Many of the city’s go-to gathering spots for entertainment, eats and recreation have connections to the bustling banks of the Detroit River.
David Pernick and Deb Usteski like to bike. You’ll often find them with a bunch of other cyclists along the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile paved pathway below ground level that was once a forgotten railroad track. Located just east of downtown Detroit, this gritty, artistic and attractive greenway is quickly becoming one of the region’s most popular places to walk, bike and run.
After one morning ride last fall, the metro Detroit couple made their way back along The Cut, as it’s commonly called, to check out something special. It was Harvest Fest Day, an annual autumn event that attracts thousands to the area with hayrides, bounce houses and face painting for the kids.
It was also the first practice run for the new Dequindre Cut Freight Yard, an open-face building made from a collection of connected shipping containers. The containers resemble freight train cars. The yard, designed and created by students from Lawrence Technological University and Western International High School, is a two-story structure that will house varying local entrepreneurs, artists and activities. Located less than a mile into The Cut near the pathway’s Eastern Market entrance, the Freight Yard officially opens this spring, adding one more entertainment plot point connected to the already popular Detroit river.
Everything to Do on the Detroit Riverfront
About 3 million people visit the city’s riverfront annually.
On any given day, regardless of the temperature, you will likely find cyclists pedaling while others leisurely stroll along the wide, neat paths that run between well-manicured lawns. You’ll see people sitting in brightly colored lounge chairs dotting the green grasses, reading and relaxing. Maybe you’ll pass by a sprinkling of hopefuls casting a line over the railings, anticipating hooking into the fish varieties known to traverse the Detroit River.
On especially balmy days, there’s a good chance you’ll spot toddlers running back and forth through a fountain that bubbles water up from the pavement at the GM Plaza. The plaza’s wide porch and steps invite people to sit, eat lunch, watch the water or listen to concerts in front of the GM Renaissance Center.
With this mental snapshot of Detroit’s current-day accessible riverfront, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago it was an unattractive expanse of cement silos, unused warehouses and fenced-off spaces that blocked most of the Detroit River from public view and use.
That all began to change in 2003 when the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy began working with foundations, corporations, governmental entities and community representatives to create an attractive river walk that would eventually stretch 5.5 miles from the MacArthur (Belle Isle) Bridge on the east to the Ambassador Bridge on the west. Additionally, the conservancy grabbed the reigns and paved the two-mile Dequindre Cut that begins at the Detroit International RiverWalk.
Currently, about 3.5 miles of the bridge-to-bridge Detroit RiverWalk are complete. A project still in progress, the conservancy’s work to date is nevertheless transformative, converting the riverfront into a gorgeous recreation and relaxation destination. In the process, the endeavor has also revived nearby areas with new housing, restaurants and a steadily growing number of new businesses, while also infusing new life into veteran establishments.
Tom Woolsey’s family has owned Andrews on the Corner, a restaurant on the corner of Jos. Campau and Atwater, for 100 years. He said the only way his three-generation restaurant survived during leaner years was to begin shuttling crowds to and from the restaurant to downtown sporting events and concerts at Ford Field, Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena.
“I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see what I’m seeing now,” Woolsey said of the riverfront’s rebirth. “All kinds of people are coming here from all over the world. The riverfront is now a destination.”
Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, said Woolsey’s observation is spot on, adding that one of the most endearing aspects of the revitalized riverfront is its ability to bring people from all walks of life and of all ages together. “The riverfront has become an incredibly important place for our community,” said Wallace. “Every great city has a place that brings people together. The riverfront has become a spot where everyone feels welcome. And it has become an engine for economic development.”
What’s on the Walk
Rivard Plaza is the hub of the Detroit RiverWalk. It features a carousel, sand volleyball court, cafe, and a bike shop and rental station, plus comfy tables where visitors can eat, relax and meet up with workout partners.
The plaza tends to be a starting point for a wide variety of fun and fitness. The Detroit Medical Center, for example, sponsors twice-weekly walks that attract hundreds of seniors from June through August every year. But even when the walking series stops, many seniors make regular jaunts on the riverfront a habit even as the weather cools down — contributing to another benefit of an active, accessible riverfront: a healthier community.
Elizabeth Jones, 76, of Redford walks the river five to six times a week. “I just love the waterfront,” she said. “Sometimes I come just to sit and people-watch. If I’m stressed or upset or worried about something, I come here and I feel fine. Looking at the water settles my soul.”
