For most of history, a city could only be as great as the nearest body of water allowed. It’s no coincidence that our mightiest cities faced the ocean – or, in the case of Chicago, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Shipping was always the beginning step in urbanization. The railways and roads came later, after the swarthy seafaring folk made port and shouldered that first heavy load. Only in the late 20th century did we see technology progress to the point that cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas could become major centers of growth, untethered to the whims of the natural world.
Detroit, no doubt, was aided immensely by the Detroit River and its connection to the Great Lakes. Warren, Michigan, on the other hand? Well, not so much. About 15 miles inland from the Detroit River, urbanization took a bit more time in Warren. The town built itself up at the intersection of Mound and Chicago around the babbling stream of Red Run, an attractive but shallow creek good for maybe a few shiners on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
There was a town hall, a general store, a pharmacist, and even a billboard right on Main Street. A primitive strap rail connected Warrenites to the outside world. It was a good town but a small town, with maybe a few hundred citizens. Yet links to regional farmers and the nearby town of Center Line created an enduring community that is still visible today. All you have to do is stop into the Alibi Bar on 9 Mile for a pungent, urine-soaked whiff of the past.
Don’t it smell good?
Warren today is a different beast. Weighing in at 130,000 people and 34 square miles, its a titan of 1960s suburban sprawl, a massive beneficiary of the exodus from Detroit. Without a trained eye the town’s past is nigh invisible, buried as it is beneath endless layers of single-family homes and beige, boxy chain stores.
Red Run, too, sprawled with the city. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers marched in and turned Red Run into a massive drain, making it wider, deeper, and steeper. Now, when the Kuhn Retention Facility releases stormwater runoff from surrounding suburbs, the Red Run swells like the wide open snatch of a 7 Mile prostitute, backing up basements with sewage and sending chemically mutated fish on fatal joy rides.
Companies with “special permits” dump into it, like GM. Homeless people live next to it, under bridges. In fact, one or two freeze to death every winter, right there on the banks of the Red Run, but the cops are always quick to reassure the public that the deceased were hopeless, mentally ill drunks.
As if that matters.
In exchange for turning Warren into a big city of sorts, that’s what we got. There’s been some talk of building a nature trail along Red Run. The Warren Community Center’s property even fronts on it, and it runs right through people’s backyard. But there’s not a lot of public will to turn a creek people are physically afraid of touching into one of those fancy, newfangled green spaces those other cities have. The neighboring cities of Royal Oak and Madison Heights probably did the right thing – they buried Red Run and developed over it like it never existed.
At this point, it’s tough to imagine a better outcome for the beleaguered creek.