Green City Diaries: Paradise found

Consider Detroit, before it was Detroit. 
Before the Emergency Financial Manager, before Kwame, before the Renaissance Center. Before cars and highways, black flight and white.

Before Hastings Street and suburban sprawl, Boblo, Deco, and Pingree's potato patches. Before dirt roads, ribbon farms, and enterprising New Frenchmen in birchbark canoes.
We can begin to know this distant, verdant place secondhand, through a letter written by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac to Louis XIV in 1702, one year after French settlement.
Cadillac describes a river of "sweet water," linking "a lake which has been called St. Claire" and the Great Lakes, via the St. Lawrence River, to the Atlantic. 
"This river or strait of the seas is scattered over," he writes, " its plains and on its banks, with large clusters of trees surrounded by charming meadows....On the banks and round about the clusters of timber there is an infinite number of fruit trees, chiefly plums and apples. They are so well laid out that they might be taken for orchards planted by the hand of a gardener."
Cadillac's letter contains a rich description of what sounds like another place entirely, an "earthly paradise of North America" abundant with things that grow (as well as crawl, hop, fly, swim, and slither). Looking back on what's happened here in the intervening 300 years, including the displacement of native peoples, the industrial revolution, and a turbulent period of post-industrial decline, it's hard not to think of Detroit as a kind of paradise lost.
But even today, after centuries of development and environmental degradation, traces of the original landscape remain. And some Detroiters find themselves drawn to these sites, where they can escape the pressures of daily life and commune with the natural world that once proliferated here without having to leave the city limits. 
With Spring doing its thing all over the city, now is a good time to check in with some of these Detroiters and see what they have to teach us about the vital, nourishing relationships we can all build with the nature that's still here, hiding in plain sight.
The most apparent remaining feature of the lost landscape is the Detroit River, still coursing 32 miles, as it has for more than 10,000 years, from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. Detroiters today are fortunate to have direct, comfortable access to significant portions of the riverfront thanks to the efforts of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, but it hasn't always been that easy.
Cleatrice Grigsby, 72, remembers the rocky riverfront lunch breaks she used to take when she worked at the Mark Cross boutique in the new Renaissance Center in the late '70s. (A noteworthy aside: before that, she was the very first black model at Hudson's fabled downtown department store, hired in 1964.)

Every day, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend, Cleatrice would take her lunch and head toward the river, while the rest of her coworkers went out to restaurants or down to Hart Plaza. 
"It was all rocks then!" she explains. "Maybe there would be a few fishermen, but nobody else. I would go, sit on the rocks, and just watch the water."
Besides a few years spent in California as a young woman, Cleatrice has lived in Detroit all her life. During that time, she's developed a profound relationship with the river, from those early, quiet lunches to her recent commendation, two years in a row, as the Riverfront Conservancy's top volunteer. 
"The river," she says, "has always been therapeutic to me. There's just something about it. It lets you forget all your troubles. And what it's doing sometimes determines what you're doing. It's so still, sometimes, it says to you, 'You be still, too, and watch me.' But other times it's busy, it's restless. It's doing all kinds of things, just like you, like your soul, it's all over the place."
During Riverwalk construction several years ago, Cleatrice remembers how she would excitedly ask every construction worker she encountered when the project would be finished. She recalls the "awesome feeling" of walking on it the first day it opened in 2007.

Now, during the warmer months, she spends time just about every other day on the river, which she can walk to from her home. She delights in the various species of birds that gather in William Milliken State Park, as well as the companionship offered by her fellow River Walkers. But mostly it's the restorative rhythms of the river itself that keep her coming back.
"If I've got a problem with something, I know I have to walk down to Chene Park along the river. I have a special rock there. Sometimes the ducks are there, sometimes they're not. After sitting awhile, watching the water, I realize that whatever my problem is, it's going to be all right. And the water confirms that."
Dan Scarsella finds a similar peace in a somewhat more secluded and unexpected patch of Detroit's original landscape: Witherell Woods, a 90 acre forest inside Palmer Park.  
Home to massive oak and beech trees that are more than 300 years old, as well as their numerous offspring, Witherell Woods is considered a virgin forest, an extraordinarily well preserved living museum of the region's long-lost landscape.
Dan gives me a guided tour of the woods, during which he explains that after being carved by glaciers, the area known today as Palmer Park was partially submerged, for a time, under glacial Lake Maumee. Other parts of the park formed sandy beach ridges. (I was struck by a glimpse of subterranean sand that had been exposed around the roots of a fallen tree.)

The ground in Witherell Woods swells in surprising, gentle slopes that are characteristic of the post-glacial native terrain before it was leveled for development. In fact, besides the man-made hill on the riverfront, Witherell Woods contains the highest point in the city, a patch of ground and path surrounded by seven grand old oaks (the "Seven Sisters," according to Dan.)
Dan's an active member of People for Palmer Park, the nonprofit that has made great strides in recent years reviving the lush, 120 year old public park and turning it into a sustainable park model. He's drawn to Witherell Woods for many reasons: the history (the woods' namesake, James Witherell, born in 1759, maintained that natives often camped on the high ground of the Seven Sisters grove), the animals (he's especially fond of a family of foxes and is trying to get better at identifying different bird species), and the opportunity it provides to slow down and observe the natural cycle of birth, growth, death, and life-giving decay.
He takes great solace in the place, visiting several times a week. "I like that it's older than we are," he explains. As we walk along the recently cleared trails and he points out some of the oldest trees, trying (unsuccessfully) to wrap his arms around one of them, I ask why he returns. There are a few quiet moments while he thinks about it.
"To get rid of the stress of my life," he finally answers. "In the summer, at dusk, if you stand in the middle of this one beech grove, you can't hear a single car. You don't even know you're in the city anymore. People think they have to go up north, drive far away, to get this, but it's actually just five or ten minutes away. You can come here and walk around, and your troubles just disappear. For a little while, anyway."
Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. Special thanks to Amy Elliott Bragg of the Detroit history blog Night Train Detroit for answering my questions about Detroit's early landscape and pointing me to Cadillac's letter.
For more suggestions about where to go in Detroit to spend time with nature, check out our Natural Spaces wiki page. Is there a spot you're especially fond of? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
Signup for Email Alerts