Modern Life in the Park

Lafayette Park is a place with plenty of character. It is both historic and modern; an internationally renowned example of residential architecture and an urban district encompassing a diverse array of residential structures; anonymous and distinctive; downtown and Near East Side; urban, yet secluded; communal, yet private.

Completed in 1960, Lafayette Park is an exceptional example of modern urban architecture, as well as urban planning, according to the City of Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board. Its 26 buildings by Mies van der Rohe are his only works in Michigan and the largest collection of his buildings in the world. It includes a small shopping center.

What makes this world-class urban development a Detroit place is that it was immediately diverse, integrated by people of varied racial and social backgrounds in the 1960s and 1970s who saw this as a model urban community in a city that was losing its sense of urbanity.

As an urban district, Lafayette Park is a microcosm of Detroit, says Harriet Saperstein, a longtime resident and renowned urban planner. It contains the middle class population of the original development as well as people of all economic backgrounds in various other residential developments, some in an area known as Elmwood, and others extending east along Lafayette. This represents the urban renewal vision of Detroit circa 1960, which envisioned an area where people of all economic and social backgrounds could live together. To a large extent, that vision has been fulfilled in Lafayette Park.

Lafayette Park offers three high rise apartment buildings: Lafayette Pavilion and Lafayette Towers, designed by van der Rohe, and 1300 Lafayette East Cooperative, designed by Gunnar Birkerts. Each offers the unadorned, glass and steel feel of Lafayette Park – which van der Rohe described as the "civilizing force" of technology and the "driving and sustaining forces" of its time – complete with swimming pools and fitness centers. However, many who prefer ground level condominiums and apartments value the intimate village feeling of the area.

Lafayette Park is a short walk from downtown and Eastern Market, and a short bike ride to the cultural center, downtown, and the East Riverfront/Belle Isle. A small shopping center is built into the neighborhood on Lafayette Boulevard. It includes the Paris Café coffee shop and grocery store. There is plenty of green space, including a park, with landscape architecture dressing up the periphery of the neighborhood.

A comfortable, modern community

"It's a very comfortable place to live," says Neil McEachern, who moved here from a large historic home after tiring of maintaining a large space. His three-bedroom, 1,300 square feet coop townhouse gives him adequate space to display his art and to live comfortably.

"I like the openness," he says. "When you live in a glass house, you see your neighbors. No one becomes intrusive in your life, but you have a visual interaction with people as they come and go."

That includes a respect for relative quiet when you are living in close proximity to others. You can hear your neighbors here, not in an exact sense, but you hear their comings and goings, snippets of conversation and music.

People don't live in Lafayette Park for isolation. The very idea of cooperative living suggests community. Likewise, Lafayette Park residents don't look for unique exteriors because they are all the same. Residents take pride in the communal uniformity of van der Rohe's low scale housing and three levels of canopy landscaping, designed by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. McEachern offers small group tours of Lafayette Park.

"There is an upper story of locus trees that lets in very dappled light," McEachern says. "It’s a very easy shade, not like oaks and maples that have heavy shadow underneath. They're very sculptural when not in leaf." Unlike nearly every modern development, ver der Rohe placed the open parking lot a few feet below ground level. With the added barrier of the hawthorns, the cars are invisible.

A neighborhood and an urban district

Lafayette Park is an urban development with defined boundaries, but it is also an area identity that may include Elmwood Park to the east or the various residential areas to the south. Harriet Saperstein, a resident of Lafayette Park since 1967, views this area as inclusive of all elements as a diverse urban living environment that is not "gentrification."

Originally, Lafayette Park displaced low-income residents, but Elmwood Park was designed to help remedy that. "Elmwood 1 was urban renewal; there were relocation payments to people but they weren’t expected to stay there," says Saperstein. "Elmwood 2 was relocation and moderate level MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) housing." Elmwood 3 had the range of incomes. "You can find every single program the United States government has done in this area," Saperstein says.

Lafayette Park and Elmwood were and continue to be national models of urban renewal. "You have experimental types of housing in terms of economics, in terms of the social arrangements and you have always have a balance of race," Saperstein says. "There aren’t many areas in the country that have had that stability of race. It’s also a very respectful community. There is tolerance for different lifestyles. It’s gay-friendly; it’s single parents; it’s older people."

As for churches, you’re within a half-mile of almost any form of Christian worship. Saperstein is a member of a Jewish synagogue which just established its presence in Lafayette Park.

Commercial development

There are few areas that remain open to development. One highly visual opportunity is the space formerly occupied by a store in the Lafayette Park shopping plaza. Nearly eliminated by a development plan, and recently renovated, the shopping area offers a nightclub, Asian restaurant, video store, and coffee shop.

"I believe there is room for retail investment," Saperstein says. "I don’t understand why we still don’t have a grocery store. I strongly believe that Trader Joe's would do just fine here."

She also points to the Gratiot/St. Aubin/Vernor corner where the old Joe Muer's restaurant once stood. "It is a very interesting site with a great deal of potential. It's privately owned and it could do very well. It would not compete with, but grow and be strengthened by what's happening at Eastern Market, (which) is now more than ever before is a prime site for investment."

She also says that there is opportunity for arts development in that area.


Parents living in Lafayette Park face the same dilemma as their counterparts throughout the city: what to do when their children approach school age?

