Looping Detroit: A People Mover TravelogueSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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I started riding the people mover this way—in 2005, with a group of fourth grade Detroit Public School students. It was our field trip. Everyone got two tokens. At the time, downtown was seemingly empty from the elevated view we had through the train windows. We peeked in the Wurlitzer building, the Whitney, the Book Hotel. We went around and around, then stopped at Grand Circus Park and, finding the fountain at the center dry and not working, made our way to nearby Capitol Park, where the buses came in and out. Capitol Park had been the site of Michigan’s first state capitol—with a monument to the first governor, Stevens T. Mason, to prove it. We ate our bag lunches by this man’s statue, surrounded by a few party stores, check-cashing places, and the backs of parking garages.
Today, a startling number of those places are gone save the backs of the parking garages. Capitol Park, like Grand Circus Park, is poised between that past Detroit and the post-bankruptcy city, with longtime residents now being pushed out of downtown conversions, displacing older residents to high-end affluence: the reopened Book Cadillac Hotel, outcroppings of luxury retail, craft beer on Broadway, and tech startups in the Whitney building. The ground circumscribed by the elevated line still resembles the city the suburbs sought to avoid, but its future is precarious, and as the bars and bakeries on the ground find their leases up, their presences become occupied by unfamiliar faces and voices, leaving entire communities and cultures displaced.
The promise of the People Mover as public infrastructure was to start a transit system downtown linked to a larger transit network that would serve the greater city. Detroit is still waiting on that promise and, at present, has funneled 140 million dollars into a largely privately funded 3.3 mile streetcar line: the M1. The M1 will serve the Woodward Avenue spine—the corridor from the Detroit River up to the New Center area—already the most heavily invested slice of the city with corporate anchors from Quicken Loans and Fiat Chrysler, Whole Foods, Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Complex, and new constructions of loft-style living.
While a Reagan administration transit chief predicted that the Detroit People Mover could become "the least cost-effective transit project in the last 20 years,” we are in many ways entering a similar agreement with the M1. While the vast majority of population and area is outside both the People Mover loop and the M1 line—waiting instead for public buses—the people may still not be moved by this transit project, but the city is moving.