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A very different sort of Woodward dream cruise, light rail style
Posted 8/8/2010 1:08 PM EDT on crainsdetroit.com
We needed a convertible. It’s the only proper vehicle for this kind of work, but none was available on such short notice. So we soldiered on in a Ford Taurus.
The mission was simple: Travel the entire length of Woodward Avenue, from downtown Pontiac to the heart of Detroit, checking everything out along the way. Why? Because people dream of a light rail line along Woodward's 27 miles, and some are putting up millions to make some portion of it happen. And now the feds are serious about stepping up with Big Money, at least for the portion between Hart Plaza and Eight Mile Road. This thing could become a reality and may change the face of the region forever.
Critics say it’s a wasteful $500 million luxury and that there’s no demand for it. There’s also an outcry that the short line now being proposed will be a disaster because it doesn’t reach into the suburbs to become an option for those in places like Ferndale and Royal Oak who might want to come downtown to work or play. Proponents say you have to start somewhere, and building even a short stretch will generate interest through induced demand. And besides, there’s only enough money to build the 9.3-mile stretch in Detroit, they say.
That debate will play itself. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, Saturday was a day for exploring, or at least heavy observation. I’d driven long stretches of Woodward countless times, but never really looked at life along the route, nor the physical challenges that must be conquered when engineering a mass transit rail line along the ancient road. And there are a few.
But first, music. You need the right background noise to create the proper mood for such a trip. The Doors seemed like a logical choice, but in retrospect their particular dark, surreal organ-based rhythms were wrong for a sunny August Saturday afternoon. I should have gone with some of the more gritty-urban Velvet Underground-Lou Reed stuff. More languid, less weird. But I digress; nothing I can do about it now. So it was Jim and the boys. The Lizard King would be our piper.
I equipped myself with proper tools: a big digital Nikon and one of my beloved Moleskin notebooks – the same little black books that Hemingway used. I’ve been addicted to them for years. Very handy. And there’s only one writing instrument I ever use: the Uniball Jetstream roller ball pens. I horde these things and never loan them. They’re magnificent. Black or blue only.
The day began with a massive, greasy breakfast at Louie’s, the Albanian-run place on the outskirts of Eastern Market, followed by a two-hour nap to sleep it off ... a time-honored tradition with me. It was after 1 p.m. before I could peel myself out of bed. First, there were pedestrian errands of the lifelong suburbanite variety to be done – a fruitless trip to Old Navy, the post office and then Eddie Bauer at Somerset Collection, to see if there were any final-clearance bargains for riffraff like me. There wasn’t. I did manage to find a new pair of shoes for work, to replace the ones my big feet had torn apart. Again, I digress ... my apologies. Just setting the stage.
The errands took me almost to Pontiac anyway, so the trip logically began there. Woodward forms The Loop around part of the city because, well, it’s a loop. That would solve the issue, I suppose, of how to turn the rail cars around for the trip back down Woodward (called U.S. 24 Business up here). It also appears to be an easy connection to other transit lines because the bus and Amtrak stops are along Woodward in Pontiac.
Will the rail line ever reach that far north? I have no idea, but it’s the logical and physical terminus. It could attract commuters the full 27 miles from Detroit (and vice versa), and would certainly be attractive to those who wish to patronize Pontiac’s well-known collection of clubs, such as Clutch Cargos. Has anyone ever called Pontiac the Windsor of Oakland County? Because they should. The Girls Gone Wild bus was idling outside of the church-turned-dance joint that is Clutch Cargos. I have photos at the end to prove it.
As you drive south, you enter the Bloomfields and Birmingham. It has the obvious monied East Egg feel – massive homes, a manicured tree-lined boulevard, Cranbrook, etc. If communities have the option to opt out of funding a system, such as they do with SMART, I could see that happening here. There are long stretches with no logical stopping place because it’s primarily residential, and I can’t picture Tom and Daisy Buchanan hopping a train to work. But maybe I’m wrong. And maybe there won’t be an opt-out option.
