On Saturday I had my first opportunity to visit Detroit, and I had a blast. The original purpose of the trip was for a service learning project. I am on the MLK committee at my graduate college, and because of my previous education and HWS’s commitment to volunteer work, I figured this would be a great group to join. The Urban Planning MLK committee is a small group of about ten students (including myself) and one faculty member, who put together a roundtable discussion on January 18th and then was to follow that up with a service learning day on the 29th.
On Saturday, 12 urban planners headed out to the Gradmont Rosedale section of Detroit to work with the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation. To preface, my knowledge of Detroit is very limited, but growing. I would like to learn more, am trying to learn more, but I certainly do not know any details about the neighborhoods or cultures of Detroit. The Grandmont Rosedale area is a very nice area of Detroit and it was fairly evident while driving through residential areas. The homes were not very big, but most were built with brick, and seemed like a middle class neighborhood. We did not work as long as we would have liked, or planned for, but that was not because of lack of efficiency or resources. In fact, to our surprise, when we arrived at the building to be briefed and get directions to our site, there were about 15 other volunteers eagerly waiting to get to the site as well. So instead of a 6 hour service learning project, 15 volunteers and 12 urban planning students, filled an entire dumpster full of garbage, cleaned out an entire basement full of furniture and other items, cleaned out an entire garage, filled that garage with more things to store, and tore out the entire first floor carpeting within three hours. It was a great effort by everyone!
Although our service project only last half the day, we decided to use the other half exploring a city that rarely gets the time of day anymore. I instantly was mesmerized and excited for all the history, buildings, and experiences I would gain from my short visit.
Here is a Google Map of our route and the sites we saw:
View MLK Service Day in a larger map
We ended our service learning around 12:30pm and left for the Eastern Market to get some lunch. We were recommended to go to the Russell St Deli. So we began our way toward the center of Detroit/ Eastern Market. We started our downtown Detroit visit on Woodward Street right by Wayne State University. Nothing too out of the ordinary popped in my head. As we headed closer to the center, the GM Renaissance building popped its head above the skyline and I knew we were getting closer. As we drove on Woodward, I noticed two major urban planning issues. First, the road was extremely wide. Almost as wide as a highway, and what I would soon notice is most major streets leading to and from the center of Detroit were like this. The automobile truly shaped Detroit not just financially, but literally (although I knew this before I went, just had no firsthand experience). Second, I noticed how poorly maintained these major thoroughfares were. The streets (not just Woodward) were littered with potholes, some as small as a CD, others as large as a manhole cover. If you were not careful, you could easily destroy a tire after driving on one of these streets.
As we approached downtown, we turned toward Eastern Market and made our way past the sports stadiums, into what used to be the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Before we came upon these edifices, I noticed a few run down stores, but nothing I had never seen before. As we approached the old projects, I immediately noticed how empty they were. Not one building had a full window. No building was clean of graffiti or other forms of vandalism. It was a ghost town. It was the single most shocking picture I have ever seen in a city before, although not the last. The Brewster projects are the epitome of Detroit’s identity. Run down and empty, but I must clarify, I do not hate Detroit, I am merely stating what I saw. Detroit is full of potential and I hope I can discover more, but the Brewster projects were a major imagine I will never erase from my mind.
After the projects we made our way to the Eastern Market. It was a very nice area, with some people walking around and clearly activity going on. I know little about the Market itself, but it seemed that it was an open air market area with large coverings where a large amount of people could come and get produce and other goods. By the time we got there, the markets were not really up anymore because it seemed to be more of a morning operation.
Although we were unable to discover the markets, we made our way to our lunch destination. Russell St. Deli was a great place to eat. Lots of traditional deli style food, with a major focus on Corn Beef and Pastrami. I had a corn beef sandwich with some homemade slaw, amazing! Great place to get some lunch. Also next door was a great peanut place called Rocky’s Historic Eastern Market. Originally it was a peanut place but has turned into a spices and peanut palace. It seemed like a great place to find good cooking spices. My dad would really like it.
After we finished lunch, we continued with our windshield tour of Detroit. We made our way down to the center of the city, looped around past Martius Park, and onto Michigan Ave. Our next destination was the old Michigan Central Station. As we drove down Monroe St. we saw the monorail that apparently links little of Detroit together. This leads me to another big issue about Detroit, how little public transportation there is. If I was not in a car, or did not own a car in Detroit, getting from the Eastern Market to Mexican Town would be almost impossible. Even walking it would probably take a few hours. Detroit is very spread out and this issue has hindered the ability of Detroit to land on its feet in the recent times. Although the car companies might be out of major trouble, for now, people cannot easily get around and so it hinders development, which slows innovation, which ultimately kills cities. I do not think Detroit will die, but it seems to have hit rock bottom. If transportation was rejuvenated (although with what money) it might bring people back. Just a thought.
As we headed toward Roosevelt Park/ Michigan Central Station, similar themes kept popping up. Abandoned store fronts, wide roads, poor maintenance and little activity. This was all quelled by the startling and mesmerizing site of the Michigan Train Station. This building was so beautiful it is hard to explain. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century (1913) and this was evident by the large columns and city beautiful like architecture (it is actually Beaux-Arts style). Again, like the Brewster Projects, this building had been abandoned, run down, and vandalized for the past 20 or so. It was shut down in 1988. Although this building has been back and forth between historic preservation and demolition, it is still around and should be appreciated by everyone. It was maybe the coolest building I have ever seen. Sounds stupid, but honestly not many buildings today stand out quite like Michigan Central Station. The station was surrounded by very little, and it is so tall, it makes the building seem so much large than it really is. In fact, the entire top part of the building was never finished even when the building was in service. It must have been 20 to 30 stories tall. Maybe more. It was one of my major highlights of my Detroit experience.
Next door to the Michigan Central Station are an abandoned and rundown Hotel and home. Nothing too exciting about either of these two places except that I love adventures and apparently the house had an art installation in the back that was created by a University of Michigan student. Anyway it was cool but it was nothing compared to the Station.
Finally we made our way to Mexican town, just to see what it was like, and it seemed nice. There were a lot of Spanish and Mexican restaurants (hence the name of the neighborhood) but it still seemed like it was struggling.
Overall it was great adventure. I want to shout out all the people who participated in the MLK service day, and specifically the people in my van: Marilyn, Joe, Joel, Jake, Sylvia, and Anne! I had a great time with all of you and I hope we can do it again. Also being stuck in between Canada and the USA is always a fun story (inquire within). Great first trip to Detroit and I hope I can make many more.