Parks are another big part of the riverfront’s landscape, from the nautically themed water wonderland at Mt. Elliott Park to Michigan’s first urban state park, William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.
Within the state park, which opens May 1, you’ll find butterfly gardens, wetlands and fishing spots. The 31-acre site, already popular for its walking and biking paths and wildlife, is also slated to soon grow by two more acres. “There will be new picnic areas and trails by this summer,” said Karis Floyd, manager of the William G. Milliken and Belle Isle state parks. “There’ll be more expansion of the wetlands and more space where people can do what many enjoy: simply sitting and looking at the river.”
The Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC), which sits across from the Milliken state park, is another riverside standout. Housed in a once-abandoned industrial building, the OAC has been open since 2015. “We’re like the recreation room of the riverfront,” said Linda Walter, director of the center that offers a variety of interactive outdoor experiences and virtual simulations of kayaking, fishing or flying a plane. “We say we educate, inspire and connect people to the natural resources of Michigan,” she added. “We’re like Up North downtown. And what’s nice is people can come here to learn about the outdoors, then step outside and experience it.”
Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre is another riverfront attraction, popular for its live music. The park typically offers about 40 events, mostly outdoor concerts, from June through August, including a Wednesday-night jazz series. “Chene Park is ranked among the top amphitheaters in the world,” said Shahida Mausi, who manages the 6,000-seat arena. “It’s especially unique because it sits along an international waterway. Where else can you listen to great music, enjoy summer-evening breezes, watch boats dock and see the twinkling lights of another country?”
Perhaps the riverfront’s oldest, people-pleasing attraction, Hart Plaza, is located off Jefferson Avenue at Woodward Avenue. Here, popular festivals, including Movement Electronic Music Festival, the Arab and Chaldean Festival and the Detroit Jazz Festival, draw people from all over the world. If big events aren’t on Hart Plaza’s calendar, don’t worry. You’ll often find people just sitting by the centerpiece fountain or playing checkers at nearby tables.
Now and Later
Several other new and recent developments along the riverfront deserve attention and a mention, too.
Atwater Beach, set to debut in 2019, will open yet another recreational destination on a parcel of land once closed to the public. Initial plans for the beachfront park include a sandy space, lounge chairs, a playscape and an open-air shed for food and fun.
West Riverfront Park, near Rosa Parks Boulevard and Eighth Street, has already made a name for itself as a great space for fishing, concerts and events like the annual indie music Mo Pop Festival. An ongoing international design competition promises an even more finished look for the park in the near future.
Last year, people flocked to the new 20,000-square-foot Spirit of Detroit Plaza at the busy intersection of Woodward and Jefferson avenues. With on-site food trucks and live music weekly, the plaza will be a hot spot near the riverfront again this spring and summer for relaxation time and taking selfies with the plaza’s iconic namesake, The Spirit of Detroit monument (see more below).
“If Hart Plaza is the outdoor living room of the riverfront, the front porch is the new Spirit Plaza,” said Maurice Cox, director of the planning and development department for the City of Detroit.
Other construction plans making headlines and headway include greenways that will meander through city neighborhoods and lead to the Detroit RiverWalk, expansion of the RiverWalk to connect Mt. Elliott Park to Gabriel Richard Park, a pedestrian bridge between Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre and Stroh River Place, a promenade on the site of the former Uniroyal Tire, and the list goes on.
Cox calls the riverfront one of the most active destinations in the city. Rightly so. “Detroit has created a riverfront that is genuinely for all people,” said Cox. “It’s more than a destination. People can literally live, play and work along an international waterway.”
Happy Bday Bronze Boy
Lots of Detroiters and visitors know The Spirit of Detroit as the city’s iconic green giant. He’s that massive man made of bronze that majestically sits in front of Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, the namesake of the new Spirit of Detroit Plaza located at the foot of Woodward and East Jefferson avenues. He’s also the lucky one that gets to don an awfully large jersey when one of our sports teams — be it the Detroit Tigers, Red Wings, Lions or Pistons — makes the playoffs.
On May 12, the city is going to sing Happy Birthday to the big guy to help mark his 60th. The fundraising affair is being organized by the City of Detroit and the Saginaw, Michigan-based Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, which is named for the famed statue’s sculptor.
We expect special festivities to surround the day. To learn more about The Spirit of Detroit and the birthday celebration taking shape for May 12, visit marshallfredericks.org/spirit.