You’ve seen it: the Sign. All through the renovation of the 1898 El Moore urban living project on the corner of 2nd Avenue and West Alexandrine, the seemingly well-worn Sign has been there, saying to all who pass: “Welcome to Midtown.” The Sign was there before the work on the El Moore began; it was there during the twenty years the El Moore building was vacant. But where did the Sign come from? What else has the Sign seen from its spot at the edge of Midtown Detroit? What is “Midtown” anyway? What happened to the “Cass Corridor?” Really, what past and future “signs” are in that Sign?
Those of us who have been around Detroit long enough remember the area of Detroit from Cass Park to the south to Wayne State University to the north, along Cass Avenue (just one block east of the El Moore), as the “Cass Corridor,” and most of us remember that area as being, well, shall we say: “downtrodden.” Unless you were a Wayne State student commuting to class and then quickly leaving the area again, very few people actually wanted to be associated with the Cass Corridor. But then, slowly but surely, a few decades ago, that area came to be known as “Midtown.” We native Detroiters knew there was Eastside Detroit and Westside Detroit, but “Midtown Detroit?” Where did the people who renamed Cass Corridor think they were: New York City?
Actually, around the turn of the 20th century, when the El Moore was built, the Cass Corridor area was “upscale.” The beautiful homes that remain tell the story: very rich people used to live here. Before Detroit became the “Motor City,” the titans of industry at the end of the 19th century excelled in manufacturing and railways, and the export of lumber, copper, and furs—all very abundant in Michigan at the time.
At the same time, the area around the Cass Corridor became an academic center, with the Detroit Medical College (the precursor to Wayne State University) and the Center for Creative Studies, as well as Central High School (now known as “Old Main”) located in the area. The area also was home to Detroit’s Chinatown, located around Cass and Peterboro.
But the Great Depression changed everything, including the formerly affluent Cass Corridor. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the area became home the less affluent residents, and the really final economic decline continued through the 1970s and 1980s as the fortunes of the entire City of Detroit also declined.
Cass Corridor always attracted artists, musicians, and other creative types of all races; unlike most of the rest of Detroit, there was no “white flight” in the Cass Corridor. The same is true today, just on a larger scale. The Cass Corridor area has always developed its own “culture,” which carries over to the present day. Today, Midtown Detroit is filled with brave entrepreneurs who are rebuilding and reopening buildings and business, as well artists, musicians, and other creative people. Businesses who never left the Cass Corridor are mixing in with those who are discovering that Detroit is a great place to plant new roots.
In the 1980s, developments started a hopeful resurgence of the area, which now included an expansion north to West Grand Boulevard and beyond to the new “New Center” area just north of the “Boulevard.” The beginnings of the change from the “Cass Corridor” to “Midtown” were set in motion.
Our research tells us that the “Welcome to Midtown” Sign has been in its present location for probably at least 30-40 years, although no one can definitely say when it appeared. We believe that the Sign has been through several revisions and iterations, but no one knows for sure.
What we do know is that the Sign is now on the El Moore property, and that is where it will stay. By mid-2016, the construction fences will be gone. We can only speculate on what the Sign has seen in the past, but now its future is up to us.
What will the Sign say? What will it see?
What’s in a Sign? Let’s just say, the Sign is a sign of the past and the future of Midtown Detroit.