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Caressa Givens, Milwaukee Program Manager

In early June, Southeastern WI Rails to Trails Conservancy representative, Willie Karidis, invited the Bike Fed on a study tour to Detroit. We were accompanied by some of Milwaukee’s most energized BIPOC leaders and their families, actively embarking on a journey to plan and implement the 30th Street Corridor shared-use trail. The 30th Street Corridor shared-use trail is a proposed 6.7-mi, mixed-grade greenway that would connect the Hank Aaron State Trail to its southernmost point and create a loop around the city by connecting with the Oak Leaf Trail to the northwest.

This is the second study tour the Bike Fed has been on with the 30th Street Corridor Trail Coalition. The time focused on one, the Dequindre Cut Greenway, and an emerging project, an all-city connector, the Joe Louis Greenway. We wanted to learn how Detroiters are taking action to build safer and healthier public spaces? 

Before I get into the study tour details, I think having some historical context about Detroit is essential. 

One cannot understand Detroit’s history without acknowledging its dynamic Black history. The city has been at the center of intense racial politics, even before the first Great Migration in the early 1900s. At that time, African Americans began leaving the south, and many moved to Detroit. From 1910-1920 the African American population grew six hundred percent. Due to housing discrimination, most African Americans were forced into the lower east side of Detroit, known as Black Bottom (The name Black Bottom comes from the dark, fertile topsoil that was a part of the riverbed of the River Savoyard, which was buried as a sewer in the 1820s).

Many African Americans worked in the auto industry and were making a living wage compared to sharecroppers in the south. This allowed people to open their own businesses and patron the nearby area of Paradise Valley, a booming entertainment and business district through the 1950s. Throughout the time of the first Great Migration through the 70s, the civil rights of Black Americans nationwide and in Detroit remained fragile. By the later 40s, when the federal housing act was passed, large amounts of funding from Washington were sent to cities across the country to implement “Urban Renewal.” James Baldwin referred to urban renewal as coded language, ” most northern cities now are engaged in something called urban renewal, which means…negro removal; that is what it means, and the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” By 1960 the neighborhood, its assets, and the people were gone, only to be replaced with poor public housing developments, swaths of vacant land, and Interstate 75. 

Once the country’s fourth most populous city, from the 1950s-70s the departure of the automotive industry from Detroit left many without fair wages, the homeowner tax base had been decimated, and property values plummeted.  Through bad Wall Street deals to maintain pensions, and the state failing Detroit by not providing its fair share of state tax revenues, that state forced Detroit into bankruptcy in 2013. Detroit’s bankruptcy is the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history to date. There is a mixed bag of responses to how the matter got so out of hand; however, it is clear that in large part, Detroit was abetted by poor state, federal, and local housing policies, transportation and development policies, and ultimately a culture of racism.

Detroit is building a 27.5-mile non-motorized greenway that will run through 23 neighborhoods called the Joe Louis Greenway (JLG). Our tour began at the Smith Group, an architectural firm on the eighth floor of the historic Guardian building in the city center. We went through a large part of the project plan through presentations. The one clear thing is that the Joe Louis Greenway project exists to repair the harm that the people of Detroit have experienced through years of systemic racism and, in turn, and part, bankruptcy. 

The best part of the study tour was putting our group out in the field. We traveled through the proposed greenway area to meet the people involved in this project. With the influential project, how well were the government agencies and planning firms necessitating trust between themselves and residents living in the community? It was only 70 years ago that the government stripped away the homes and businesses of hundreds of African American residents. Living residents still remember dismantling their own homes and sending the remains to scrap yards to make a few extra dollars. We traveled to four separate locations along the proposed greenway route. We began at Romanowski Park in West Detroit and ended in Highland Park North of the City. We met residents and government leaders who were immersed in the JLG project. The overarching passion is for a greenway that complements other neighborhood assets such as parks, schools, and beloved entertainment venues, providing more connectivity and a unified city.  

We met District 6 representative Ru Shann Long, a member of the project’s Citizen Advisory Committee at Salsinger Playfield on Detroit’s north end. Ru explained how her work as a community organizer has its roots in supporting an array of social services. There are no longer any schools in District 6. Ru talked about how the JLG is more than just a trail but an opportunity to further develop the district as a desirable place that can meet more needs for families to prosper. 

We wrapped up the tour with Detroit’s infamous bicycle club, D-Town Rides (DTR). The DTR hosts Soul Roll, a community group ride, every Saturday and Monday during the warmer months. The critical mass style community rides can garner over 1,000 people riding through Detroit urban streets. 

If you saw this club out on the street, you may mistake them for a badass motorcycle club guarding someone else’s bicycles. However, instead, they prefer the pedal-assisted two-wheeler, badassery still included. Each of their bikes is an original form of self-expression with lights, chrome, ape hanger bars, built-in speakers, and of course, their attire–leather vests with loads of club-themed patches. The prideful group was founded in 2005 by Mike Neeley, and other members like CEO Ashia Phillips inspired the formation of a whole league of similar clubs across the city. 

DTR met up with our traveling crew and hosted a unique ride just for us. We rode all over the city from downtown to the neighborhoods, traversing the established Dequindre Cut Greenway, a below-grade pathway, formerly a Grand Trunk Western Railroad line, located on the east side, coming in at just over a mile and a half long. The Dequindre Cut was filled with pedestrians, other cyclists, people taking graduation photos, and people watching. The JLG proposal will connect with the Dequindre Cut.

Thanks to DTR’s support and spirit of camaraderie, it was clear that everyone was having a good time and felt comfortable and part of something. The “something” is unmistakably the power of cycling and how it can bring people together regardless of age, race, ability, or zip code. 

The final day of the study tour was filled with more presentations. The group finished off with a ride on Detroit’s metro streetcar, the Q-line, and had the exciting opportunity to connect with Dale Hughes, the executive director of the Lexus Velodrome. 

Now that the group and Rails to Trails Conservancy have completed a preliminary feasibility study for the 30th Street Corridor shared-use trail, the group has been awarded a grant to conduct an equitable development plan. What remains critical for all, is to follow projects like these, and pay attention to the feedback from residents, and if they feel their voices are being heard. If the Joe Louis Greenway turns out anything like the Dequindre Cut, it will be a mark of success. We are hopeful and excited for the 30th Street Trail coalition and aim to support the emerging project in a meaningful way.