I often find myself walking to the riverfront when I’m in downtown Detroit; it’s a guaranteed place to find a bench where I can read or eat or think while enjoying the calming water views. I hadn’t, however, ever thought very much about when or how those benches came to be installed until this past Saturday afternoon, when I took a free walking tour offered by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. (Incidentally, I learned about the tour from Friday’s Planet Detroit newsletter; if you’re in Southeast Michigan and interested in environmental news, I recommend subscribing.) The DRFC is a nonprofit organization founded twenty years ago to develop and maintain the waterfront stretching from the Ambassador Bridge in the west to just beyond Belle Isle in the east.
Marian, the tour guide, gave a brief history of the riverfront that recognized the Indigenous peoples who had lived there long before Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac showed up in 1701 to begin European settlement of the region. Cadillac made land grants for wide but narrow “ribbon farms” that included river access for landholders. In time, warehouses and shipping replaced the ribbon farms, and by the early 20th century the riverfront was a commercial hub. Over the following decades, however, railroads and highways grew in importance, and when Detroit celebrated its tricentennial in 2001 the riverfront was a shadow of its former self. A desire to transform the waterfront led to the creation of the DRFC, which has spent the past two decades working on a piecemeal basis, building parks and plazas one by one to create public spaces for both Detroiters and visitors to utilize. Eventually, a paved 5.5-mile Riverwalk will connect all of them.
Following Marian from Cullen Plaza eastward to Robert C. Valade Park, my group walked through the natural beauty of Milliken State Park and checked out the performances scheduled at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater. In addition to what you’d expect in any city park (playgrounds, benches and picnic tables, etc.), I noticed details that point to the DRFC’s emphasis on usability and accessibility: communication boards for non-verbal visitors, a free carousel and free binocular stations placed at different heights, signage offering brief meditations for mindfulness. They also stage an impressive amount of programming for all ages throughout the summer, from story and music times for children to a 55+ Silver Sneakers “RiverWalkers” group. Most of those events take place week after week, reflecting the DRFC’s emphasis on serving the local community and making the waterfront a place for regular outings, not one-time visits.
Unfortunately, Ann Arbor is just a bit too far from Detroit for me to drop in at everything I’d like to on the DRFC’s calendar of events. Now that I have a better knowledge of the riverfront, though, I understand why I always seem to wind up there.
Feature photo: Looking westward along the Detroit riverfront from atop the hill in Milliken State Park, May 6, 2023.