Dequindre Cut: The Missing Link

Not so long ago, up until 1982 to be exact, a metro Detroit commuter could hop on a passenger train in Royal Oak and jump off within a short walking distance of the then-6-year-old Renaissance Center.

The train would race south through Ferndale, slice through the western boundary of Hamtramck, and through various residential and industrial sections of Detroit, before it reached a declining piece of landscape called the Dequindre Cut. The track entered the Cut on the northern edge of Eastern Market, near Wilkins St., and remained 25 feet below the surface until it matched the grade of the streetscape in what was then a growing nightclub and restaurant district called Rivertown.

Commercial train traffic continued for a few more years, followed by 20 years of abandonment and neglect. As so often happens in Detroit, however, that combination stoked fires of artistic inspiration, creating a natural canvas for guerrilla painters, sculptors and writers, who remade portions of the mile-long stretch into an unofficial art park.
Visual tours of the cut have been documented and appear, among other places, in The Detroiter and in a gallery on Detroit Yes! Home of the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.

But it was also dark and foreboding, and difficult to access; none but the bravest urban explorers were likely to venture in.

Soon the Dequindre Cut’s inaccessibility — but hopefully not its romantic allure — is about to change.  

Breaking ground

By the end of the year, groundbreaking for a non-motorized trail, to include separate biking and walking paths, is expected to take place. Completion of the project — which is funded by $3.4 million provided by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan’s GreenWays Initiative, a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Michigan Department of Transportation — is scheduled for spring of next year.

An endowment totaling $2 million has also been created to provide funds for maintenance of the Dequindre Cut. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will perform those duties.

The project is being overseen by the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP), which in 2003 was granted $98,750 by the GreenWays Initiative to put the plans into motion.

Jim Sutherland of the DDP says some of the impetus for developing the Cut for pedestrian uses came out of the city’s failure to realize another high-profile project.

“When casinos were planned for the riverfront, the Cut was where the freeway (an extension of I-375) was going to be built,” Sutherland says.

But after much legal and political wrangling, the casinos were built elsewhere, making the corridor available for alternative transit possibilities.

Sutherland says that community advocacy groups like the Riverfront East Alliance and another representing the Lafayette-Elmwood neighborhood (home to approximately 15,000 residents) were key players in moving the project forward.

“The stakeholders (who will be able to use the trail) brought the desire necessary to make this happen,” Sutherland says.

First phase

When finished, the Dequindre Cut will be a non-motorized “people mover” linking the Detroit River, the RiverWalk, Tri-Centennial State Park — still in the planning and development stages — with Eastern Market. A spoke to Midtown, including access to Detroit’s Cultural Center and Wayne State University, is also under consideration. A link to the trail from Hamtramck is being overseen by the group Preserve Our Parks.
Sutherland says that linkage is a long-range goal, but still faces obstacles.

“Another company owns the stretch of track between Hamtramck and the Dequindre Cut,” he says. “It is part of the regional vision to create links (farther north) … but there is currently no connection between the projects in the first phase.”  

Some of the details of phase one of the project include:
• The path will stretch one mile in length, running north and south along half of the former rail corridor. The paved path will be 20 feet wide and will include separate lanes for bicycle and foot traffic.
• The other half will be left in natural grasses and reserved for potential future rail transit. The possibility still exists, Sutherland says, that in the future a light rail line could be developed in the cut.
• The pathway will include lighting and security cameras.
• Landscape modification includes selective clearing of underbrush, preservation of specimen trees and selective planting of appropriate native species.
• ADA compliant access ramps will be placed at Lafayette Street and Gratiot Avenue, at the southern end of Eastern Market. The ramps will be able to accommodate maintenance and emergency vehicles.
• Sutherland says because the Cut has already seen organic development by artists, the DDP supports keeping the area as an art park. “It makes sense to keep it going rather than try to develop a similar concept elsewhere,” he says.
The anchor

The centerpiece of the plan is Eastern Market, where 30,000 to 40,000 metro Detroiters spend time strolling, shopping and dining each Saturday.

The benefits of having a pedestrian and bicycle trail running a few blocks east of Russell Street thrills Kimberly Hill, executive director of the Eastern Market Advancement Coalition. Hill says that getting people to the market more often is one of the goals of her group.

“We just love the fact that the trail has the potential of bringing more people to the market,” says Hill, whose group has worked with the Downtown Detroit Partnership on a reinvestment strategy that will upgrade the produce sheds, making them available to the public year-round and open at least five days a week.

She says the fact that one of the two access points to the Dequindre Cut will be in Eastern Market “is a big plus for us. Part of the strategy is to create an urban environment that will include more shops, more boutiques, more options for food and entertainment. Cleaner, better organized, but still retaining our historic look and feel: that’s our goal.”

Hill says in five years she envisions a thriving marketplace nearly every day of the week, with people reaching Eastern Market from downtown via the Cut.

“I think the trail will bring more residents who live nearby to the market more often,” she says. “I see a market full of people in the future. I’m excited.”

All photos copyright Dave Krieger

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Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.