July 20, 2022
Sarah Raza | Detroit Free Press
Volunteers stacked bricks and sifted through dirt Thursday evening in a multiday effort to save the historic Virginia Park Street, one of Detroit’s last original brick roadways.
The street has witnessed history, but alongside that has come wear and tear, leaving it in desperate need of repair.
The community in New Center has been drawing new residents to its large Colonial Revival and Neo-Georgian style homes, and they don’t stay vacant for long. Residents say they love the neighborhood and want to maintain the block for their children and grandchildren that will come after them.
Nearly 20 people came to help Thursday evening, some showing up after a day of work and others joining with their families. Most said they volunteered because they love their neighborhood.
“We are a very strong community,” said Tony Smith, who has lived on Virginia Park Street for nearly three decades. “We look out for each other, our neighbors.
The street repair, organized by the Virginia Park block club, has been four years in the making, although longtime residents said they have wanted the street repaired for decades.
Virginia Park Street was built for bikes and wagons 115 years ago before the automobile became the city’s main mode of transportation.
The Virginia Park Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. During the Detroit riot of 1967, a Patton M60 battle tank drove on the street, creating cracks in the street.
Decades later, General Motors experimented with the street grid in New Center, sending vehicles from cars to tractor-trailers through the street.
And when many of the east-west street roads in New Center were cut off from the Lodge Service Drive, thousands of vehicles cut through using Virginia Park Street, including ones like cement trucks and gasoline tankers, which only accelerated the damage.
“Driving down the street, it can destroy your car,” said Zoe Bowman, who moved to the neighborhood last year. “But the road holds so much history … there’s nothing else like it in Detroit.”
The idea of repairing the road was proposed by Steve Waldrop, a longtime resident who moved to Virginia Park Street in 1972 to live in what was then a Wayne State University fraternity house.
He originally proposed the idea in 2018, but when repairs were proposed, the city offered to pave over the brick with asphalt.
“The mayor said it wasn’t fair for him to spend millions of dollars on just three blocks of road,” said Jeff Cowin, who recently moved to the neighborhood and has helped organize the effort.
He added that given that the neighborhood was designated a historic site, the city has always wanted to repair the road but couldn’t justify the expense.
The neighbors, however, believed this quick fix would result in the loss of a historic piece of the neighborhood.
Once they decided they wanted to repair the brick in the road while maintaining its historic integrity, it quickly became clear that it would be an expensive undertaking that could cost up to a couple million dollars.
Fortunately, a project between DTE Energy and ITC Holdings meant 1,000 feet of historic brick road needed to be removed in order to create a new substation. The bricks, 1904 Nelsonville Block pavers, match the bricks needed to repair Virginia Park Street.
When the companies heard about the block club’s project, they agreed to donate their bricks to the effort.
Now, there are an estimated 20,000 brick pavers sitting in piles at 6460 East Vernor Highway, across from the Downtown Boxing Gym.
The task is to stack the bricks and transport them 3 miles west to Virginia Park Street, where they’ll sit on the neighbors’ lawns until the repair project begins.
The block club sent out emails, passed out flyers, and created a Facebook event that ended up reaching even those from out of town.
“I just came to help,” said Janet Rohloff, of St. Clair Shores. “I was born and raised on the lower east side, and it’s nice to meet with people and find out what’s happening in the community.”
Patricia Felder, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1985, said the community has wanted to repair the street for years.
“We’ve been trying to repair the street for almost 30 years, but we didn’t have enough grant money,” she said. “Now it’s finally happening in 2022.”
For those interested in helping, the group said it looking for volunteers to come out and help on Friday until 9 p.m. and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.