editors’ Note] A helpful way for understanding our city reviews is the idea of the “Chef’s Table” (You can thank Brendan.). We want to tell you the stories behind our relationships with the cities we love, their histories, and their people. Our tours, and their individual stops, function as the multi-course meal, if you will.

We will introduce our city profiles with a short discussion about a contemporary issue the city is facing. We’ll spend a ‘day’ giving you a personal ‘tour’ that snakes through each city, illuminating points of interest along the way. We hope you enjoy this, and as always, feel free to leave comments. Bon appétit!


Bobby took this photo from Windsor.

Nick: Detroit-based 4Northers, I heard Gordie Howe recently passed away. Apparently he was important to you all.

Bobby: Important?? His face belongs on the NHL’s Mount Rushmore! Nearly everyone of voting age in metro Detroit today remembers the man in some way, either as the NHL’s ultimate iron man, or as one of Detroit’s greatest sports ambassadors.

Nick: And apparently they’re naming a bridge after him!

Brendan: Oh goodness, the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Now that’s a fight you need to see to believe. Come on; let’s head downtown!

Nick: Guys, I really don’t have time to drive down to Detroit and check out a bri-

*Bobby and Brendan grab Nick and throw him into the back of a Ford Transit. Nick wakes up on the banks of the Detroit River*

Nick: Um, where’s the bridge?

Brendan: Surprise! There is no bridge! Not yet, at least. But our journey begins here, at the center of what’s technically an international political conflict and beside the single resource most responsible for the city’s very existence — the Detroit River.

Nick: Huh, I thought it was going to be brown and polluted and-

Brendan: A frustratingly common misconception. To be fair, we had our bad years, but for the last several decades, it’s been one of the cleanest major waterways in the United States. Beautiful isn’t it? But enough on that — moving on to the bridge that is not!

Bobby: Back to 2000, exactly, when a report found that 44% (!) of all Canadian-American trade is trucked in through Port Huron and Detroit’s own Ambassador Bridge. It’s also why both the U.S. and Canada felt it was time to add a second span in Detroit, Canada so much so that they offered to pay for literally everything except a US customs plaza.

Brendan: Sounds great, right? Until I tell you that the Ambassador Bridge, a hugely important piece of international infrastructure, is owned by one very old and very greedy billionaire. Manuel (Matty) Moroun. Just two tunnels stand between him and a trans-border monopoly. He claims he himself could build a better bridge in Detroit/Windsor than any government project.

Rendering of the Ambassador Bridge (blue) and the second bridge that Moroun claims he wants to build literally adjacent to the Ambassador Bridge. This is NOT happening. At least probably not. (Source: http://www.ambassadorbridge.com/SecondSpan/ReplacementSpan.aspx)

Bobby: Lawsuits flew back and forth. Moroun spent a few weeks in jail, failing to block the new bridge, and then he tried and failed to get voters to reject the bridge proposal. He’s put a roughly $40 million thorn in the side of the city in order to protect his de facto monopoly. Don’t worry though — work is commencing on both sides of the river, and we’ll likely see progress soon.

Brendan: While we’re down here though, let’s give you some basic history on the city.

Nick: So you’ve taken me to an old church?

Brendan: Exactly! This is where Detroit began. Mind you, there was a healthy First Nations population in the Great Lakes region, and the area that is now Detroit was a popular Native American trading hub (I’ll get to this later). But in July of 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his band of French explorers landed on these banks and founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit. The settlement on the river that they called le détroit du lac Érié, or The Strait of Lake Erie, eventually became known as simply The Strait, Detroit. Within the Pontch, the French settlers also founded a Catholic parish named for the patroness of France and mother of St. Mary, Ste. Anne. This parish has survived and thrived through the centuries. Only next to St. Augustine, this is the oldest parish in the United States, except the parishioners are now much more Hispanic than French.

Bobby: The legacy of the French can be found all over the city, from its name to the names of many roads (Livernois, Gratiot, Dequindre, etc) to the city’s flag!

Nick: Detroit has a city flag? I thought only important cities like New York and Chicago had flags.

Flag of the City of Detroit. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brendan: ಠ_ಠ Of course we have a flag! Its quarters represent each of the countries that have governed this city — France, Great Britain, and the United States. The middle is our city’s seal and ever-relevant motto: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.” Of course that’s “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes” in Latin. Dallas has a horrible flag, by the way.

Nick: Hey!

Bobby: Moving on! In Corktown now — home to some great bars, BBQ, and Michigan Central Station, which closed in 1988.

Michigan Central Station as it appeared in 2010. There are now new windows in all of the holes, but little else has been done since. Lots of tourists like to take what we call “Ruin Porn” photos of this building. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nick: Damn, that’s a gorgeous building. It’s a shame it’s in such disrepair. Who owns this one?

Bobby: You’ll never guess…

Nick: My man Matty?

