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Culture

History of the mystery

 

Published 8/4/2004

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It starts and stops and starts again. It runs north, south, east and west, twisting in long curves and turning in sharp angles. There are residential, commercial and industrial sites, sometimes all within a few blocks of each other.

Outer Drive is one bizarre road, stretching more than 40 miles in a jagged horseshoe from the East Side at Mack Avenue (the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Park border) to Jefferson Avenue in Ecorse Downriver.

Newspaper and magazine articles contained in the Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library provide insight into what has to be one of the oddest city thoroughfares in the country.

A Detroit News article from 1922 provides this account of the road’s origins:

“With its end at the extreme east and west sides of Detroit, its route clustered with beautiful subdivisions, potential residence districts, school sites, park areas and parkways, an Outer Drive, still unnamed, is fast emerging from its state as the dream of a former Detroit mayor into a reality.

“The history of the Outer Drive is brief. A committee was appointed by Mayor Oscar B. Marx, in February, 1918, to study the advisability of such a highway. Members of the committee had no sooner investigated the project than they became interested. Interest led to something akin to enthusiasm when a comprehensive report was filed recommending ‘a boulevard 150 feet wide to encircle the city eight miles from its center on the east and north, connecting with Oakman Highway on the west.’”

A 1929 article in Michigan Women magazine predicts a “great pleasure boulevard” that will “lie like a necklace around Detroit …”

“It was laid out as a grandiose parkway,” explains architect Tom Sherry. “It was not intended to move traffic efficiently from Point A to Point B. It was intended to be a picturesque drive.”

The concept, he says, can be traced to the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where an urban planning model dubbed “City Beautiful” was unveiled. Conceived in reaction to the industrial age, the model provided city planners with strategies to reclaim urban areas from factories and skyscrapers by envisioning development on a more human scale.

“It was a broad, sweeping philosophy,” explains Sherry, saying the intent was to create “the ultimate city for the working man.”

The best-known example of this type of planning approach is Lakeshore Drive in Chicago.

The problem with Outer Drive is that it was built piecemeal. To expedite construction, it was linked to existing roads whenever possible. That explains why it suddenly becomes part of Chandler Park Drive, for instance.

South of the State Fairgrounds the stretch of road is called, appropriately, State Fair. West of Woodward, near Palmer Woods, neighborhood associations in the 1920s successfully blocked construction, claiming the increased traffic would hurt property values.

Although much of Outer Drive has what Sherry calls a “signature” look characterized by individually designed, expertly crafted brick Tudors and colonials, with bungalows and more modern designs mixed in, the look is not consistent throughout because construction came subdivision by subdivision. “You move through the city, the status of different neighborhoods kind of changes,” says Sherry.

These days, that status ranges from some of southeast Michigan’s most affluent addresses to blighted ghetto with dilapidated rental properties and burned-out, abandoned buildings.

But, for the most part, points out Sherry, Outer Drive has managed to escape the flight to suburbia that has devastated other parts of Detroit. It’s maintained its reputation as a status address.

“Outer Drive,” says Sherry, “is a fairly good remnant of City Beautiful thinking. And, mostly, it works.”

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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