February 1, 2009
Cut Loose from the Car
A new bike-and-pedestrian path hints at a less auto-dependent future for Detroit.
Detroit’s Dequindre Cut is a walking-and-cycling trail running below street level along a stretch of abandoned rail line just east of downtown. Designed by JJR, a locally based landscape-design firm, the project cost $3.75 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the $110 million the region has already invested in greenway development. Still, the graffiti-lined trench has captured the area’s imagination like no mere bike path could. “The physical characteristics of the Dequindre Cut are unmatched anywhere in this region,” says Tom Woiwode, the director of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan’s GreenWays Initiative, one of the project’s main funders. “It’s developed a level of enthusiasm that we’ve never seen.”
The trail’s first phase is a mile-long segment that includes restrained landscaping, two strips of asphalt (one for pedestrians and the other for bikes), lighting, security phones, and benches. A full half of its width is left untouched to accommodate a prospective light-rail line. But what the trail connects is as important as how it looks. Its three access points are the recently redeveloped Detroit Riverfront; Lafayette Park, a well-established residential community that boasts the world’s largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings; and the southern end of Eastern Market, a popular outdoor market with specialty shops and restaurants.
For many locals, the best part of the Dequindre Cut is its colorful graffiti. During the 25 years that the rail line went unused, it became a kind of open-air gallery overgrown with brush and home to wildlife such as pheasants, foxes, and rabbits. The trail’s promoters have used the project to preserve the graphic remnants of its days as a dystopian nature trail visited only by graffiti artists, urban explorers, and the homeless. “It was like a wilderness in the middle of the city,” says Jim Griffioen, a Lafayette Park resident. “It was splashed with an ever-changing archaeology of color that even the most stodgy decrier of vandalism couldn’t deny was art.”
The Cut will eventually be just one short link in the city’s recently adopted nonmotorized-transportation plan, which calls for 400 miles of bike lanes. It won’t exactly compensate for the failing fortunes of the automobile industry, but at least it’s a sign of a new way of thinking that’s gaining ground in the Motor City. “This is about having a vision,” Woiwode says. “The Dequindre Cut really is a great way to talk about what could be. It makes people able to imagine just how profound a change there can be in how we get around in southeast Michigan.”