Growing up, I was pretty sure about a couple of things. First, my dad was…
Jewfro: ‘I’m Glad I’m Not In The Triangle’
With the philosophical posture of a too-tired-to-sleep kindergartener, my son Judah asked me the other night, “What places aren’t there anymore?” Tempted as I was to share my first reaction — “Disney World. Go to sleep. Also Disneyland.” — I conjured and tried to describe Pompeii, Atlantis, Utopia, Shangri-la and the Bermuda Triangle, to which he responded, “I’m glad I’m not in the Triangle.”
No sooner had I extricated myself from his racecar bed (ironically asymmetrical, especially considering racecar is a palindrome) than something occurred to me on the brink of my own bedtime: We have all those places in Detroit.
Pompeii. With the ferocious indifference of an erupting volcano, concrete from interstate freeway and urban renewal projects buried some of Detroit’s most dynamic areas. Fifty years ago, 1.062 mile(s) of I-375 paved-over Black Bottom, a historic neighborhood whose name described the rich soil that greeted the French and foreshadowed the rich African American culture that took shape there in the ’40s and ’50s. Now, MDOT is considering replacing the freeway with a boulevard, improving pedestrian access (Downtown, Eastern Market, the River and Lafayette Park) and liberating 12 acres of unprecedentedly valuable land. Stakeholders debating its future — mixed-use, mixed-income, entrepreneurial, empowered and artistic — should remember that the future once happened there.
Atlantis. Belle Isle captures Detroit’s imagination — always has, always will. In 1944, Arsenal-of-Democracy Detroit proposed building the United Nations there. In his 2013 book, Belle Isle: Detroit’s Game Changer, real estate developer Rodney Lockwood imagined a future in which the island is a sovereign commonwealth of 35,000 citizens who share a zealous belief in “individual freedom, liberty and free markets.”
In 2015, the Free Press (by way of the Belle Isle Conservancy and New York-based Biederman Redevelopment Ventures) asks us to “imagine Belle Isle State Park with restaurants, a hotel, kiosks and camping lodges for overnight or weekend stays.”
Or imagine a volume of development, visitors, racecars (actual cars, not car-shaped beds), ever-larger koi and giant slides that ultimately cause America’s Largest Once-City-Owned Park to sink to the bottom of the Detroit River.
Utopia. Courtesy of University of Michigan Ph.D. candidate Katie Rosenblatt: “On Friday, March 10, 1950, Detroit Common Councilwoman Mary Beck called to order a hearing regarding the zoning of a piece of property in northwest Detroit. Eight policemen were on hand to maintain order among the 600 people crowded into the Council Chamber. At issue was a 72-acre tract of land on the corner of Schoolcraft and Lamphere purchased by Detroit architect Philip Brezner in October 1946. Brezner successfully petitioned the City Plan Commission in the fall of 1947 to rezone the land from single-family dwellings to multiple dwellings to allow for a cooperative development comprised of spacious townhomes.
“In December 1949, just as construction was to begin, an article in the Michigan Worker publicly noting the cooperative’s open-occupancy admissions policy that welcomed both African Americans and Jews sparked a firestorm of controversy.
“The Tel-craft Association, an organization of white homeowners in northwest Detroit, called into question the legality of the 1947 rezoning of Brezner’s property and demanded that the City Plan Commission change the zoning back to single-family dwellings. Despite the outpouring of support for the development from a wide swath of labor, leftist and religious communities in Detroit, Mayor Albert Cobo ultimately vetoed the site plans for Schoolcraft Gardens, effectively killing the project and dashing chances for future cooperative housing development in Detroit.”
Shangri-La. According to the Dalai Lama, no one knows where Shangri-La (or, properly, Shambala) is or was. Such may ultimately be the fate of Detroit’s Chinatown. Hundreds of Chinese families were evicted from their Downtown neighborhood in the early 1960s to make way for office development and what is now the regal tiger (and 4,000 slots and video poker machines!) of the MGM Grand Casino. Chinatown never fully rebooted amidst the mean streets of the Cass Corridor; Chung’s, favored by Jews on Christmas and famous for its egg rolls and almond boneless chicken, closed in 2000, before the streets became less mean. And the failure of Asian Village by the Renaissance Center showed that districts like this can’t just be dreamed up and dropped down. Unless they can …
Bermuda Triangle. A quarter-billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are sailing into the triangle between Woodward, Grand River and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. And it’s not entirely clear what will sail out.
“The District Detroit” (districtdetroit.com) promises to be “a walkable, livable sports and entertainment district” made up of five made-up neighborhoods: Columbia Street, Columbia Park, Woodward Square, Wildcat Corner and Cass Park Village. The Metro Times describes not merely “marketers selling something that doesn’t exist yet, they’re selling something that may not exist at all.”
Beyond the Fisher Freeway fog, Cass Park Village (alone) may (or may not) someday (sooner or later) boast: independent shops, local markets and galleries, a relaxed atmosphere with a free-spirited attitude, close-knit community, cafe start-ups, visitors, conversations about neighborhood happenings and current events, comfortable and casual surroundings, informal get-togethers, pickup softball, local bars and galleries, poetry slams, local garage bands and full-out launch parties.
Gotta agree with Judah on this one — I’m glad I’m not in the Triangle. RT