Cass Park Prospects

To theatergoers hitting a show at the astounding Masonic Temple, Cass Park is part of the area that must be tolerated on the way in and out of the theater.

To residents, the park is a relatively quiet near-downtown neighborhood with affordable rents as a tradeoff for a few warts to endure.

To students of Cass Technical High School, it is likely just a place to walk through on the way to a bus stop.

To do-gooders, it is place to feed an indigent population that, in a classic Catch-22, then uses the park as a gathering place.

This small area of Midtown boasts a true urban park, significant architecture, prime location, and some issues that, after first glance, are more complicated than they might seem.

Historic district

The Cass Park district is bounded roughly by Park Avenue, Charlotte, the Lodge and 1-75. It was added to the national register of historic places in 2005.

It includes several significant buildings, including the inspiring Masonic Temple, built in 1926. Its veritable labyrinth of rooms includes a 4,645-seat auditorium and a 1,546-seat cathedral. The largest Masonic Temple in the world, it’s seen it all – from secretive ceremonies and illicit raves to over-the-top weddings and crash-bang roller derby.

On Second Avenue west of the park sits the former headquarters of the Kresge Corp., which was designed by Albert Kahn and was built in 1928. The south end of the park is anchored by the new Cass Tech building, built in 2005; its predecessor sits to the south, awaiting new life.

The park itself is a formal square with statuary, angled paths and, as of 2007, fitness equipment. It, like downtown’s Capital Park, has been blessed with the retention of the vast majority of buildings that ring it, giving it the "enclosure" that Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, deemed as one of three features that urban parks must have in order to be successful.

The second criterion is "centering," comprised of "crossroads" and a "pausing point" – in this case, the park's angled walkways lead anyone meandering through to such a center.

Jacobs’ third point is where Cass Park both succeeds and fails: "intricacy." She uses the term to mean that the park can serve many different purposes, both passive and active. A mother can sit on a bench and feed her child while a gaggle of girls and boys chases each other around. A retiree can enjoy an afternoon book while a jogger laps him several times.

Cass Park does serve many needs and many audiences. Where it stalls, though, is that not all of these needs leave savory remains for the other users of the space.

A resident’s perspective

Jim Young has lived in the Cass Corridor for 17 years. A decade ago, he bought a 37-unit apartment building on Second, east of the park, and is intimately familiar with the pros and cons of the area. He has both organized and participated in numerous park clean-ups, including the one sponsored by Men’s Health Magazine that included the installation of the exercise-scape. He is also active in the Cass Park Neighborhood Development Corp.

Young gets frustrated with the unsanctioned revivals and food handouts that take place every weekend, leaving behind a mess – which is basically all that Masonic Temple-goers ever get to see of the space. "It’s really not the huge drug den that it is on the weekends," he says. "If you were driving around out and about on a weekend, you would see a zoo and assume it is always like that – but it's not."

Young is patently not against helping the poor and needy, he just thinks his neighborhood should not have to bear the cleanup tag of the charitable efforts that happen to take place on his doorstep. He points out Mariner’s Inn, just around the corner on Ledyard at Cass, as an example of an organization that keeps up appearances while serving a mission.

He is encouraged by the possibility of Olympia Entertainment taking over the programming at the Masonic. "Anything that gets the Masonic used is good by me," he says. A recent restoration surcharge added to the price of Masonic tickets is another encouraging sign that the sprawling complex will be afforded a makeover of some sort.

Long view

It seems intuitive that Cass Park is ripe for development: it is literally surrounded by major developments.

To the south is downtown’s entertainment district. To the west is the MotorCity Casino complex and to the north, Midtown’s activity. To the east is Brush Park, which is seeing an influx of rehabs as well as new construction.

Young has been around long enough to be pragmatic in his hopes and dreams for his neighborhood. “Everyone in Detroit wants it to change overnight,” he says. “It hasn’t changed that much in 20 years – but improvements are visible and always heartening.”


Masonic Temple

Cass Tech

The Old Kresge Headquarters, Now the Metropolitan Center for High Technology

An Apartment Building on Second Facing the Park

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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