March 12, 2007 at 1:00 am

Woodward Avenue: Michigan's Main Street

Woodward Avenue. Even the name evokes movement -- Woodward -- as Detroit's grand, sprawling main street sweeps the 27 miles north from the river to the hills and lakes of Oakland County.

For 200 years, Woodward has been the spine of Detroit, the place where thousands marched in wartime and in peace, where in 1963 Martin Luther King's cry "I have a dream" first echoed around the stone canyons of lower Woodward. It's the street where Detroiters flock to sin and to repent.

"I guess if I had to take somebody who had never seen Detroit, I'd start at the river and drive straight up Woodward. I can't think of a more expedient way to show the city," said Jerry Herron, historian and director of the honors program at Wayne State University.

Woodward offers work, play, most of our cultural institutions. It's the dividing line that distinguishes "east siders" from their west side counterparts and offers motorists a comforting geographical context. "Where are we? Oh, right, there's Woodward."

"If you can just find your way to Woodward, no matter where you are, it's the landmark," said demographer Kurt Metzger, director of research for the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the old road where Indian moccasins padded and cattle trod the Saginaw trail, giving way to horse-drawn carriages and then automobile tires speeding up the world's first interurban "superhighway."

Unlike its younger cousins such as the Lodge and I-75, Woodward carried Metro Detroiters swiftly but without displacing or isolating neighborhoods.

"The nice thing is that people built around it," Metzger said. "You still were allowed to have these communities like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley that were very active. Woodward allowed people to get around, but it wasn't built to destroy, like expressways."

 

The 'Paris of the West'

Every American city has a main street, but Woodward isn't the usual urban thoroughfare with towering buildings crowded on each side.

For 27 miles, Woodward splays out and upward to the relative highlands of Bloomfield Hills and Pontiac. Lining its expanse is a hodgepodge of beautiful Gothic churches, stone mansions, ornate theaters, Chinese buffets, abandoned buildings, new construction and dollar stores. But even downtown, there is a lot of sky, a sense of spaciousness and possibility that's hard to find in most cramped cities.

There's no way to know if Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward was trying for airy optimism when he laid out plans for the broad avenue in 1806. The judge was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson and arrived here in 1805 to find a desolate population. A fire had consumed all but one of Detroit's buildings, and the locals wanted to replace them immediately in the same narrow, Old World style.

But Woodward, a tall, cadaverous fellow who was "never intoxicated, but never sober either," insisted upon waiting to see Pierre L'Enfant's plans for the city of Washington.

Once he had the plans, Woodward took a few nips of brandy and set out a similar layout of interlocking hexagons bisected by wide avenues and plazas. He meant to transform the muddy fort town into the "Paris of the West," and Woodward was supposed to be one of the expansive, elegant roads anchoring the plan.

Although Detroit adopted only part of the design, Woodward was widened over the years, ending up a broad, majestic avenue pointed, ramrod straight, toward the northwest.

Contrary to popular belief, the cruising era officially started, not in the 1950s on Woodward, but in 1848, when the messy old log road gave way to smoother planks. Wild young blades then were able to race their carriages up the wooden road from tavern to tavern, making bets on who had the fastest rig.

By the 1890s, Woodward reflected Detroit's growing prosperity, driven by the lumber and stove industry. The street was lined with thriving department stores, jewelers and furriers. Every day at noon, a ball would drop from a staff atop the Wright, Kay & Co. jewelers building on Woodward, and Detroiters could check their watches. The C.R. Mabley department store would host pie-eating contests and high-walking exhibitions on a wire stretched across Woodward.

Saturday was payday, and Woodward Avenue stores like B. Siegel's, Kern's, Partridge & Blackwell's, R.H. Fyfe & Co. (for shoes and boots), Rothman's menswear shop and Sanders kept late hours. After 1866, women in long sweeping skirts could stop by with their swains to buy a glass of the first soda pop made in the United States, at James Vernor's drugstore on the southwest corner of Woodward & Clifford.

In 1911, successful clothier J.L. Hudson built the towering department store on Woodward that, although razed in 1997, will always be a symbol of the avenue's glory years.

It was a magnetic draw for all generations, but especially for children. James Kaminski, 55, grew up near Woodward, way up in Royal Oak, but that didn't stop him from traveling downtown by himself on the Woodward bus as a child, at age 9.

"I went to Hudson's!" Kaminski said. "I wanted to look at clothes, the records. I mean, you've got this gorgeous, giant store. You have to remember, Royal Oak was a bedroom community then. Detroit was very busy and active."

 

Putting the world on wheels

Woodward Avenue became a vital pathway for Detroit's most important industry.

