The University Record, October 15, 2001

Origin of Detroit freeways at Bentley

By Emily Herbert
News and Information Services

The Bentley Historical Library exhibition includes many rare artifacts from Detroit, including the cut-to-form ‘Beautiful Detroit’ brochure (above) from the 1940s. (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
In celebration of Detroit’s 300th anniversary, the exhibition “Getting Around Detroit: Detroit’s Streets from the Woodward Plan to Freeways” is on display at the Bentley Historical Library. According to William Wallach, associate director, “through maps, photographs, city plans, engravings and books, this exhibit traces the history of street planning in Detroit, from the early 19th century through the 1960s.”

For the past 200 years, a variety of street plans have been tried and tested, largely through the process of trial and error. The invention of the automobile sparked the most active phase of experimental street planning in Detroit, as street improvements had to be made due to increasing levels of congestion. Since the mid-1920s, “an evolution in street planning has taken place,” says Len Coombs, associate archivist. “From street-widening, to divided streets and streets with overpasses, streets have evolved through the years to form what is now our present-day freeway system.”

Highlights of the exhibition include the first street plan for Detroit, circa 1830, following the devastating fire of 1805 and pictures of Woodward Avenue before and after street widening in the mid-1930s.

According to Coombs, the evolution of Detroit’s roadway system still is visible today. “All the various kinds of roads Detroit tried at different times can still be seen,” says Coombs. Therefore, although the exhibit focuses on the history of Detroit’s streets, it also may be of interest to non-historians with a general interest in the origins of Detroit’s freeway system.

“Getting Around Detroit: Detroit’s Streets from the Woodward Plan to Freeways” is on display through Dec. 21 at the Bentley Historical Library, located at 1150 Beal Avenue on North Campus.