There’s a little gazebo on the traffic island at the busy intersection of Mound and Chicago in Warren, Michigan, in what the city calls the Village of Warren Historic District. The city was nice enough to put a cozy wooden bench under it, so you can sit a spell and take in all the history: the original brick drug store, painted white, that dates back to 1893; the towering, Old World-style St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, with stained glass windows; and the white columns of the sand-colored local bank, now home to the Great Lakes Electronic Corporation.
Just try not to breath in the exhaust fumes from the big diesel trucks while you’re enjoying the view, and ignore that drab, grey Subway building that reads Established 2010.
Mound Road used to be Warren’s Main Street, a quiet commercial street serving the surrounding rural community. But that pretty much changed overnight in the 1950s, when developers took to their bulldozers and cement trucks to build the Warren’s first suburbs. White families from the crowded, racially divided neighborhoods in Detroit bought up the homes before the developers could even drive the “for sale” signs into the lawns, all too eager to move onto new, tree-lined suburban streets named after Detroit legends like Cadillac, Ford, Packard, and Hudson.
From 1950 to 1960, Warren’s population increased an astonishing 12,175.9% to 89,246 people, thanks to its proximity to Detroit. The 1970 census found that population had doubled over the last decade to 179,260 people, which still stands as the city’s peak population. About 134,000 people live in Warren now, with a median age of 38.
A few of the roads, of course, had to be expanded to accommodate Warren’s astronomical growth. Main Street – now named Mound Road – was transformed into an imposing, 50 MPH eight-lane monstrosity, and there was actually some debate about turning it into an out-and-out freeway at one point. In the name of progress, an entire section of what was once Main Street was demolished to make way for the additional lanes, the memories turned to dust and rubble and then unceremoniously paved over. Now, there’s not much left of the old Village of Warren outside of a few buildings and some homes on 7th Street, Beebe, and Flynn, varying from excellent condition to condemned.
If the city could do it over again, I’m sure they’d keep Main Street. Without it, Warren has no axis mundi – a central point that links the city as one, like how the Oracle of Delphi and the Temple of Apollo united the Greek world, or how the World Trade Center symbolized New York’s role in the financial realm (grandiose examples, sure, but you get the gist). It’s just a big, sprawling suburb. To quote Gertrude Stein’s opinion on the sprawl in Oakland, California: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”
Warren did try to put the “there” there again when city officials had the shiny new Warren Civic Center built across the street from the legendary General Motors Technical Center in 2006. As part of the plan, land was cleared around the Civic Center to make way for a dense, urban-like mixed use development that promised to attract the thousands of white collar professionals working at the GM Tech Center like flies to honey. They’d marvel at the architectural feats of the Civic Center, dine at the Five Guys Burger and Fries, and move into the lofts directly above Urban Outfitters. In a fit of extreme optimism, the new road that ran in front of the Civic Center was even christened Main Street.
What could go wrong? The city had thought of everything.
Except – you guessed it – no developers bit on the city’s proposal. Not one. The plots are for all intents and purposes vacant, a vast expanse of grass and asphalt along Van Dyke Road, punctuated only by two archetypal suburban buildings.
I blame the GM Tech Center.
Billed the Versailles of Industry when it was finished in 1956, the GM Tech Center is basically Warren’s Forbidden City – a court only the privileged can enter, a city within a city. Anybody – yes, anybody – could consult the Oracle of Delphi. You could touch the World Trade Center with your hands, shop in the basement, or eat at the top. The sprawling campus of the GM Tech Center, on the other hand, is a set back from the road behind a sturdy iron fence, impregnable, untouchable, and mostly invisible to the public. Only designated GM employees can ever enter its hallowed, protected grounds.
It’s a thoroughly suburban complex – insular, isolated, and in many ways intolerant. The city spirals around the GM Tech Center like dim stars around a magnificent black hole, thankful for GM’s pull but unsure of the final destination.
Then again, it’s not like GM intended its Tech Center to be Warren’s axis mundi, or the “there” there – it was just an unfortunate side effect of its overwhelming size and economic clout. And without its continuing presence, Warren probably wouldn’t be what it still is today: the third largest city in the country’s eighth largest state. While the destruction of Main Street was the part of price extracted for that success, worse things have happened.
After all, there was progress to be made.