Lafayette Park might be one of Mies van der Rohe's most successful projects but still it remains relatively unknown, likely because it is located in downtown Detroit. And while it contains the most Mies buildings in a single location in North America, its success stems from the union between the architecture, the planning by Ludwig Hilberseimer and the landscape architecture of Alfred Caldwell. Together they designed an excellent overlay of modern townhouse villas, towers, gardens, pedestrian traffic, parking and roads in a way that has resulted in a layered tranquil setting, and remains relevant.
The area is safe, partly because it operates as a coop. Neighbours know each other and function as a community. Even during the darkest points in Detroit’s recent history, this area has remained stable.
What makes the area spectacular though are the layered gardens and landscape. Parking is set a few feet below ground level, hiding cars and asphalt from long views. Hawthorn hedges and lilacs led through the site and punctuated locations. A next layer of flowering plums was then further sheltered by a very sculptural upper storey of locust trees. This garden composition was very important for the interior architecture of buildings that are mostly glass. Forty five years later, the trees have matured and the site feels like a series of villas in a park. Its incredibly peaceful.
The site is not completely unproblematic. Lafayette Park occupies the bulk of what had been Black Bottom (named after the blackness of the soil), a site centred around Hastings Street that had prior to WWI been the centre of Jewish culture in Detroit, shifting after the war to become the city’s epicenter of African American owned businesses. By the 1950’s this neighbourhood and the adjacent Paradise Valley were internationally renowned for jazz and blues, and an important political centre for Black culture in Detroit.
But the neighbourhood had been doomed since the city planned a highway to run through it in 1946. Delayed for more than a decade, the neighbourhood sunk into disrepair as absentee landlords resisted upkeep on the buildings. Racist housing policies in the city meant that African Americans were stuck here, banned from living in most neighbourhoods through use of redlining and restrictive covenants, or simply through aggressive intimidation tactics. The density of areas like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley therefore mushroomed, while the off-site landlords of these buildings did little to keep them up.
By 1958 the Chrysler Freeway was laid in the location of Hastings Street, which had once been the main commercial hub of the district. By the 1960’s, the City of Detroit labeled the remaining area as a slum, and the area was slated for urban renewal. The entire site was bulldozed to build Lafayette Park and the Chrysler Freeway, with multiple 10’s of thousands of inhabitants unable to afford the residences in Lafayette, and largely moved to the Brewster Projects and Jeffries Homes. Business owners were not provided with assistance to relocate, and an intricate and rich social network that had been established in this area was blasted to pieces.
Detroit's African American business district for a while had shifted to 12th Street, which again went through the pressures that had been experienced in Black Bottom. In July of 1967, the 12th Street Riots exploded, with a reach that affected the entire city. 12th Street is now unrecognizable as a commercial strip, the burned out storefronts cleared in the 90's in an effort to stabilize the city.
Forty years later, Lafayette Park however is a well kept and highly functional part of Detroit, inhabited by a racially diverse and politically active group of people. Because it is a coop, it is stable, a well kept microcosm of Detroit, whose people know and look out for each other.