Michigan Avenue

October 19, 2017

Michigan Avenue was built roughly following a Native American path called the Great Sauk Trail, also known as the Potawatomi Trail, across the state of Michigan. Its construction by the U.S. government served the twin needs of settler colonialism -- to facilitate transportation for would-be settlers and for military defense. The 1821 Treaty of Chicago gave the government permission to build the road through native lands.

The present-day path of Michigan Avenue provided ample opportunity to reflect on the mechanisms of domination since then. I walked from Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit through Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Inkster, Westland, Wayne, and finished in Canton Township. Just a little bit further would have taken me past Willow Run airport to Ypsilanti.

Dearborn is known for several things. First, Dearborn is dominated by Ford Motor Company and its related businesses. Henry Ford moved operations out of the city of Detroit soon after he founded the company in 1903, and now the Ford world headquarters is located in Dearborn, along with the River Rouge plant and the Henry Ford Museum. At one point, Ford owned 25% of all land in Dearborn. I passed many Ford dealers all along the way on Michigan Avenue.

Henry Ford had a paternalistic approach to his workers. He instituted an Americanization program for white European immigrant workers, which partly consisted of mandatory English language classes and home inspections from company sociologists. Ford was one of the only auto industry employers willing to hire African Americans in the early 1900s, but he soon segregated them into the "dirty, dangerous and demeaning" jobs in the company. Since racial covenants and other forms of housing discrimination kept African Americans out of Dearborn, they lived in workers housing constructed next door in Inkster, which is still predominantly black today. In fact, it's 75% African American, with a median household income of about $30,000 and 45% poverty rate. Dearborn, on the other hand, is 4% African American (yes, four percent), with a median household income of $47,000 and 22% poverty rate. I could see the difference in the buildings and houses once I hit Inkster.

Second, Dearborn had one the most outspoken advocates for segregation and racism in the north, Orville Hubbard, mayor for 36 years from 1942 to 1978. The town motto, "Keep Dearborn Clean," was widely interpreted as "Keep Dearborn White." He was tried for conspiracy in mob vandalism to the home of a white man rumored to have sold his house to an African American, but was acquitted. There has recently been controversy about a statue of Hubbard that was originally in front of the town's city hall, which has now been moved several times.

Ironically, Dearborn is now home to one of the largest communities of Arab Americans in the U.S. I passed by the Arab American National Museum on my walk, where the main exhibit inside had told me on a previous visit that the roots of the community lay with the immigration of Lebanese and Syrians in the early 1900s, many of whom worked for Ford and other auto companies.

The day had started with reference to the auto industry as well. Theophilus, my Uber driver, was an African American man in his late 60s or early 70s. He was born in Memphis, and after coming to Detroit in 1965, worked as a pipe fitter at GM for 37 years. He told me that at the plant in Pontiac where he worked, they had built cars "from the first bolt." He told me several stories of what Detroit had been like "back then." He retired in 2000 and moved from the west side to Southfield, and now spends time with his pinochle club and watches sports.

I saw a path that led to the River Rouge trail, which I didn't have time to explore but I filed away for future walks. Later on, after leaving Wayne and entering an indeterminate landscape of sprawl, I became irrationally angry at what I decided to call "vanity sidewalks." I knew intermittent sidewalks were inevitable, but there was one church that had a sidewalk just for the 25 yards of its property on the road, on either side of the car entrance to its parking lot. To add insult to injury, there was a sign posted at either end that declared "SIDEWALK ENDS."

I did hit my stride though, literally, in the last 30 minutes of the walk. I figured out how to make my gait smoother and longer, and it felt really good to walk that way. 

I finished at a Target in a vast mall of big box stores and acres of parking.

Sources:

  • Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danziger and Harry J. Holzer. Detroit Divided. Russell Sage Foundation, 2000.
  • George Galster. Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  • http://detroiturbanism.blogspot.com/2016/09/radial-avenues-part-iii-michigan-ave.html
  • https://factfinder.census.gov/

 

Some photos taken by Tim Johnson.

 

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