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DESIREE COOPER: Recognition welcome for a city gem

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DESIREE COOPER: Recognition welcome for a city gem

January 27, 2005

BY DESIREE COOPER

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Last week a New York public relations firm e-mailed me that it was having trouble coming up with a list of top musical acts from Detroit. The Motor City is to great music like Niagara Falls is to water -- we produce buckets of it. How could the firm not know?

That's Detroit: We're not even famous for what we're famous for.

I set the New Yorkers straight. And while I'm on a roll, I'd like to clear up another impression. People think of Detroit as an amalgamation of decaying neighborhoods. But even people who live here don't know that we're home to one of the most successful urban redevelopments in the United States.

If you build it...

Charles Waldheim is doing his part to document the profound impact Detroit's Lafayette Park has had upon urban design. He's the editor of "Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe: Lafayette Park Detroit," a book published last year by the Harvard Design School. In his introduction, Waldheim remarks how an interdisciplinary team in the 1950s crafted the "still vibrant mixed-income, mixed-race community."

The irony is that Lafayette Park, east of I-375 downtown and north of Jefferson, began not as an egalitarian experiment in urban design, but as a project designed to sweep out the lower east side ghetto known as Black Bottom. The poor neighborhood had evolved as blacks emigrated to Detroit from the South between 1920 and 1950 seeking jobs in the auto industry.

With the help of the federal government, the city embarked upon what it called the Detroit Plan in 1949. As America's first urban renewal project, it was to turn Black Bottom into a grove of housing projects.

But after the area was leveled, no developer wanted to take on the project. The land lay fallow for years, earning it the name Ragweed Acres. In the mid-1950s, labor leader Walter Reuther articulated a vision for the parcel that would be an "opportunity for Detroit to show how all classes and groups of people could live together in a democracy."

In 1955, developer Herbert Greenwald bought the 129-acre parcel. Instead of turning it into a populist paradise, he wanted to replicate Chicago's Gold Coast.

Greenwald took over the project nearly a decade before the infamous riot. White flight had already started. In fact, the first year that residents moved into Lafayette Park -- 1960 -- was the first year the city suffered a net population loss, according to the book.

"The city is damned but by no means doomed," remarked Greenwald. "Let's rebuild it."

...they will come

Greenwald assembled a heavyweight team, including city planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and landscape designer Alfred Caldwell. Unlike Reuther, they were interested in creating what they called a "superblock" oasis for the middle class who wanted to live as urban "pioneers." There would be low- and high-rise buildings, rentals and co-ops, townhouses and apartments. Shopping and a neighborhood school would round out the amenities. Lafayette Park continues to feel more like a park filled with homes than a settlement of homes ringing a park.

Today, it's an empowered, stable and diverse community, something that's attributed as much to the design as to the people who live there. It remains the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe's buildings in the world.

Tell that to the next person who asks about Detroit

Charles Waldheim will sign books today at the Paris Cafe, 1533 E. Lafayette, noon-2 p.m. Call 313-446-9520 for information.

Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625.

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