Category Archives: Lost TreasureImage
As I descended into Detroit, I realized I’d lucked out with my window seat. As we flew west, I looked north to this view of the city of Detroit and nearby Windsor:
When I looked out the window to take this picture, I put down my book, Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle. I had literally just finished the astounding story of alcohol being smuggled across this river during Prohibition. Martelle writes:
“…providentially it must have seemed, wartime prohibition laws across the river in Canada ended on January 1, 1920, a little more than two weeks before the American booze spigot was officially shut off” (Martelle, 104).
Powerful forces across this area of America looked to Detroit and the potential for illicit trade just across the Detroit River. There is no estimate for the extent of this underground empire, but both sides of the river saw a new market for rapid growth. And then I read about how this market, artificially created by a constitutional amendment, began to change the lives of locals.
“The smuggling business was so good that Canadian farmers gave up spring planting in favor of rum-running, letting their fields on the south side of the river lie fallow as they moved booze across the river in small launches.”
Everything changed in two weeks for the liquor export business in Windsor and the traditional way of life was left for new enterprise. And then I thought, this whole city has become like a fallow field: left for new opportunities and markets.
Detroit was planted, the city was carefully nourished and developed, and then it was left with no regard for heritage or tradition. The money ran dry (or ran away) and the people left with it. I guess, as much as you love a place, you have to feed yourself and your family. Even if you had a job you might have feared for your life. Detroit became a loser, a bad bet, and an unstable place to live:
“In March 2011, the US Census reported that the population of Detroit…had dropped to 714,000 people, down by a quarter-million since 2000 and by more than 1.1 million people from its peak of 2.8 million residents in 1950…” (Martelle, XII).
As Windsor plodded along at a casual, Canadian pace, Detroit rose to global fame and fell to national shame.
Today, people are overcoming the stigma that descended upon Detroit all those years ago and realizing there is still much to love. I’m amazed by the beauty and drama of the buildings and the potential of the space around them. And I’m not just squinting my eyes and using my imagination.
I don’t know what’s next for Detroit, but I’m glad to be here to see it unfold. The descent has been devastating and has left a shell of a place. I don’t know what Detroit can become without heavy industry, but creative citizens here are working to figure it out.
I’m just a tourist inspired by a story.
Looking through Google maps I spotted this section of downtown Detroit, almost completely erased for a highway and parking lots:
“Not Even Past,” a blog produced by the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, just posted a piece about streetcars in the city. It’s amazing how similar the story of one American city is to the next.
Just about anyone who loves Richmond has heard a story about streetcars: Did you know Richmond invented streetcars? Did you know that Ginter Park was a streetcar suburb? Did you know they piled them up and burned them all in the 50s?
And so the stories go, a hint of nostalgia here and a tinge of sadness there.
If you don’t love cars and highways, odds are good that part of you longs for streetcars. You also might have loved Richmond in the early 1900s when the city was denser (16,000 residents per square mile), connected (more than 80 passenger trains arrived in Richmond daily) and dynamic (real estate values doubled on Grace St. in the 20s.) Yes, this was the time of crowded streets, industrial haze, and grand plans to make our cities beautiful. In many ways, streetcars have come to represent this era as a symbol of the public good and a physical commitment to the life of the city.
From 1888 to 1949, the streetcar reigned as the liberator of urban life. No more stench of horse manure! No more flies! No more walking for miles in the rain! Streetcars filled a need for transportation with incredible efficiency and in a matter of years became an integral part of this growing city. But just as streetcars have come to represent the dense, thriving city, their removal has become a symbol of mid-century American planning and desire for change. As streetcars were ascending to power, the wealthiest of Americans were already turning their attention to the unbounded freedom of the automobile. The military also took note during WWI and afterwards paraded trucks through cities across the entire nation. Compared to cars, streetcars were standing still. You know the rest of the story: highways, suburban sprawl, urban decay/destruction, new neighborhoods, new churches, new malls.
But that’s not really how I want this story to end. Rather than chase cars through the next 60 years of history, I want to remain in the moment that the streetcar era ended and the very memory of streetcars began to fade. The moment when the Richmond City Council passed ordinance No. 51-45 and decided to remove every last piece of streetcar infrastructure from Richmond’s “streets, alleys, bridges and public places therein.” When I found this page in the city council records, I was struck by the wording of the ordinance:
The process just seemed so easy and the change so vast. I pictured a huge eraser passing over the city, wiping away all of that clumsy streetcar infrastructure. The people of Richmond were changing, the city itself was changing, and transportation would never be the same. The streetcar, it seems, couldn’t leave fast enough.
For more artifacts from my research, check out my Archives page.
There is nothing more creative than adaptive reuse. In a world of earth movers and concrete slabs, redeveloping old buildings has become more rare than starting from scratch. Adaptive reuse forces creative builders to work in an existing space and create something that honors the history of the space while also recreates a new use for old bricks.
My favorite current adaptive reuse project in Richmond is the Live/Work Lofts at Beckstoffer’s Mill. I like this project because it’s compact (one city block), extremely well-done (down to the brick sidewalks), and it’s in the middle of a neighborhood. The old wood mill has been reimagined and resurrected for twenty-first century use. Yay for creativity and hard work in Church Hill.
This is a part of my, Cataloguing Richmond series on my RVA page.
Since I’ve received so much feedback for an early post on the Kickers buildings in East Texas, I wanted to add a new post on a building in Richmond that attempts to “be” what it is (a “duck” a la Venturi). The old Richmond Dairy Company building on Jefferson and Marshall has intrigued me since the first day I saw it. An gothic-style brick building, there are three corners that were built out, rounded and shaped like giant milk bottles. The best thing about this building design? Don’t need a sign.
This post is part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.