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Archive for July, 2015

Chene Street on Detroit’s east side was once one of the main streets for the city’s large Polish population. The mile and a half stretch of the street from the I-94 Expressway to Mack Avenue was one once lined with all types of shops, bakeries, ethnic restaurants, bars and other businesses that were supported by the strong Polish community.

Mixed in along Chene, and lining the streets that run parallel to it, were plenty of large two-family and small single-family wood frame homes that housed the rapidly growing Polish population in the early days of the booming automotive industry. With shifting demographics over the years, the once vibrant neighborhood is now pretty much void of commercial and residential buildings.

About three years ago I did a blog entry on the churches of Chene Street that can be viewed by clicking here. In that story I featured the variety of small churches found along that battered street and the people that they seem to cater to. Since that time, I’ve ridden down that street many times watching it slowly deteriorate. Lately it seems more and more of the older buildings have been stripped and torn down.

Like many old buildings I see on my rides, many of the ones that remain on Chene remind me of those that can be found in ghost towns on the prairies of the American west. The old, gray wooden ones especially remind me of those. The aged 100-year old buildings with their weathered cladding, splitting grain lines and sun soaked, dried out wooden facing, remind me of the tough gnarly skin of a lonely old man who worked all his life in the desert sun.

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Looking at the old wooden structures that line that barren stretch on the city’s eastside, I see more than rundown buildings; I see a huge part of Detroit’s history and heritage slowly fading away.

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Also found along Chene are some pretty interesting commercial brick buildings. A few look as if they are still in use and some feature really nice art deco design elements such as rounded corners and ornate brick work along the roof lines.

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There is still quite a variety of interesting buildings along Chene, and unfortunately, many have been stripped and burnt. However, looking beyond their rough condition, there are some real gems of early 1900’s residential and commercial architecture to be seen. It’s a shame that most will be lost forever.

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The Ford Rouge Plant is a huge, historic manufacturing facility just downriver from Detroit.  It was completed in 1928, and at that time it was the world’s largest factory of its type. The complex is about 1-1/2 miles wide by 1 mile long. At its peak, it employed about 100,000 workers.

Built along the Rouge River where it meets the Detroit River, it’s a place where large lake freighters pull in to unload iron ore that is turned into steel used in the manufacturing of automobiles. At one time, the historic complex produced nearly everything needed on site to manufacture automobiles from start to finish. Steel, glass, cast iron engine parts, etc. all came together to feed the assembly lines that workers manned 24 hours a day.

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Just outside the plant’s main employee entrance along Miller Road is a small park with a brick wall that features a series of historical markers. The markers offer a brief history of the plant. Accompanying them are historic photos of the mammoth facility that have been engraved on granite. They complement the message found on the markers.

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The markers and photos vary based on the plant’s place in history, and some feature the Rouge Plant’s role during WW II, which included production of non-automotive vehicle parts for airplanes and boats.  There is also a marker pointing out the important part women played in the overall war effort. The female employees were hired during WW II to work the assembly lines, building components for airplanes and other war related vehicles and parts. That is where the term, “Rosie the Riveter” came from.

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Also featured on the wall are plaques and photos dedicated to the labor movement and the establishment of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at Ford. In the late 1930s, union organizers tried to set up a union at the Rouge Plant. As they crossed Miller Road using the employee overpass leading to the factory entrance, they were met with Ford security guards, and a conflict erupted. Many workers were brutally beaten on that famous day.

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The conflict, known as “The Battle of the Overpass”, eventually led to the establishment of the UAW within the Ford Motor Company.

The overpass is still in use today. Standing just across it in the park is a lifelike cast statue of Henry Ford. He’s facing the bridge as if greeting the workers as they arrive.  Just behind him is the brick wall with its historic plaques. Beyond the wall is the huge Rouge complex with its vast steel and power generating plants that are still in operation today.

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At one time, Detroit had a diverse ethnic base. In the early 20th century, people from all over the world migrated to the city to work in the quickly expanding car industry and many other types of manufacturing companies. Workers settled here from Germany, Poland, the Balkans, Ukraine, Mexico, Arabic countries and beyond before moving to the suburbs.

Currently there is an influx of Bengali people into the neighborhoods along Conant Avenue from Hamtramck into North Detroit. The people from Bangladesh are moving into that neighborhood from the New York City borough of Queens where they have been priced out because of gentrification.  Plus, the housing costs in North Detroit are incredibly cheap. In addition to the affordable housing being scooped up by the Bengalis, they have opened interesting stores and services in that area.

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I remember the first time I rode along Conant in that section of the city. Not only was I amazed at the array of stores and shops, but also the rich smells of spices that filled the air.  It was like walking into a specialty spice store. Looking around at the business along the street, it made sense. There were numerous spice stores with their doors wide open and restaurants specializing in curry, cardamom, ginger, cumin and many other spicy flavored food dishes.  It was truly a feast for the nose.

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Conant, also know as Bangladesh Avenue, has more than restaurants and spice shops. Along that section of Conant that straddles Hamtramck and North Detroit are many other stores (with their names written in the Bengali native language). There are fabric and clothing stores that offer colorful, bright patterns and women’s Saris. Small, independent markets offering fresh halal meats and fish are also abundant.  Other stores offer chicken (some live) and general groceries. There is also a large Mosque serving the community.

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Some of the residential streets such as Moran and Klinger run parallel to Conant. They too have old world, small corner markets catering to those living nearby.  Like those on Conant, they offer an assortment of meats, vegetables, poultry and imported grocery items.

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That small section of Hamtramck and North Detroit is a culturally diverse, interesting and lively area. It’s a place where kids play on the streets and families walk hand in hand to the local stores and restaurants.

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