Monday, May 24, 2021

7 Historical Facts About Detroit's Suburban Sprawl

Seven Mile Road in northwest Detroit in 1930. (Virtual Motor City)

Recently, while studying the borders of Detroit, I've come to learn a lot about how it's grown from a small, congested city into the sprawling metropolis that it's become. I've also had a chance to discuss what I've been learning with Aaron Mondry for a podcast which will soon appear on The Dig (to be linked to here once it's online). Our conversation has inspired me to share these important facts about our region's development and to clear up common misconceptions about it. For example, I had always assumed that suburban sprawl started in the 1950s, during the post-WWII building boom. But I was surprised to learn that...

Friday, February 5, 2021

Detroit Borders IV: Harper Woods

The border between Detroit & Harper Woods on Kelly Rd. south of Washtenaw St., May 23, 1958.
(Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

The final segment of the eastern border of the City of Detroit is the three-mile-long boundary with the City of Harper Woods. It begins where we left off at the end of the last post, at the intersection of Kingsville and Linville streets. From there, the border line runs northwest to the center of Kelly Road, then northeast up Kelly to the center of Eight Mile Road. This border was mostly shaped by an annexation from Gratiot Township in 1924, and then slightly readjusted many years later, when the last annexation to Detroit was made.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Detroit Borders III: Cornerstone Annexation & Lochmoor Village


Much of Detroit's easternmost neighborhood, Cornerstone Village, came into the city when a half square mile of territory was annexed from Grosse Pointe Township in 1926. Homebuilding was booming on the east side in the 1920s, whether developers were constructing bungalows for middle-class workers, or designing exclusive enclaves for the rich. The various municipal boundaries coming into shape here, which would influence class divisions even more greatly over time, would sometimes be decided by a surprisingly small number of votes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Detroit Borders II: St. Clair Heights & the Hillger Annexation

In this series on the City of Detroit border, we are breaking the city limits down into segments and uncovering the history behind them individually. The previous post covered the border from Windmill Point to Mack Avenue, 233 feet east of the center of Alter Road. Continuing from where we left off, the border runs down the center of Mack, 1.3 miles east to the center of Cadieux Road. This line is also the north border of the City of Grosse Pointe Park.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Detroit Borders I: Grosse Pointe Park

Detroit's current borders superimposed over an 1876 map of Wayne County.

Researching exactly where Detroit's sometimes confusing borders lie—and how they got that way—has been a long-overdue topic for this long-neglected blog. This post will be the first installment of an in-depth series on the history of the borders of the city. We will begin following the municipal boundaries starting where the eastern border meets the Detroit River, and then progressing counterclockwise from there.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Why I Left the Detroit Institute of Arts

I began working at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a bookkeeper in April 2007. I had moved to the city two years before, but I was still working in Warren and excited to both live and work in Detroit. In 2011 I was promoted to Accounts Receivable Specialist. If you made a donation to the museum in the last six years, I was involved in processing that transaction in one way or another.

In October 2017, the DIA demolished the Barat House in order to expand its parking lot by 65 spaces. (I recently wrote a post about the history of the building and its architect. I recommend reading that first.) Although my job was just a minor clerical position, I have decided to leave the DIA in protest of the demolition and the manner in which the decision was made. Below are the four main reasons why I believe the DIA has made a terrible mistake.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Brief History of the DIA's Parking Lots

(This is not the post where I explain why I quit my job, or make any radical political statements. This is simply a history of how the DIA came to own its parking lots, in case any readers find this information interesting.)

* * * * *

According to public property records, the Detroit Institute of Arts owns the four parking lots seen on the map below. The Cultural Center Parking Lot is the only one currently open to the public. The Barat House was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts in September 2016 and demolished to expand the Cultural Center Parking Lot in October 2017. But how did the DIA get into the parking game anyway?

The Detroit Museum of Art, founded in 1885, came to be owned and operated by the City of Detroit in 1919 and renamed the Detroit Institute of Arts. Originally housed in a building on Jefferson Avenue, the DIA moved to its current location in 1927.