"One hundred auto companies grew up on Woodward," said Debbie Schutt, an urban planner and byway coordinator for the Woodward Avenue Action Association. "They may not all have been long-lived, but they were established companies with the intent of building automobiles.

"Industrial mass production was birthed here; that really changed America. Having a form of transportation that the common worker could afford, the whole change in lifestyle that came from the $5-a-day (auto) job -- that was the most significant thing to come off Woodward Avenue."

Ironically, the vibrant streetcar and "interurban" system that traversed Woodward in the late 19th and early 20th century helped the auto manufacturers. Workers could move easily up and down the avenue between Ford's Piquette plant and the newer Ford Highland Park plant for a 6-cent fare.

Ford employees transferred to the new plant didn't have to move to be close to work -- they simply hopped the interurban for a longer ride to Highland Park.

The last Woodward streetcar track was taken up in 1956, the cars were shipped to Mexico City, and Detroit's transit system became one that ran entirely on rubber tires.

 

Saturday night, Sunday morning

Some of the most distinctive sounds along Woodward into the early 20th century were the clop of horse-drawn carriages and the peal of church bells on Sunday all along Piety Hill, a place where elm trees bowed gracefully over a serene avenue with massive stone churches looming on both sides of the street.

Some laughed at the name "Piety Hill" because there were always bars along the "Amen corridor." But then, on Woodward, there has always been a precarious balance between the sacred and the profane.

In the 1940s, the ministers of Piety Hill pushed for a ban on any new liquor licenses coming into their immediate area, a law that was overturned in 1950.

The Saturday-night side of Woodward was always hard to suppress. There were classy hotspots like the Fox and the Paradise theaters.

But there also was a seamy side to Detroit's nightlife that nostalgists gloss over, and it wasn't tucked away on side streets.

Not only were there blind pigs right on Woodward, into the '70s (some recall a swinging spot called Goldfinger's), but also the Stone Burlesque and the Empress Burlesque sat right in the middle of downtown, a source of fascination for kids on their way to the dentist or Hudson's. Woodward go-go bars drew bored noontime businessmen well into the '60s.

 

Onward and upward

Traditionally, Woodward Avenue was the route Detroit's wealthy citizens took up and, eventually, it took them out of the city. Lumber baron David Whitney proudly set his pink jasper mansion at 4421 Woodward, but the avenue as a show-off spot for the wealthy didn't last. The second and third generations soon melted deeper into the neighborhoods, or shot further north on the strip.

"In Philly or Boston, the rich and powerful reinhabit the houses of the previous generation," Herron said. "Detroit's power elite, like everything else, got on Woodward and kept on going."

The move up Woodward to the sleepy suburbs sped up after the July 1967 riots. One of the most brutal events of those disturbances happened on Woodward July 26, when three unarmed black men were beaten, shot and killed by police in rooms at the Algiers Motel, now long gone but then on the corner of Virginia Park. The incident, documented in John Hersey's bestselling 1968 book "The Algiers Motel Incident," served as a flashpoint, angering Detroiters when none of the officers was convicted of the murders.

A happier civil rights milestone was the vast crowd of 125,000 who strode down Woodward with Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther in the June 1963 March on Detroit, then heard King declaim "Free at last, free at last " as thousands roared.

Today as always, a drive along Woodward reveals Metro Detroit's greatest joys and deepest shame.

For demographer Metzger, the old road can be annoying, with its brash lack of aesthetics, but it also reminds him of the cycle of renewal.

"It's everything that's bad about urban planning, or lack thereof," said Metzger with a laugh. "But some of it's good, because you never know what you're going to see. There's always activity, something going out of business or something coming on."

"The ups and the downs of the city you can see mapped right onto that street," said Herron. "A lot of people thought it was time to hang out the for-sale sign when J.L. Hudson closed. But now we have a beautiful Campus Martius on Woodward, and the Compuware Building. It's a very interesting street in that way."

Woodward firsts

In its 200 years, Woodward Avenue has boasted many "firsts" and "mosts."
While some, like "world's first stretch of concrete road," are easily quantified, others like "world's first ice cream soda" are debated hotly with rival cities. Here's a look at some of Woodward's bragging rights:
First three-color traffic light: Woodward at Michigan Avenue, invented by Detroit policeman William Potts.
Busiest intersection in the world: Woodward at Michigan Avenue.
First state fair in the United States: The Michigan State Fair, on Woodward near Eight Mile.
First intercity "superhighway": 18 miles of Woodward between Detroit and Pontiac.

Cadillac Circle area, facing north (Photos from The Detroit News archives)
Cadillac Circle area, facing north (Photos from The Detroit News archives)
People celebrate the end of the war. (Photos from Detroit News archives)
Woodward at Nine Mile in Ferndale (Photos from Detroit News archives)
Labor Day parade (Photos from Detroit News archives)