Where industry and ecology collide: The future of the lower Rouge, Detroit's other riverfront

On the lower Rouge River near the mouth of the Detroit River, a bridge to the past and future is under construction. Land, water, history, industrialization, and ecological restoration converge on a small piece of shoreline below the new Fort Street Bridge, the first bicycle/pedestrian crossing over one of the nation's more significant -- and polluted -- waterways.

A loose coalition of environmental, academic, and industrial interests known as the Fort Rouge Gateway Project (FRoG), is collaborating with the Michigan Department of Transportation to establish a pocket park, a kayak launch, a historic interpretive exhibit, and a reconstructed natural habitat on the property to either side of the new bridge. The project is the latest of over 20 years' worth of efforts to clean and re-naturalize the 127-mile-long river.

The bridge will serve as a connection hub between Detroit Greenways, Downriver Linked Greenways, and Rouge Gateway Greenways. In addition, a wildlife habitat and urban forest is envisioned for the Oakwood Heights neighborhood where the Marathon Oil Company has been buying homes from residents and razing them to create a "green buffer" around its expansive refinery. There are also plans for the environmental restoration of Fordson Island and its adjacent "oxbow" bend in the Rouge.

In addition to its ecological significance, the Fort Street Bridge is a landmark of the modern labor movement. On March 7, 1932, thousands of unemployed auto workers attempted to march peacefully to the gates of the Ford Rouge factory to present Henry Ford with a list of grievances. They were met violently on the Fort Street Bridge by the firehoses and firearms of Ford's Service Department and the Dearborn Police. When the skirmish subsided, five protesters were dead and over 60 were injured. (Read more about the 1932 Ford Hunger March here.)

Paul Draus, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a proponent of FroG, sees the Fort Street bridge construction project as a unique moment for the Southwest Detroit/Downriver Delta communities of Wayne County.

"How can we celebrate and resuscitate the environmental resources we have, including major wetlands and bird breeding grounds, and also celebrate our industrial and cultural history?" he asks.  

Sam Lovall, a landscape architect who specializes in ecological projects, has worked on various projects along the Rouge for more than two decades. He created initial plans for the FRoG interpretive park/kayak launch and a reconstructed natural habitat. Lovall, who has paddled a kayak on the Rouge, says it offers a much different experience than other rivers, one which is uniquely rewarding.

"When you kayak a natural river, it's an adventure," Lovall says. "What's exciting about the Rouge is that there is an element of danger, a little bit of fear [along with] the adventure, challenge, and excitement. This is an area that people don't usually go into. There's a bit of an uncomfortable feeling. You're out of scale with everything; everything is way bigger than you. It's an adventure in a different way. People are starting to discover it as very exciting."

While it's not the Au Sable, Lovall argues that there's a "juxtaposition of the (natural) environment with out-of-scale structures" that makes the lower Rouge intriguing.

"When you're in a kayak and you're nose-to-nose with a freighter, the scale factor gives you a very strange feeling."

Developing a water trail

As a child, Sally Petrella was fascinated with upper branch of the Rouge which flowed through her Birmingham neighborhood. Her ecological sensibilities were roused by a whim: she and friends decided to clean a section of the river.

"[We'd] pull junk out and come home full of Rouge mud and smelling bad," says Petrella.

It was fun and seemed like the right thing to do, inspiring a career as biologist and passion for the more grueling work of cleaning and restoring the 127-mile waterway. She is now the volunteer manager for Friends of the Rouge, an organization dedicated to promote restoration and stewardship of the Rouge River ecosystem.

In 2003, Petrella led an exploratory team of canoeists on a five-mile trip down the lower Rouge tributary to determine its viability as a canoe route and scout locations for launches and rest stops. The group encountered several log jams, which are natural habitats for fish but impediments for canoeists. They determined that small openings in the log jams would preserve fish habitats while allowing canoes to pass.

Sally Petrella

Today, the Friends of the Rouge are developing an extensive water trail on the the river. The FRoG Project will serve as an important piece of the larger trail.

Petrella also conducts an annual frog and toad survey, training volunteers to recognize the reptiles' calls in springtime along the Rouge watershed. The American Toad is common along the Rouge, but there are "surprising pockets of diversity," including three species identified on the Ford Rouge plant property.

"I'm really excited about a project that brings people closer to the river," she says. "For so long people have wanted to turn away from the river. They saw it as a sewer...you don't want to go near it, you don't want to touch it. This project symbolizes turning back to the river and embracing it as the resource that it is."

Placemaking involves the convergence of historical memory and significance with natural pathways and ecological vision. It's less about nostalgia and more about significance and "enchantment," says Lovall.

"There's something unique about that place that stays in your memory. People who have grown up here know this as a place to raise families and earn good money...That's a place in itself that people can identify with."

As a sociologist, Draus is interested in reintroducing natural habitat in a heavily industrialized area and the potential for environmental remediation.

"[The FRoG Project] offers the potential for thinking long-term, for introducing this transforming vision, for giving people a different perspective on where they live," he says.

Generations of motorists have cruised over the Rouge on I-75 -- even over the Dix, Fort Street, and Jefferson Avenue bridges -- without taking time to look at the river, much less care about its ecological importance. As the Buddhist tradition teaches, paying attention leads to insight.

"There's a kind of visual allure to the juxtaposition of this epic industrial landscape and the natural world, which was what really made [industry] possible in the first place," Draus says. "You'll notice when you go by the river, great blue heron are there. Ducks are there. They're not avoiding the region. If you reestablish the habit for them to come back to, they come back. You start to see, in a sense, where we came from."

Draus, one of Petrella's volunteer frog surveyors, chose the Fort Rouge Gateway Project's acronym (FRoG) for its symbolism.

"The frog symbolizes environmental adaptation," says Draus, "but also environmental sensitivity."

In some ways, he says, this project represents a "back to the future" moment. Like explorers 300 years ago, the FRoG proponents are staking a "toehold" on a frontier, though this one is post-industrial.

"We have to wrap our minds around the idea that it is possible to think differently," Draus says. "It wasn't always like this. It doesn't have to stay like this. It got this way because of decisions we collectively made as a society. We can collectively, as a society -- or even as motivated groups of individuals -- alter the path of where our region has to go."

The Friends of the Rouge and Riverside Kayak will co-sponsor an industrial tour of the Lower Rouge River on Saturday, Sept. 20. Contact 734-285-2925 for details.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.