Woodward gets more lively as you travel south. Long stretches of curbside strip malls and shops blur past but are indicative of continued investment here. Every type of store catering to every sort of want, whim and need can be found along the avenue. It’s not all upscale: A few seedy motels dot the roadside. There’s even something called the Self Esteem Shop.
Eleven Mile Road was the original terminus of the proposed first leg of the rail line, the one approved in 2008 by the Big Four – the elected executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the city of Detroit. There’s not too much here – a flower store, Marathon station and a church. But you’re a short jog from downtown Royal Oak, and that is the mother lode. Royal Oak is the trendy “it” spot to hang out (and spend cash) and would certainly benefit from a nearby rail line bringing people from north and south.
After little Pleasant Ridge, there’s Fabulous Ferndale, home to more clubs and avant garde-kitschy retail. If you’ve ever said to yourself, “My God, I *have* to dance tonight to Kajagoogoo and Flock of Seagulls” then this is the city for you because it’s where Boogie Fever Café & Disco is. And if you carry your ‘80s nostalgia to the full Bright Lights, Big City excess, then a train could get you close to home without too much danger (at least if you life within reasonable stumbling distance of a station).
At Eight Mile, entering Detroit, you have the mothballed State Fairgrounds that’s rapidly being overgrown with grass and weeds. A busy SMART/DDOT bus stop indicates there is some level of mass transit need at this spot. Across the street are the massive Woodlawn and Evergreen cemeteries. Not much development opportunity there.
But also at Eight Mile, on the northbound side, is a large fenced field with a red sign touting a new 330,000-square-foot retail development called The Shoppes at Gateway (link). There is where Meijer said it will build a store, and developers plan an open-air mall of 40 stores on 35 acres at a cost of $90 million. It’s supposed to open next year, according to the sign. If this is built, it’s easier to make the case for stopping at Eight Mile – where there will be more than empty space and dead people – until more money is pooled to extend the route north.
Just south of Eight Mile is the upscale outpost known as Palmer Woods. It also marks the entry into the hardscrabble portion of the ride. There’s life along Woodward here, but it’s vastly different than the bucolic northern portion of the avenue. Instead, there are blocks of boarded-up stores and shops, and some buildings are reduced to nothing more than rubble of bricks and wood.
The surviving or thriving stores here are check-cashing joints, fast food stops, beauty supply outlets, dollar stores and seedy flop houses and motels – the symbols of urban blight, poverty and the American race story that’s told in fits and spurts. This is a very different world than Berkley and Birmingham, but there is life here and just maybe a rail line will bring the economic development that supporters promise. There are entrepreneurs here willing to spend their money in this part of Detroit, and you can see their attempts at making this neighborhood a better place (and to make some money).
Woodward through much of the northern stretch of the city and Highland Park is filled with people going about their business or just lingering on stoops and sidewalks, neighbors and friends chatting away on a warm summer afternoon. But I am very conscious of being one of the very few white faces here, and that’s something that’s going to hang over the rail project because racial issues may be the biggest subtext in metro Detroit. You can’t get away from it. And it’s one of the issues that people on both sides of the rail project discuss, but only in hushed tones and rarely in public. Will white suburbanites and black city residents both use the train? They have to, to make it anything more than People Mover V. 2.0, and this is going to have to be something discussed in the open.
We’re getting a bit too deep and philosophical. Let’s get back on track (pun slightly intended). Woodward is under construction for about a mile in the city, where MDOT is putting down a concrete surface (link). That project probably gives a glimpse of what rail construction might be like in a couple years – lots of orange barrels, single lanes and plenty of frustration. Will it be worth it?
From there, Woodward passes into the familiar big elements that make putting a rail line downtown so attractive: the major cultural centers, Wayne State, the sports stadiums (including a new hockey arena eventually, casinos, retail, restaurants, hotels, companies, etc., until you get to Hart Plaza and the Detroit River. This is the stuff the rail line’s private investors want people to ride into the city to patronize. That makes sense, and will make them some money.
