Maybe you’ve only seen Detroit in maps. Maybe you live in the suburbs, so some of the names are the same. Regardless of how well you know Detroit’s wacky layout, you probably haven’t thought too much about where those names came from. That’s where we step in. Here, then, are some of the fantastical and intriguing stories behind Detroit’s many street names.
First, of course, we must start with Woodward Avenue, the artery of metro Detroit from the river all the way to Pontiac. Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward was a character. A slovenly, occasionally drunk legal genius, Woodward sported massive, bushy eyebrows and a nose of gargantuan proportions. With these stellar qualities, it’s perhaps no surprise he never married. Despite his personal failings, he was an outstanding and influential judge in the early days of Michigan Territory. He presided over some of the cases that would define Michigan’s constitutional goals as a state years later. He helped found the Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania, in 1817. Fortunately for all students and graduates, that tongue twister would quickly be changed to The University of Michigan.
Enter Judge Woodward. He came along at just the right time. Just a couple of weeks before Woodward arrived in Detroit, a runaway baker’s cart horse spread a fire that devastated the young city, leaving just a couple of buildings smoldering and one single church steeple standing. Detroit, as a town, was almost over before it even grew enough to be noticed.
Where some saw disaster, Woodward saw opportunity. He’d recently relocated from the newly christened national capitol of Washington D.C. and was enamored of the spoke-and-wheel street pattern designed by the Marquis de Lafayette. Woodward decided to adopt Lafayette’s pattern for the frontier town on the river. One starry night in 1805, he clambered up to the highest spot he could find, a massive rock in what is now Campus Martius downtown. He took his astrolabe (a fancy distance-measuring device) and pointed it up to the sky, scribbling furiously as he worked. Soon he had the whole Woodward Proposal lined up: a spoke-and-wheel design for city streets that incorporated grand circuses (green spaces) and boulevards—including one named conveniently after himself.
He did claim, though, that he named the main northbound street Woodward because it went “towards the woods” of Pontiac.
Woodward’s master plan didn’t go off without a hitch. In fact, from the very beginning, he faced serious backlash from the families settled along the riverside, mostly holdovers from Detroit’s old French trading post days. You see, when Detroit was first founded in 1701, Cadillac himself granted plots of land to settlers that were very long and very narrow, and all had crucial access to the riverfront. When Woodward came along and proposed chopping the property of the Rivards, the Fourniers, and the Campaus into bits just so his grand boulevards could churn through them, the old families mounted a major protest.
The compromise between Woodward and the Old Detroit French eventually settled pretty close to the Detroit road map that you see. Particularly downtown in areas like Campus Martius, though, you can still see remnants of the resistance to Woodward’s grand plan. Some streets end abruptly; others zig-zag through intersections or turn sharp corners at odd angles. This does have something to do with the spokes leading from Woodward’s planned public spaces, although many of those never quite materialized. It also has much to do with the fact that Woodward’s plan took so long to be proposed, submitted, voted on, and entered into the legal system that land speculators and Detroiters with nowhere else to live simply started scooping up rectangular plots. By the time Woodward was ready to start building his roads, there were farms, outhouses, and schools already parked there.
Woodward may have been a lofty urban designer, but the cows don’t wait for pontificating before they settle down.
In fact, of Woodward’s great plan, only a fraction of the proposed boulevards and parks ever came to be. The rest fell by the wayside as land-hungry investors and tired citizens just threw up buildings where it made sense to them, which was not always on a triangular plot that had no access to the shipping and irrigation resources of the river.
Despite his territorial spats with the citizens of Detroit, Woodward served the city well as a scientist, a statesman, and a judge. When the British forced the shameful surrender of Detroit in the War of 1812, Woodward was one of the few to refuse to surrender to British rule. Detroit was always dear to Woodward’s heart—crooked alleys, blind turns, and all.