“DETROIT IS NOT some dying city that nobody wants to be in,” says Eric Oberg, trail development manager in the Midwest Regional Office of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). “That’s not the narrative on the ground there. We can’t say that everything is rainbows and unicorns; there are problems, but people are facing those problems, not dwelling on them.”
Dequindre Cut Greenway is a paved path just over a mile long in downtown Detroit. The trail has separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians and you’ll find entrance ramps at Lafayette Street, Gratiot Avenue, and Woodbridge Street.
“The immediate universal reaction to the idea of building a trail there was, ‘You are out of your freaking mind,’” recalls Tom Woiwode, director of the GreenWays Initiative of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.
But enthusiasm for the idea grew and eventually the organization surpassed even its most ambitious goals. One of the projects that was partially funded by the GreenWays Initiative was the Dequindre Cut. The trail’s pavement was laid in the 2008 and, although it wasn’t officially opened yet, Woiwode recalls the high sense of anticipation.
“I would be standing on a bridge looking over the construction site and would see people crawling over the barricades because they were so excited by how cool this thing was.” When the greenway opened the following summer, “It went from a really crazy idea to a world-class community asset.”
The trail is called the “Cut” because it’s a wide trench that was sunk 25 feet below street level in the 1920s by the Grand Trunk Railroad to avoid foot and vehicle traffic, which continued overhead unimpeded on more than a dozen bridges. In the early-to-mid 1980s, when passenger and freight service was discontinued on the line, the corridor sat vacant and its bridge abutments became covered with graffiti. When the corridor opened as a trail in 2009, the colorful urban art was left and the graffiti murals are now one of its most-loved features.
At the trail’s southern end lies the Detroit River, a key part of the Great Lakes system and an international border; across the water is the City of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Near Atwater Street, an easy connection can be made to the Detroit RiverWalk, which follows the river and links Milliken State Park, numerous plazas and pocket parks, and the Renaissance Center (a shopping, dining, lodging, and entertainment complex).
At its northern end is Eastern Market, a commercial district centered around a popular six-block farmers market (open Saturdays) that has been in operation since 1891. There are plans to extend the trail nearly another mile north to Mack Avenue.
After the railroad closed, the derelict line became famous for what Detroit News reporter Donna Terek called “a gallery of graffiti masterworks” and “an ad hoc museum of hip hop culture.” Because the line ran below street level and passed under many bridge abutments and overpasses, it offered a perfect, secluded, place for graffiti artists to linger over their work. And the paintings were largely protected from sunlight and rain, so the colors remain, after many years, “eye-stabbing.”
Unlike the High Line’s designers in New York, who had to contend with Mayor Bloomberg’s Graffiti Free NYC program, the architects of Detroit’s Dequindre Cut Greenway made a commitment from the beginning to preserve the art. The construction project manager, Michael Dempsey, told a reporter in 2007: “Unless it is obscene or offensive, our policy is to leave it in place. We also want to encourage new works to the extent that the artists are willing to do that — as long as they pick up their aerosol cans after themselves!”
To help allay fears, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, stewards of the trail, installed a series of emergency call boxes and security cameras along the route, and created a uniformed security force to patrol the Cut and adjacent Detroit RiverWalk by foot and bike. Today, Marc Pasco, communications director for the organization says, “Crime along the riverfront and the Dequindre Cut is virtually nonexistent.”
Parking and Trail Access
Free parking is available at Rivard Plaza (1340 Atwater Street) near the trail’s southern end. From the parking lot, take the Detroit Riverwalk east one block to the Dequindre Cut Greenway. Parking is also available along the side streets in the neighborhood but obey any parking restrictions.