Virginia Park Historic District

Both sides of Virginia Park Street from Woodward to the service Drive for the
John C. Lodge Freeway near Detroit’s New Center

Nineteenth-century cities were dirty, congested places with high mortality rates. Their rapid population growth exacerbated the problems. The Nineteenth Century’s most acclaimed urban planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, extensively rebuilt Paris between 1850 and 1870. He designed the basic structure for the beautiful city we see when we visit the capital of France, with its broad streets, boulevards, circular intersections and numerous spacious parks. His ideas for urban renewal spread across the western world. Michigan’s legislators in Lansing were, presumably, influenced by Haussmann’s thinking in the early 1870s when they made two key decisions that shaped the Detroit we appreciate today. Working with the city government, the legislature established Belle Isle to serve as an urban park rivaling other parks emerging at that time: Central Park in New York, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Mount Royal in Montréal. Their other decision was to establish a circular road that would separate the densely settled area of the city Detroit from outlying rural areas. This was Grand Boulevard.

Detroit’s population surged from 46,000 in 1860 to 80,000 in 1870, 116,000 in 1880, and then almost doubled to 206,000 in 1890. The population could no longer be circumscribed by Grand Boulevard, so developers began plotting land and constructing homes on outlying land. Virginia Park was one of the first such developments. In 1893, 92 lots were platted and then sold to businessmen and professionals who had the city’s leading architects design substantial homes in a variety of then-popular styles, including Tudor, Neo-Georgian, Bungalow and Arts and Crafts. Building requirements ensured that only the prosperous would live in this community. Most of the homes were constructed between 1893 and 1915; thus this historic district tells us about suburban development at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Note that the lot size is relatively small and that these large homes have minimal distances between them, although they are set well back from Virginia Park Street so there is much grass to mow in the summer.

As early as about 1910, the neighborhood association became concerned that the commercial development along Woodward would have negative effects upon the quality of the neighborhood, but the real decline set in during the 1930s. The Depression meant that some owners could not retain or maintain their large homes. Some subdivided their residences to generate rent income. There was strong opposition to this but, similar to Brush Park, the economic crisis of the 1930s changed the neighborhood. And then in the 1940s, there was a tremendous housing shortage in Detroit when the city’s population temporarily exceeded two million. Providing space for those working in the Arsenal of Democracy was the patriotic thing to do.

This is now a revived Detroit neighborhood. The bloodiest event in the racial riot of July, 1967 and the incident that most clearly illustrated the racial divide occurred at the corner of Virginia Park Street and Woodward. On the fourth and final night of that riot, a security guard working at a building on Woodward thought he heard rifle shots being fired from the Algiers Motel, then located at the corner of Virginia Park and Woodward. This motel was well known to Detroit police officers since they often made arrests there for drug sales and prostitution. The State police, the National Guard and Detroit police officers all went to the Algiers Motel, but city police officers told the others to leave since they would handle the situation. Inside the motel, Detroit police officers found about a dozen young black men along with two young white women. Apparently, the officers believed that the black men were not only selling drugs but were also employing or supervising the young white women as commercial sex workers.

What happened inside the motel is not exactly clear, but various accounts strongly suggest that the white police officers teased, threatened and then beat many of the young black men. After about an hour or so inside the Algiers Motel, Detroit police officers left, but three of the black men had been shot to death—Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple. The others and the white women escaped and quickly spread the word that white police officers shot three young black men to death in cold blood.

City prosecutors and the federal Department of Justice immediately knew they had a tense issue to face. They worked diligently to convict officers Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak of murder. However, the black men who survived the incident were neither credible nor convincing witness since they had long rap sheets and told conflicting stories. There were no convictions. John Hersey, then one of the nation’s most popular authors, wrote The Algiers Motel Incident (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1968), a powerful and detailed book that linked racial violence, sex and police brutality in a most effective way. It became very popular and remains one of the two most informative books about the Detroit 1967 riot, the other being Sydney Fine’s Violence in the Model City, The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989).

In his provocative book, Hersey describes what is now the Virginia Park Historic District: “…the Algiers stood at the corner of Woodward and Virginia Park, an elm-lined street elegantly brick-paved in the old days but potholed now and patched with asphalt, a street of once prosperous wooden and brick houses with boastful porches and back-yard carriage houses recently declined into rooming houses and fraternity houses and blind pigs, as Detroit calls its illegal after-hours drinking spots.” (p. 10).

In 1979, the component of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation concerned with residential mortgages and development announced that they would invest in the neighborhood across Grand Boulevard to the north of the General Motors Building. This served as something of a stimulus for the renewal of this area. Virginia Park Street became an historic district in 1982 and now includes 58 residences. It is an attractive revived neighborhood much closer to its condition in 1900 than to its condition forty years ago when John Hersey described this area.

After the riot of 1967, city official sought to close and tear down the Algiers Motel, but its owners had a profitable establishment and successfully protected their investment for some years. In 1979, the city closed the motel and, as it to erase the memory of the tragic incident that occurred there, the city wiped out the intersection of Virginia Park Street with Woodward and replaced it with a small park-like lay out.

So far as I know, there is no book that extensively describes the Virginia Park neighborhood nor is there a neighborhood association that maintains a website.

City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed November 22, 1982
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Historic District # P25, 274
State of Michigan Historic Marker: None
National Register of Historic Places; District # 82000557 Listed December 2, 1982
Description prepared: March, 2007

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