The Skillman Foundation identified six "high performing" and "improving" schools in the area: Alonzo W. Bates Academy Middle School, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Friends School in Detroit, Chrysler Elementary School, Charles L. Spain Elementary School, Woodward Public School Academy (elementary and middle schools). Chrysler Elementary and Woodward Public School Academy are in walking distance of Lafayette Park residents. Friends School in adjacent Elmwood Park, the Waldorf School in Indian Village and Holy Trinity School in Corktown, are private school options. Some Lafayette Park families are also choosing home-schooling as an option.

Becky Dudash and John Canzano have been very pleased with the quality of education at Chrysler Elementary. "Some of the teachers there are better than in private schools," says Dudash. Their daughter, Anna Rose, was one of a handful of students in the state who got 100 percent on the MEAP writing test. For middle school, Anna Rose will be going to Waldorf School. For high school, many parents in the area select Cass or Renaissance in the public school system, or private schools in suburban communities. They are planning to send their other daughter, Maria, to Holy Trinity in Corktown.

Friends School is a well-respected, community-based alternative for those seeking private education. A Quaker-sponsored school, the school admits half of its students from the Near Eastside, and 40 percent of them receive financial aid. Headmaster Dwight Wilson views his private school as a community resource. Symbolically, he has opted not to erect a fence.

"I've had parents raise their eyebrows when they find out we don't have a fence," says Wilson. "This is the only school I know in America in a city that has no fence. I don’t want a fence because I want (neighborhood) kids to be able to use our grounds as a playground." He allows children in the area to use his playscape and open grassy areas. Community groups also rent his facilities.

"To me, all kids are mine, whether they’re in this school or not," he says. "If they're in America, they're my kids. I have an obligation to them."

The area is served by two public libraries – the Elmwood Branch and the Skillman Branch downtown. The latter is known for its children's collection, as well as the National Automotive Collection.

Plenty of greenspace

Lafayette Park is indeed a park. In fact, it is two parks – separated north and south by Lafayette Boulevard – creating a commons for people living on either side. A paved parkway allows people (and their dogs) a convenient fitness course in fair weather. On its border is yet another park in the works – the Dequindre Cut greenway, which will connect Eastern Market and Lafayette Park with the Detroit International RiverWalk.

There is probably more open green space in Lafayette Park than in most of Detroit's neighborhoods. Some of it is by design. Commissioned to complement Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, landscape architect Alfred Cauldwell designed a three-level natural canopy: light leaf locus trees that rise several feet above the homes; mid-level flowering pear, dogwood, magnolia, and several types of lilacs; and the hawthorn bushes which line sidewalks.

Spring is a spectacular time to visualize Cauldwell's canopy, as well as to appreciate the contrast of high and low rise structures, and the ever-present downtown skyscrapers, glimpsed through the trees. By summer, the trees obscure the city structures and provide additional acoustic relief. In winter, the spindly locus trees wind their way into the sky, creating an additional architectural element.

In the fall, Dudash and Canzano have a tradition that many people in Michigan have, but few can say they do it in the city. They pick apples. There is a tree in one of the parks that produces an abundance of apples in the fall. It's "the most fruitful apple tree you could ever want," says Canzano, "and we get bushels of them every year."

Downtown, or Near Eastside?

If you talk to Dudash and Canzano, Lafayette Park is definitely downtown. "We can walk to all the festivities," Dudash says. From the Memorial Day electronic music festival to the Labor Day jazz festival, the family is at the riverfront or downtown. They also attend church services downtown. "We can decide five minutes before and we're there in five minutes." They walk in all weather, Dudash says.

Saperstein and McEachern share the pleasure of walking downtown, well into the evening. Safety is always a concern, but seldom an issue, they say, even walking home at night. McEachern walks to Greektown, the YMCA, and other downtown spots, all within 15 minutes of his home.

Canzano runs to the riverfront regularly. "I identify with downtown as much as anything," he says. "The map cuts us off when they talk about downtown."

Lafayatte Park is not for everyone, especially those who prefer the individual architectural statement of a historic home, or a modern house. But for those who want a unique sense of downtown urban living with close proximity to the freeway system and the riverfront, as well as the distinction of living in one of the world's celebrated urban districts, there is a real sense of the idyllic here.

Directions to Lafayette Park

From the North:
Take I-75 South toward Detroit and merge onto I-375 S/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 51C on the left toward the Civic Center. Take the exit toward Lafayette Ave and turn left onto Lafayette St. Arrive in Lafayette Park.

From the East:
Take I-94 West toward Detroit and merge onto I-75 S/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 216A toward Toledo. Merge onto I-375 S/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 51C on the left toward the Civic Center. Take the exit toward Lafayette Ave and turn left onto Lafayette St. Arrive in Lafayette Park.

From the South:
Take I-75 North toward Detroit. Merge onto I-375 S/Chrysler Fwy toward Downtown. Take the exit toward Lafayette Ave and turn left onto Lafayette St. Arrive in Lafayette Park.

From the West:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit. Merge onto I-96 E/Jeffries Fwy via Exit 213B toward Canada. Merge onto I-75 North via the exit on the left toward Flint. Merge onto I-375 S/Chrysler Fwy toward Downtown. Take the exit toward Lafayette Ave and turn left onto Lafayette St. Arrive in Lafayette Park.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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