Below is an aerial photo from 1961 when the Barat House was under construction, and before the museum's north and south wings were built. The sites of today's parking lots are outlined in yellow. You can see a small surface lot on the north side of the museum, which today is occupied by the museum's loading dock.

Wayne State University

Going Underground

In March 1963, construction began on a 368-space underground parking garage beneath the DIA's south lawn. Work started on the museum's new south wing that fall. When the parking garage opened on February 12, 1965, an elated Louis Cook of the Detroit Free Press called it "a giant step forward for culture in Detroit." When work began on the new north wing two months later, city officials considered adding a second parking garage beneath the north lawn, but it never came to be.

Detroit Free Press
The DIA's south wing and underground parking garage under construction, 1964.

A massive plan to clear 200 acres east of the DIA was unveiled on April 21, 1965. It called for the construction of musical and theatrical arts centers, a museum of science and technology, and a "hall of man and natural history", the basements of which would contain parking for a total of 5,750 vehicles. The grounds between the new buildings were to be landscaped with gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools.

Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1965.

This plan was of course never carried out, but off-street parking began to appear in the neighborhood. Around the early 1970s, a building that stood at 81 East Kirby Street was demolished and the land converted into a parking lot. The parking lot was owned by the City of Detroit, and use of the property was split between the DIA and the International Institute at 111 East Kirby. Below is an aerial photograph of the area from 1981. The Cultural Center Lot had not yet begun.

Wayne State University

In June 1988, the University Cultural Center Association unveiled another ambitious plan for the DIA vicinity. One feature of the proposal was an underground, 800-car parking garage to be built on the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets--the site of today's Cultural Center Parking Lot. A landscaped promenade leading to the DIA was to appear on the surface.

Detroit Free Press

The City of Detroit began to buy up the houses that sat on this block and demolish them one by one. The underground parking garage was never built, and the vacant lots were simply used as surface parking (probably as a "temporary" measure). Photos of these lost buildings from a 1976 survey of historical neighborhoods have survived. Below are a few of the homes bulldozed for the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo

In 1997, the alley that ran through the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets was officially vacated and became part of the Cultural Center Parking Lot project. To this day, the entrance and exit of the parking lot align with the former alley. Below is an aerial photograph taken that year. At this point, the City of Detroit owned the DIA and all of the parking lots outlined in yellow in this image, except for the building outlined in red.

Wayne State University

That lonely building was the First Philippian Grace Church, previously known as Bethany Tabernacle. Although the structure was not very old, the congregation considered obtaining historic designation for the church in order to protect it from demolition. "The thought that Old Bethany might be torn down someday chills Ms. (Sophia) Ellis, and with reason," wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Louis Cook in October 1979. "Several institutions in the area are coveting territory there, including the Scarab Club, for parking space." But it wasn't the Scarab Club that finally got its hands on the property. The DIA itself (and not the City of Detroit) purchased the property on July 16, 1997, paying $325,000 according to public records. The church was town down and incorporated into the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo
Bethany Tabernacle, 265 Farnsworth, in 1976.

In 2013, the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy. As part of the "Grand Bargain" that shielded the DIA's collection from the city's debtors, the City of Detroit ceased to own the DIA (including both the museum building and the art collection). Because parking revenue had always been used to support the DIA, the four parking lots would become museum property as part of the bankruptcy restructuring. The DIA reverted to an autonomous nonprofit organization and became the sole owner of these parking lots on December 10, 2014.

The underground parking garage, now in need of an extremely costly renovation, is no longer open to the public. The Barat House site is currently being converted into an extension of the Cultural Center Parking Lot. The Scarab Club is now the last structure standing on this entire city block.

And that is how the DIA came to own four acres of surface parking lots in Midtown.

Top photo: Wayne State University.
Bottom photo: Bing Maps.
The block containing the Cultural Center Parking Lot in 1948 and 2016.

Coming soon: Why I'm leaving the DIA after the demolition of the Barat House.