Walk Don't Run

To say that Detroit is a walker's paradise is something of an overstatement. Unfortunately, we don't have La Rambla, Champs-Élysées or Fifth Avenue to remind us of how being alive in a city can transform what most of us consider exercise into sheer pleasure. Distance magically shrinks in great urban places that have a lot of “stuff” to see along the way. Impressive buildings (both large and small) provide the backdrop to lively streetscapes that catch the eye and stir the imagination.

To say that Detroit has the bones of a walker’s paradise is most certainly an understatement. We’ve got great building blocks—landmarks that other cities, including places like Barcelona, Paris and New York would kill to get their hands on. To be sure, we’ve got our share of interesting urban texture, from numerous residential historic districts to all manner of businesses, churches, and institutions, each speaking volumes to our city’s rich cultural heritage.

What Detroit tends to miss is the in-between space that ties our districts and landmarks together in a cohesive way. And so, our city’s great walk, say down Woodward, from the Cultural Center to the river, is diminished.  It takes more imagination to be inspired, and there is less impetus to try.

From its beginnings over 30 years ago, Preservation Wayne understood that in its quest to preserve, promote, and protect the buildings that define Detroit, people must be given the opportunity and the tools to experience the built environment if they are to understand their place within it. And while the concept of the guided walking tour is not new, its use as a vehicle to get people engaged in their environment was, and continues to be, a novel way to achieve the goal.

As part of its strategy to save Wayne State’s historic Mackenzie House, and other important Cultural Center icons in the 1970s—years of widespread building demolition by the University—Preservation Wayne leadership recognized that an effective way to get people to care about a building or neighborhood was to literally get people into that building or neighborhood. Numerous tours were held in and around campus, and through houses like Mackenzie, and others, to build awareness. Doing this meant people could physically connect to a house or building; learn about its history, its context, and why it was important.

After several initial battles, and for many years to follow, Preservation Wayne shifted its focus to East Ferry Avenue, to advocate for the street’s reuse and restoration. The stately mansions and homes that lined this street, located one block north of the Detroit Institute of Arts, were largely vacant and underutilized, and their future was far from certain.  

East Ferry Avenue represented a rare opportunity for Preservation Wayne. The buildings along its five blocks between Woodward and I-75 were largely intact and were generally of a very high quality of construction, representing several architectural styles. In the first block off Woodward in fact, several mansions of exquisite detail and craftsmanship, like the Hecker-Smiley Mansion and Charles Lang Freer House remained in remarkably good shape.  

Moreover, the story of the people of East Ferry was a compelling one, with the narrative of Detroit’s industrial elite intermingling with the progressions of an upper middle class Jewish population, and subsequent African-American community that flourished in the 1920s-60s, utilizing many of the homes for business, educational, fraternal and institutional use.

With East Ferry’s combination of architecture and history as a basis, Preservation Wayne developed walking tours that exposed people to a part of the city many had never been. The tour became as much about making a case for saving East Ferry as it was about telling the street’s story, over and over again, especially during events like Festival of the Arts. In time, as more people learned about East Ferry, a common vision began to emerge that would eventually see the street placed on the national register, as well as a master planning effort in the mid 1990s that helped inspire what would become the Inn on Ferry Street by 2002.

In the new millennium, Preservation Wayne continued to build its tour program. As part of the Detroit 300 celebration in 2001, the group initiated an ongoing series of weekly walking tours to highlight other important districts and buildings that make Detroit so special.  Several neighborhoods were considered, based on their walkability, accessibility to visitors, and whether or not the areas already had tour programs in place.  

Today, five neighborhoods are explored every week: Downtown, Eastern Market, Midtown, the Cultural Center, and the site of automotive heritage at Milwaukee Junction. From the height of a 40-story building in the Financial District to the independent produce stalls of Eastern Market’s Shed 2, the tours offer a sense of the city’s range of scope and activity.  From the incredible story of automotive innovation at Ford’s Piquette Plant, to the Beaux Arts beauty of the Detroit Public Library, to the Victorian cobblestones of West Canfield, the tours offer a sense of the city’s endeavor, culture and residential past and possibilities.

Other periodic tours, such as this summer's Movie Palaces tour, now in its 19th year, give people a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of Detroit’s entertainment district. The dots were connected in the area around Grand Circus Park, with guides offering backstage access and a wealth of information about venues such as the Fillmore (formerly the State Theatre), former Michigan Theatre, Detroit Opera House, Music Hall, Gem and Century, Fox and City theaters.

By and large, the people that seek out to know Detroit through walking tours acknowledge the city in a new way. Often comments like “I had no idea”, or “I never looked at it that way”, are heard between tour stops, and in many cases the spaces between places do manage to shrink in people’s minds. There is new understanding created when a new perspective is attained, even if it’s only from a pedestrian level.  

Building an appreciation for the city by walking through it is a pretty simple idea. I’d encourage you to try by taking the first step. In my mind the next step, reshaping Detroit into the place we all know it can be, should focus on leveraging the building blocks that are already there with a story to tell.  And before too long, we may be surprised to be delighting in a walker’s paradise called Detroit. Crazier things have happened…

After six years and thousands of satisfied customers, Preservation Wayne’s Detroit Heritage Tour Series is going strong, with departures every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. and Tuesday evenings at 5:30 p.m. until the end of September.

Please join us for our fall Historic House Party at the beautifully restored Detroit River Place, this Thursday, Sept. 13, 7-9 p.m. There will be wine, hors d'oeuvres and special guest John Stroh III. RSVP here.

Francis Grunow is Executive Director of Preservation Wayne and a longtime contributor to Model D.


West Canfield Street

Hecker - Smiley Mansion

Home on West Canfield

Lewis College of Business Original Home, Michigan's First Certified Black College

Merrill Palmer Institute, originally the Charles Freer Mansion

The Inn on Ferry Homes

Ford's original Model T factory

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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