That Detroit is living a time of rebirth seems so obvious. Downhill should have bottomed out and hope in urban regeneration is growing among local people. Although largely abandoned, most heritage values that keeps  still the city, have on its own strength and appeal enough to attract investments and efforts as for be rebuilded and regenerated.

However … real truth is that heritage elements occupy a little surface compared to extensive urban voids that have become a postmodernity icon. This voids will still dominate the landscape for some time, and perhaps that is why present planning contemplates many central urban spaces becoming forests or fields, assuming that economic and social efforts will not be enough as space is too extensive, and only some privileged spots can be really regenerated…

Two ideas about the past and the future

For sure, Central Detroit will be regenerated, or  at least a portion of the “center”.  And also for sure, its Industrial Heritage from the “Motortown era” will play a major role on this business. Why so sure?

Oh!, because inhabitants of the wealthy Detroit Metro desperately need its central area as a Symbolic Reference, as is was since foundational times. It is a real need, and not only a marketing possibility. But is it also that. Or is that perhaps can you put a picture of an empty lot on your business card?

But to regenerate such a wide area to restore few main spots will be not enough, however symbolics they could be. The city, even only the Center, can not be an urban symbol if depopulated. In parallel with great or little investment in restoration it is necessary to carry out a revitalizing job on the diverse communities that are now living there.  And basing this work on industrial heritage is, but a necessity, if at least a great opportunity. Because success, revitalization, can only come to the improvement of the sense of place. And the place, and its sense has a lot to do with its Industrial Heritage.


The Grand Boulevard as a symbol

Among these privileged spots lies Grand Boulevard.  When was designed, it was not just a physical structure. It was also, and perhaps even more so, a conceptual construction. We can found many other new-branded cities with baroque urban pattern similar to Detroit, even in exotic places Pointe Noire in Congo or Goiânia in Brazil. Like in Karlsruhe, in all cases the will for build a symbol is quite evident. It is achieved with the generation of perspectives, routes, boundaries and other visual elements, which in turn have a strong impact on the creation of the urban image.

Grand Boulevard monumental character is based on its wide section, designed to enjoy the views. In some stretches some section is wide enough to host a large green median.

Specially interesting has this section on East Blvd. maintaining its wide green median.  Although less walkable than others sections with wider sidewalks, here allows sweeping views that enhancing buildings arranged along the avenue, as we can see on the image. Most of the section is outside Historic District.

In fact, this was the actual goal for its design. And it can be again, although much probably the large family houses of the past will not be the starring this time. Commonly, plots surface increases as distance to city center increase. It is assumed that people, if having money, ask for bigger houses with large gardens and even, in closed condominiums. Then, this wealthy people which now is living far for the center, will return to Grand Boulevard were plots are the same as always?

We don’t now. But if great residences should not return, it is possible that other kind of buildings, socially more profitable takes its place without losing heritage values. It is not a new idea, as we can see today some very interesting examples, as the  “El Tovar” apartments. But any case, even the Grand Boulevard East Historic Distritc lacks off monumental sense for the most part.

El Tovar Appartments, 1928 .  Author: Andrew Jameson – Own work

But don’t lacks for genuine Heritage at all. We can consider as Heritage its eleven miles long drawing in the past a virtual city-center border, even if such a limit has no more sense now. But also its layout, as a part of a purely industrial urban pattern, has Heritage potential. The avenue can become a symbolic/physical link between several interesting historical spots, as the old Packard factory or the Belle Isle bridge, among many others.

A suggestive image of the Grand Boulevard as it passes through the old Packard factory.  Source:UeA

In fact, this direct link with the bridge is clearly view now as a major resource for the whole Islandview neighborhood. And actually are such kind of symbolic links that improve the image, the sense of a place. Islandview can be consider for this reason one of the city most interesting neighborhoods for the near future.

But to rebirth the Grand Boulevard is not enough…

Grand Boulevard represents a major spot for city re-birthing, but it can not be a solution by its own if unrelated to local people. The common people that are now living the city.

Certainly, Detroiters now living outside city limits will make investments to revitalize the central area, because it is important as a symbol to them. Main heritage sites will be the main destinations. But near these lie many small, perhaps second level heritage elements. Many of these are unknown as such. Because heritage value also depends on the knowledge that people have about it. And that knowledge is hosted on individual and collective memory. Because we do not know that a house is interesting until someone explains why.

It is possible to extract knowledge about the place by asking people what they feel there. How they are related to their environment. How have been related in the past. For instance, through Cultural Mapping, or other qualitative research methods. The target must not be other that bring to light small, humble heritage elements that could be little relevant for a city, but very important for a street.

And for sure Detroit is plenty of such elements. And for sure people knows about it. Anycase, Grand Boulevard offers a strong basis to work on!


One thought on “Detroit Grand Boulevard, a strong symbol but…

  1. Grand Blvd is an exciting urban heritage for the City of Detroit and a topic in need of further discussion. On April 6th 2017 we are having a Jornadas where we will highlight elements about Grand Blvd at the Main Detroit Public Library auditorium. Come be a part of this exciting discussion.

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