There also are some stretches of vacant land, tumble-down buildings and grinding poverty here, too. At least one fellow was sleeping on the sidewalk, his worldly belongings and wheelchair parked next to him. Steps from major institutions and massive corporations are fast-food eateries with thick Plexiglas windows separating the lobby from the counter. Life is very real in Detroit.
Building the line downtown will be relatively simple. The avenue is wide and has no overhead obstructions. And let’s not forget, there were street cars operating on Woodward, so this really isn’t anything groundbreaking. It’s bringing rail back to the metro region.
Two major issues I do see:
1. If the rail line is going to run in the median, does it replace the strips of grass, trees and flowers? And how will the “Michigan Left” cut-throughs be handled? Will they be closed and turning only possible at intersections? That would be colossally inconvenient.
2. How do you co-mingle traffic – cars and trucks driven by people who did not grow up with trains on the streets – safely and effectively? Can you mass-educate people? And how would the annual Woodward Dream Cruise be affected by a train line cutting down the avenue?
These are questions the engineers and planners (and politicians and their hired guns) will tackle, and the public will be able to provide input on at upcoming meetings. Those will be some interesting exchanges, I imagine.
Will I personally use a rail line if it’s built? I live downtown and can envision myself boarding the train on Sunday morning to head north to Hi-Tops bar in Royal Oak, the only place in town that airs Cleveland Browns games during the NFL season. The Browns suffer from the same lack of winning DNA that the Lions do, so it should come as no surprise they can turn a man to drink. Having a train home just a couple of blocks away would keep me out of serious trouble after the game. Also, my lawyer is right nearby, too. Double win.
And now some obligatory background information ...
Woodward apparently began life being called Court House Avenue when it was laid out in 1805, after the massive fire that leveled much of Detroit. It eventually took the name of the man who played a key role in designing the rebuilt Detroit - Augustus B. Woodward, a Virginia native and lawyer in Washington who was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson as the Michigan Territory’s first judge, in 1805.
Judge Woodward, whom historians describes as a sort of Oscar Madison lifelong bachelor-slob character in appearance, apparently was a contentious judge who was instrumental in planning the city of Detroit (which, if you’ve tried to navigate this town, should be held against him) and the creation of the University of Michigan (which also should be held against him, says this Ohio State fan).
He died at age 52 in 1827, after having become a judge in Florida – unwittingly establishing the trend of Michiganders snowbirding south to the Sunshine State for their twilight years.
Woodward Avenue’s history is filled with milestones: It was the first concrete paved road, in 1909, between Six Mile and Seven Mile. The first electric stoplight anywhere was installed on the avenue in 1920. In June 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led 125,000 demonstrators down Woodward in a civil rights march shortly before his legendary "I Have A Dream" speech in the nation’s capital. In 1970, the former U.S. 10 become M1.
So that’s it. I don’t have any profound insights to lay on you. It’s a road and it snakes it way through just about every aspect of American life in Michigan (except maybe the woods-and-water stuff). And it will likely have trains on it again.
Below are some photos from the trip, with captions underneath each. Enjoy.
Sitting outside Clutch Cargos in downtown Pontiac. Go figure.
This is the southbound Woodward view in Bloomfield Township.
There is new construction along most of the route.
This is one of several cheap motels around Eight Mile.
The bus station near Eight Mile and Woodward.
The vacant State Fairgrounds. Future development site?
Actor Thomas Jane walks past here in the opening of HBO's "Hung."
This is where Meijer and an open-air mall are planned -- a huge boost at Eight Mile.
WNIC's Jay Towers is ubiquitous along most streets these days.
Panhandlers will lose business if there's a train on Woodward.
Also at Woodward and Eight are cemeteries. Even with new Sunday hours, this is literally and figuratively a dead zone for development.
This is looking south in a cut-through across Woodward. Will the trains take these away, or travel on either side of them? That's a major design question.
As you get into Detroit, the seedier side of life becomes more evident.
Highland Park has a stretch of new retail development, which could be replicated elsewhere along Woodward, according to transit backers.
A failed legal business and failed Chinese food business. Which failed first in this spot? Will light rail mean places like this are replaced with new investment?
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