M-8: Davison Freeway

Davison Freeway in Highland Park, Michigan, was the first urban depressed freeway in the United States, a milestone in American engineering. Completed during the height of World War II in November, 1942, at a cost of $3.5 million, Detroiters on their way to factories such as the Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Warren and the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn could now make their commutes through Highland Park in record time, the homes and businesses but an antiquated blur above the freeway’s steep grass embankments. In fact, it was reported that the Davison Freeway shaved roughly 11 minutes off of the average trip time once it opened. It was, by all accounts, a triumph of modern urban planning.

Even before it was a freeway, Davison Avenue in Highland Park was one of the few east-west thoroughfares in the city that could take you in one way and out the other without any sort of rerouting. Consequently, as Detroit grew and surrounded the crowded suburb of Highland Park on all sides with factories and homes, rush hour on Davison Avenue became a nightmare as thousands upon thousands of workers simultaneously took to the modest road each day. A survey taken shortly before the freeway was constructed revealed that over 90% of the traffic on Davison Avenue in Highland Park was heading to another city, demonstrating both its importance to the area and the difficulties it must’ve presented to Highland Parkers. Cars stuck in the middle of intersections, pedestrians selling fruit, honking horns, cuss words, clouds of exhaust fumes – all were common sights and sounds on Davison Avenue in the early morning and midafternoon.

Clearly, something had to be done, and there was only one logical answer: dig a ditch and turn Davison Avenue into a sunken freeway.

Construction began in August 1941, and with help from the federal government, a 1.3 mile stretch of Davison Avenue was soon transformed into Davison Freeway. Any buildings in the way of the new freeway were demolished or moved on rollers, forcing more than one business to hold a “street widening” sale, a not uncommon sight during Detroit’s heady boom years. It was, at the least, a great opportunity to get in some early Christmas shopping.

Though today we see the destruction inherit in ripping up the urban fabric of city for a freeway, the shame in losing all that history for a freeway, back then it was viewed as a sign of progress. Davison Freeway was built with the full blessing of the Highland Park City Council with taxpayer dollers. Who wanted to live in a city so congested with people there were times you literally couldn’t move? It was a point of pride to have a modern freeway in your city.

The quality of the workmanship on Davison Freeway was so high that the original concrete roadbed wasn’t replaced until 1997. For those of us all too familiar with the horrors of orange traffic cones, a road having that long of lifespan seems impossible. You have to give them credit: they not only dreamed big dreams, they turned their dreams into a durable reality, creating a basic framework for society that still we depend on today. If there’s a better way, I haven’t seen it yet.


3 thoughts on “M-8: Davison Freeway

  1. Also, let’s not forget that our freeways were designed and planned to tear through neighborhoods where people of color were living (i.e. “minority neighborhoods”).

    I love to travel and check out new areas, but in most cases, freeways do seem to harm cities more than they help them.

    Nice work, George. Your liquor store observations are fun, but this is informative.

  2. It’s deplorable, but unsurprising that it was the minority group that was chosen to bear the negative brunt of freeway construction.

    I also agree that it freeways have had a negative effect on urban cities (while working out positively for suburban cities), but I wonder if that’s more a byproduct of the stagnation of our urban environments. Few urban cities have had any substantial overall population gains since the ’60s, and in such a stagnant environment, it is indeed perhaps the worst thing you could do to interrupt the dynamics of an old, established neighborhood. But in a more dynamic environment, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a problem?

    Also, I think we have the benefit of being able to drive in urban cities that are much less congested than what one would’ve experienced in the 1900s-1940s, and it could be that our opinions are colored by that as well. If Davison really was causing Woodward and all the other nearby arterial roads to clog up terribly everyday and most of us lived within the city limits of Detroit, maybe we would have a different opinion of freeways. I’m honestly not sure, but it’s food for thought.

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