Threatened by expansionary urban renewal, redevelopment policies, and slum clearance, historic structures in Detroit during the 1970’s faced erasure from history. Representing the ethos of building a new Detroit out of the ashes of the 1967′ Rebellion, Wayne State University, the largest public urban university in Michigan, expanded its campus by condemning, destroying, and building over the historic apartment buildings, houses, and storefronts surrounding campus.
A story of mid 20th century university expansion articulated well by scholars such as LaDale Wingling, Wayne State’s expansion was contentious and tenuous, and reflected the relationship between white controlled urban institutions and the growing black population around them in previously industrial cities. Seen as the solution to the inequities and urban crisis, institutions such as universities, hospitals, sports, and corporations were sanctioned by the city to rebuild and revive, ignoring the malign effects this policy had on the mostly Black working class residents.
As Wayne State embarked on its expansion, the Cass Corridor, a working class mostly black, immigrant, and student composed neighborhood, lay in its cross-hairs. The university saw the potential of expansion in the quickly deteriorating neighborhood, but some of Detroit’s most valuable and historically important housing stock remained intact there, including the home of Wayne State University’s founder, David Mackenzie.
Long forgotten as the home of one of Michigan’s most famous educators, the building suffered disrepair under Wayne’s administration, and in 1972, it was slated for demolition to build a sewer pipe to the Forest Apartments, a now demolished student apartment complex. This plan, along with Wayne State’s disregard for the historic structures that made it up its university, urged a group of historically conscious students to form Preservation Wayne, Detroit’s first historic preservation group.
A struggle ensued from the year 1975 to 1982, and through repeated gainsays by the university, the group preserved and managed to secure a victory; preserving, and restoring, and using the David Mackenzie House as the center for historic preservation in Detroit for the next four decades.
Through an internship with the Walter P. Reuther Library, I am one of the first contemporary historians to study and document the intricate history of the founding of Preservation Wayne and its fight for historic preservation on Wayne’s campus. This research tells the long forgotten history of a group of young, historically conscious, and determined students forged a group that would be the juggernaut of historic preservation in Detroit. This is a history of urban renewal, of a university’s identity and relationship with its surrounding community, and the exacting struggle that it took to establish historic preservation in Detroit; and in Detroit’s atmosphere of redevelopment and development, this history becomes a mirror.