Brendan: And bingo was his name-o. We’re traveling west on Michigan Avenue through Mexicantown, with lots of great food, and greater people. But, Nick, what do you think of when you think of Detroit?

Nick: Cars mainly. And that the city is dying.

Bobby: We sure as hell beg to differ on that last part, but the cars part is not incorrect. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile; just the assembly line. His innovation hints at the dynamic spirit that kept this city going.

Nick: Woah, wait, stop. How did we get to Philadelphia?

Brendan: Still Detroit — ish. Welcome to Dearborn, Detroit’s neighbor. More specifically, welcome to The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which celebrates the America of old and that spirit of innovation. Henry Ford, newly rich thanks to the assembly line and the Ford Motor Company, collected all things innovation for this museum, an exact copy of Independence Hall. Small things, sure, like old light bulbs and sewing machines. But also very large things like the ‘Rosa Parks bus’an original McDonald’s street sign, several old trains, and a whole electric plant gas-steam engine. He even collected the buildings where innovative things happened! Almost all of Edison’s Menlo Park, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, the homes of Noah Webster and Robert Frost, and so many more were all brought here to create this living village of American innovation.

Bobby: The Henry Ford also gives tours of the Ford Rouge Factory, a sprawling complex and a temple to Taylorist production. Thousands of men forged their dreams along its assembly lines. My very own great grandfather, great uncle, and mother worked here, on the rail cars, in tool and die and in human resources. It was also here that Walter Reuther, an early union organizer, and his comrades were attacked by hired thugs at the Battle of the Overpass, an event that galvanized labor from Detroit to Flint. My great aunt still has one of his buttons.

Nick: Wow, that sounds pretty nea-hey I wanted to stay here a while!

A garden in Brightmoor Detroit (Source: https://diggingdetroit.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/crew-5-brightmoor%E2%80%99s-brightest/)

Bobby: Sorry, Nick, there’s one more place I wanna show you on the West Side, one of many neighborhoods hit hard by the 2008 recession. Brightmoor is a fantastic example of a neighborhood whose residents have taken control of their community. Home to a critical mass of active community groups supported by the city and civic organizations, it’s focused on the future, working with the Skillman Foundation through a community-led neighborhood planning process and committing long-term to urban agriculture.

Brendan: Gosh, talking of urban ag is making me hungry! I know of a great place on the other side of town…

Nick: Brendan, this place is pretty run down.

Brendan: Personality, Nick. It has personality. Welcome to the original Buddy’s Rendezvous Pizzeria. While you New Yorkers think there’s no other good pizza than your flimsy soggy cardboard disgrace, Buddy’s and its Detroit-style pizza are consistently named one of the nation’s finest. Similar to a Sicilian style pizza, these bad boys are square, deep-ish dish pies with the sauce on top of the toppings.

(Source: http://www.freep.com/picture-gallery/entertainment/dining/sylvia-rector/2014/11/04/buddys-novi/18467819/)

Nick: Pizza should not be square. That’s abhorrently unnatural.

Brendan: Innovation, my friend! At a loss for baking ware when the restaurant’s founders set up shop, they decided to use the abundant auto part trays from a nearby factory. These trays gave the pizza its square shape as well as its perfectly medium deepness. Tasty, isn’t it? That’s pure Detroit right there!

Bobby: But let’s be clear — the history of Detroit cannot be told without telling the story of struggle, division, and, at times, loss.

Nick: Yeah, I’ve heard a bit about the riots.

Bobby: Detroit’s history of conflict extends far beyond the ’67 race riots. We’re standing near the the border of Hamtramck, a formerly Polish enclave whose population now mirrors a UN assembly, with residents from Bosnia to Yemen to Bangladesh. Across the Chrysler Freeway lies Poletown East, a working class neighborhood that in the 1980s was circled by city officials for demolition for a new General Motors plant. After bitter resistance from organized residents and a Michigan Supreme Court ruling the Detroit News recently called one of the worst in the state’s history, 3,500 residents lost their homes. Since, Poletown has fallen into deep poverty, but it’s not without life, as many would portray it. The nearby Heidelberg Project, an entire of block of houses-as-art installations, has stood as a testament to the defiant spirit of Poletown’s people. Today, the Detroit Future City (DFC) plan calls for it to be transitioned to “innovative ecological” use, including meadows, forests, maybe a stormwater basin.

Nick: Oh that’s cool; I’ll bet the residents had a lot of say in the DFC planning pro-

Bobby: Hah! You don’t know the history of “city planning” in Detroit. Decades ago, a neighborhood closer to Downtown called Black Bottom (or Paradise Valley) was home to a majority of the city’s black population, many of them poor.

Brendan: It was named Black Bottom by the French settlers for its rich topsoil…not for…well…yeah you get it.

