Durable Growth

CNU 24: Exploring Detroit

Broderick Tower and Peoplemover track

Broderick Tower and Peoplemover track

I love living in the North Bay.  Walkable downtowns.  Nice people.  Comfortable Mediterranean climate, at least until climate changes progresses further.

But living in the North Bay presents challenges when I attend the annual gatherings of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  The recent CNU 24 in Detroit was no different.

There are some fine urbanists in the North Bay.  To my pleasant surprise, there was a handful in Detroit.  We had a casual assembly during the CNU 24 closing party.

But there aren’t a lot of urbanists in the North Bay.  We may be only an hour from San Francisco and Oakland, two hours by transit, but personal obligations often make those journeys awkward or impossible.  As a result, I often feel starved for large gatherings of urbanists of differing perspectives where the intellectual ferment can be set at a rolling boil.  Exactly the kind of setting that CNUs provide.

At the same time, CNUs are held in interesting cities, the kind of cities that demand closer inspection.  In my four years of attending CNUs, I’ve been to Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Dallas, and now Detroit, each of which offered lessons to the inquiring and the observant.

All of which creates a series of dilemmas when reviewing a CNU schedule.  Do I listen to walkability expert Jeff Speck or do I go on a field trip to a neighborhood revitalization effort?  Do I attend the keynote address by cutting edge traffic planner Janette Sadik-Khan or do I join a walking tour of local parks?

For the fourth year in a row, I don’t think I made the right decisions.  Or perhaps more accurately, for the fourth year in a row, I found a satisfying balance impossible to find.  To an eager learner, trying to partake of urbanism at a CNU is like trying to slake a thirst from a fire hose.  There is just too much good stuff, coming too quickly.

This year, I arrived a day early so I could take a field to Grand Rapids.  It was a well-organized, well-filled day that I’m pleased to have done.  But as CNU 24 moved toward its conclusion, I began feeling that I hadn’t really partaken of the Detroit experience, aside from dodging a few cars and watching as Peoplemover doors failed to open.

So I convinced myself that I could skip the Saturday morning plenary to take an extended walk through downtown Detroit with camera in hand.  Luckily, I was at a conference with folks who knew a fair bit about downtown Detroit, so advice on a walking route was easy to secure.  Take the Peoplemover to the north edge of downtown.  Walk down Woodward Avenue with a jog over to Griswold Street as I neared the Detroit River.  And then return to my hotel along Jefferson Street.

Before writing of the walk, I have a couple of preparatory notes.  First, the layout of downtown Detroit is unusual and remarkable.  Perhaps complex for cars, but full of closed vistas and charming shortcuts for pedestrians.

Looking north

Looking north

The story is that newly appointed early 19th century territorial governor for Michigan was a fan of urban planning and had carefully studied L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C., which had in turn borrowed liberally from Paris.  Augustus Woodward arrived in Detroit to find that much of his post had been recently burned in a fire.  Given the unexpectedly blank slate, Woodward quickly put his avocation to use, creating a plan for downtown filled with diagonal, radial, and circumferential streets that has largely survived.

He was apparently so proud of his work that he named the principal street after himself.

Buildings along Woodward Avenue

Buildings along Woodward Avenue

With most Detroit maps dominated by the freeways and expressways that had a role in its plummet, it’s hard to find a graphic that adequately depicts Woodward’s plan, but this map comes close.  Woodward Avenue is the principal north-south street through the heart of the plan, the street that bisects the semi-circular park and continues toward the river.  This was the path for much of my walk.  (It is also the route for a streetcar that will soon begin service, an improvement that seems to meet a key civic need.)

Municipal parking lot

Municipal parking lot

Second, I’ll admit that I’m only a fair photographer and an even worse architectural student.  When pushed, I can differentiate between Gothic, Art Deco, and International, but many of the finer points elude me.  It’s not that I disrespect the profession.  I’ve seen enough aesthetically appealing, well-balanced, and functional architecture to appreciate the skill.  But architecture is one of many fields connected to urbanism which I’ve never had the time to study as deeply as I would wish.

Bike-Share station

Bike-Share station

With that background, let me begin my walk through downtown Detroit.

Upon exiting the Peoplemover, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the Peoplemover track and the renovated Broderick Tower, still blocking the morning sun on a day that would soon reach a humid 92 degrees.

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

Looking north up Woodward Avenue, the streetcar track construction and the final straggling buildings can be seen.  Beyond the buildings, the near void that characterizes much of Detroit soon takes hold.  (Let me take a chance here.  From left to right, Greek Revival, Art Deco, and Gothic Revival.  How did I do?)

Turning and heading down Woodward Avenue, I was surprised by how many buildings are in the more human scale of four to six stories, creating a feel very different from the canyons of New York City or San Francisco.  With the wide sidewalks, the setting and walkability were quite comfortable.  Of course, most downtowns feel more comfortable on Saturday mornings.

Ford Building

Ford Building

It’s not that Detroit doesn’t have tall buildings, but many are on streets a block or two from Woodward, allowing Woodward to function as a grand boulevard.

Heading down Woodward, I found myself oddly discomfited by a municipal parking lot in which the stubs of the columns of a former building had been left in place.  I can’t guess why, if demolition included severing the columns, the cuts were done three feet above grade rather than twelve inches under.  Perhaps someone thought the remaining stubs would recall the glory of Detroit.  I found them more redolent of the fall.

Lobby of Guardian Building

Lobby of Guardian Building

Turning toward Griswold, past a fully-stocked bike-share station, I came across the Chrysler and Ford Buildings within a block of each other, still massive reminders of what made and unmade Detroit.

A block further way was the reason I’d been told to take Griswold, the lobby of the Guardian Building.  I don’t know what to call the architectural style, perhaps Art Deco with a Native American color scheme?  Regardless, it’s a dramatic space that is securely and irrevocably of its time.

Monument to Joe Louis

Monument to Joe Louis

Reaching W. Jefferson Avenue, I spied the monument to Joe Louis, a black forearm and fist, suspended from a slender pyramid.  Some have questioned the absence of a boxing glove, wondering if the sculpture was meant to evoke something of the black power salute.  (Recall that Tommie Smith and John Carlos unveiled the salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, an event that came within a few votes of being held in Detroit.)

To that speculation, I’d add that the fist is palm down when the more normal boxing position would have the palm facing sideways.  With the pyramid support, it does appear that the fist is being staged, prior to being raised into a vertical position.  However, the sculptor never confirmed or denied this interpretation.

Buildings along W. Jefferson Avenue

Buildings along W. Jefferson Avenue

As I headed back to my hotel to cool off and to prepare to return to the regular sessions of CNU 24, I took a final look back at the buildings at Jefferson and Woodward, with the Guardian Building to the right.  There was still much, much more to be seen and learned in Detroit, but it was a good walk.

When I next write, it will be to begin offering the best quotes from the sessions I attended.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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