“…Indeed, the chance to pioneer, to be part of a unique and significant new community, was, for many, an important factor in deciding to settle there…” (Forum Magazine, 1960)
Last month, RogueHAA convened the latest panel discussion in its Provocations: Challenging Detroit’s Design Discourse series. Lafayette Park served both as backdrop and case study for a discussion of the broad social, political, architectural, and urbanistic issues that surround this development. Lafayette Park began as an urban renewal initiative known as the Gratiot Redevelopment Project which targeted 129 acres of land within the primarily working class African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom. Between 1946 and 1958, thousands of residents were displaced and the site largely remained vacant until the city retained Chicago-based developer Herbert Greenwald, architect Mies van der Rohe, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and landscape designer Alfred Caldwell to design a plan for redevelopment. By the early 1960’s, three 22-floor high-rises, 21 buildings with 186 ground-level housing units, and a large park were completed. Despite the controversy surrounding its implementation, the Lafayette development has achieved many of the goals of Modernist planning and urban renewal and today is one of the most economically viable and racial diverse neighborhoods in the city.
To this context rogueHAA brought together the following distinguished professionals to discuss the many facets of Lafayette Park:
Danielle Aubert (assistant professor of graphic design, WSU)
Robert Fishman (professor of urban planning, U of M)
Kevin Harrington (professor emeritus, IIT)
Michelle Johnson (executive director, Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative)
Hilanius Phillips (Former head city planner, City of Detroit)
Brent Ryan (assistant professor of urban design and public policy, MIT)
Optimistically titled Urban Futures, the event addressed both the history of its planning and execution, but also the many paradoxes that accompany one of the more successful of Detroit’s urban neighborhoods. Does Detroit offer similar opportunities for avant- garde planning and large scale urban interventions today? What successes and sacrifices accompany the Modernist social agenda, and are there lessons to be learned as we seek to engage in equitable and sustainable redevelopment here and in other Rustbelt cities? While the presentations and subsequent discussion covered a broad array of topics, there were a number of themes that emerged.
Race & Relocation
Underlying much of the conversation was the reality of the vast displacement that occurred through the urban renewal process, and the failed relocation strategies implemented by the city leadership. As discussed in rogueHAA’s A Brief History of Black Bottom exhibit, the area was cleared in the early 1950s as part of a campaign to eradicate the extreme conditions in Detroit’s slums. The Lafayette Park development model was based largely on the rejection of the chaos and congestion of the industrial city. From a utopian and socialist agenda, the ‘tower in the garden’ represented a reprieve from the extreme density in these areas. Ironically, by the time the development was implemented the city had already begun to lose population at its center. As described by Robert Fishman (professor of urban planning, U of M), this intentional removal of working class poor was also seen as a way to stem the massive suburban migration that followed World War II by encouraging the middle class to remain in the city. While one of the goals of the project was purported to be better housing conditions for the primarily black, working-class residents of Black Bottom, the other was the buoying of property values and the establishment of a new urban model. Continue reading