Paradise Theater before it closed in 1951. Now called Orchestra Hall, it has housed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 1989. (Source: https://localwiki.org/detroit/Paradise_Theatre)

Bobby: It was also a cultural hub. I’ve met former residents who, as children, spent their weekends at the Paradise Theater, where people from all over flocked to see Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington perform. Urban renewal and the building of Detroit’s anxiety-inducing freeways tore up Black Bottom. Today, Harmonie Park and Ford Field stand near the old neighborhood center, and Mayor Mike Duggan has announced a series of redevelopment plans. It’s an opportunity to model the kind of innovative, inclusive urban planning that eluded the very plans that demolished much of Black Bottom. We’re just a few blocks from Campus Martius, so I guess now’s as good a time as ever to show him the rest of downtown!

Brendan: We’re cruising down Woodward Avenue now. Fun fact, after the city burned down in 1805, a famous lawyer was hired to design the new city plan. He named the city’s spine “Woodward” insisting that this was because it was “toward the woods of the north” and definitely not because his name was Augustus Woodward. Campus Martius is the origin (center) of the city, and spoke streets radiate from it like a wheel. These spokes travel far throughout the state following old native trails. The plan he designed uses a rosette pattern similar to Woodward’s previous home of Washington, D.C. The pattern was unfortunately disrupted by resistance from the river-bound ribbon farms, and a familiar grid pattern emerges as the city aged. These overlaid systems can make driving in Detroit just a real pain.

Bobby: Preach!

Brendan: But anyway, now that we’re downtown, our architectural survey may commence; I hope you like art deco! The saying among tour guides down here is that Detroit was richer than God when people were creating these stunning buildings, but then poorer than dirt when all the other cities were tearing their old buildings down for new stuff to be built. What that leaves us is a beautiful collection of buildings like the Fisher Tower (called “Detroit’s largest art object”), the Guardian Building (adorned and be-gilded in our famous Pewabic tile work), heck even the GM Renaissance Center, ugly as I think much of it is, is a great example of modernist-brutalist architecture! The RenCen is the tallest building in Michigan, and the middle tower is the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere! It was designed to be a “city within a city” by Henry Ford II, and was built with a two-story concrete berm effectively shutting itself off from the rest of the city. Gotta hand it to General Motors, who bought the complex for their headquarters; they’ve really opened it up to the public and made it accessible to street traffic.

The removal of the concrete berms that had made the RenCen into a fortress for many years. (Source: http://www.detroityes.com/webisodes/2002/west/17.php)

Nick: Man, there’s a lot more to the city than I reali-

Bobby: Wow, all this talk has got my stomach rumblin’ again! I know of a great place, just down Jefferson!

Brendan (on the way): Hey look, there’s the Pewabic workshop I mentioned!

Bobby: Here we are, Rose’s Fine Food, a cozy little diner whose impeccable food, labor policies (employees start at $10 an hour and are assisted with transportation and childcare), and community focus (neighborhood residents get a discount) have received national attention. Try the egg cream. Wait, you’ve never heard of egg creme? It’s a relic of bygone days: milk, seltzer, and flavor. Rose’s is the bomb.

Nick: Well, it looks like the sun’s getting ready to go down. Should we head back now?

Brendan: Almost, but we haven’t even shown you the most beautiful place in the city yet! Bobby, let’s take him over to Pig Island!

Nick: Pig Island? That’s…different.

Bobby: He means Belle Isle. When it was first settled by those French traders, they named it Île aux Cochons, or Hog Island, because that’s where many of the farmers decided to let their pigs roam and graze and do pig things. Eventually, after the pigs were gone, the Americans felt it needed a more…beautiful…name. Belle Isle it became!

Brendan: The island is the largest city-owned island park in the United States, and it was designed by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, for whom New York City’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace are also résumé points. The park is home to a Yacht Club, and Boat Club (yes they’re different), two zoos, an annual Grand Prix, the oldest continuously operated aquarium in the United States, and the beautiful three-tiered James Scott Fountain, where we are now. Isn’t that a beautiful view of the skyline?

Bobby: It’s fitting that we’re ending back at the river, a special place to me. When I worked in Detroit, I’d go for strolls along the Riverwalk and gaze out at Belle Isle and the freighters floating by. Sometimes in the morning, depending on the direction of the wind, you can smell the barley from Atwater Brewery or the fermenting mash of a Windsor distillery floating over the Detroit River’s calm surface. Here on the island, those aromas intertwine. This city’s story is one of France and England, Canada and the United States, boom times and bust, race and religion, of innovation and oppression. There is so, so much work to be done. But, through it all, the passing waters of the Detroit River always remind me that this city can always move forward, that the potential of its people reaches far deeper than the bottom of the riverbed, and that this city, when it works with and for each and every one of its residents, can soar higher than the tallest steeple.

Detroit Skyline from Belle Isle. (Source: http://www.meetup.com/Motor-City-Photo-Workshops/events/152933532/)

This piece was written by Brendan Johnson and Robert Dorigo Jones for Case in Pointe.

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