October 20, 2014

Indian Trails and Woodward's Plan

Last Thursday, michiganradio.org published a story in answer to the question, "8 Mile Road is eight miles from where?" I love everything about the early urban planning history of Detroit and I was glad to see the subject come up in the local media. The essential answer given (that 8 Mile Road is eight miles from Campus Martius in downtown Detroit) is correct, but there were some inaccuracies in the piece that deserve correction.

The story claims that the spoke-wheel layout of downtown Detroit is not the work of Augustus Woodward--who of course drew up a new plan for the city after it burned in 1805--but it was based on the Indian trails that converged in Campus Martius. "When Detroit was settled, Campus Martius was deemed the center of town because it was where all of these main roads came together," the author writes.

Campus Martius was not at all the center of early Detroit. The location of the original French fort was chosen for its defendability and convenience, not because of any confluence of Indian trails. There was not yet a settlement (European or Native American) for these trails to converge upon. Old Detroit stood at the water's edge near what is now the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Shelby Street. The fort gradually grew until it reached about the size of four modern city blocks. In 1779, the British built a more modern military fort north of the old French town at what is now the intersection of Fort and Shelby Streets. Below is a map of Detroit from around 1796 (when the United States took over) with the city's modern street grid superimposed over it. Campus Martius, on the upper right hand corner, was well outside of the settlement.

Even as the city rebuilt following the 1805 fire, some Detroiters scoffed at the idea that the town would ever expand far enough to encompass what is now Campus Martius. John Gentle petitioned President Thomas Jefferson directly, complaining about taxes being wasted on "digging wells and erecting pumps ... near half a mile behind the town of Detroit, where in our opinion no town will ever exist." In the new town's early days, the greatest concentration of buildings was south of Jefferson Avenue, roughly where Hart Plaza is today. As late as 1819, the main streets of the town were Jefferson, Woodbridge, and Atwater, and the north-south streets barely even reached Campus Martius.

The conventional wisdom that the spoke-wheel street pattern of Detroit came from Augustus Woodward's ideas is actually correct. Here is one engraving of his magnificent plan:

The English-built fort, just west of Campus Martius, gives us a reference point for understanding its relation to the old settlement. Why did Woodward place Campus Martius, the center of the new city, where he did? It was simply because it was in the middle of the public grounds. Under French rule, none of the land immediately outside of the fort was ever granted to private individuals. It was surrounded by a large common area which was flanked on either side by privately owned ribbon farms.

How do we know that our spoke-wheel roads are based on Woodward's plan? Let's look at how the plan is organized. Its foundation is a 4,000-foot equilateral triangle, outlined in green below. The triangle is bisected three times with streets (outlined in orange) that all intersect at Campus Martius.

Woodward's plan, if it was allowed to be fully carried out, would look like this, if the map is rotated so that due north is straight up:

The scheme viewed from farther out:

There are differences between this plan and the roads we have today, which I will get to in a moment. The point here is that these roads are all based on the bisected equilateral triangle, yielding avenues separated from one another by 30° angles. Indian trails followed the land, sticking to high ground, avoiding obstacles, crossing streams at their narrowest point. The roads built by the United States government cut straight, rigid paths through the land. Indian trails were unplanned, unmapped, and developed emergently under the feet of travelers following the most convenient route to a destination. They might branch out and reconnect, and did not have pinpoint beginnings and endings. Indian trails and Woodward's plan are two very different systems with very different origins.

How do today's roads diverge from Woodward's plan? First, Washington Avenue never continued north of Grand Circus Park. Second, Gratiot Avenue was built one block north of where it "should" have been because the owner of the Brush Farm had an orchard that was in the way. And third, Grand River Avenue didn't extend through Grand Circus Park from Miami Avenue (which is now named Broadway) but it is two blocks south of that. This is probably because Grand Circus Park was a swamp when construction began on Grand River Avenue in 1832.

Having said all that, didn't some of our roads begin as Indian trails? Definitely. US-24 between Detroit and Toledo mostly lies upon an old segment of the Maumee Trail, expanded and improved upon by the U.S. government in 1814. Much of the St. Joseph Trail is preserved by various rural highways. Shiawassee Road in Farmington coincides with an Indian trail that appears in an 1817 survey:

If I do make one concession to the idea that Woodward's plan is connected to the Indian trails, it would be to say that Woodward Avenue did replace the old Saginaw Trail between Detroit and Pontiac. This path appears on an 1817 survey of Royal Oak Township (which was once a six-mile-by-six-mile square bound by 8 Mile Rd., Dequindre, 14 Mile Rd., and Greenfield). Here is that path (which splits into two and then comes together again) superimposed over a modern map of the area:

When you are driving on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, you aren't exactly retracing the steps of the Native Americans and pioneers of two centuries ago, but you are at least headed in approximately the same direction.

It is claimed that Michigan Avenue (US-12) follows the Sauk Trail. This is true for much of US-12 in the middle of the state, but it is not true of Michigan Avenue within today's Detroit city limits. Michigan Avenue begins at Campus Martius and heads in a straight line due west for almost five miles before turning south to eventually meet the old Indian path many miles later. Most likely, it appears that eastbound travelers on the Sauk Trail came to Detroit by first arriving at the River Raisin, following it down to the Detroit River, and then following the shoreline upstream to Detroit.

Some say that Gratiot Avenue follows the old Moravian Road, but that is not correct. The Moravian Road actually began at Connor's Creek, 4.5 miles east of Campus Martius. It curved to the northeast and ended at the Moravians' settlement in what is now Harrison Township. Gratiot Avenue begins in downtown Detroit, runs in a straight line for fifteen miles before its first curve, and terminates in Port Huron. These roads head in roughly the same direction, but one is not based on the other.

Detroit and vicinity circa 1797.
Source: King, Robert after Patrick McNiff. A Rough Sketch of part of Wayne County Territory of theUnited States North-west of the River Ohio [map]. In: Dunnigan, Brian L. Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit, 1701-1838. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001, p. 106.

Grand River Avenue has a similar story to Michigan Avenue. It is often claimed to be an Indian trail, but that is only true for some portions well within the interior of the state. It began as a road to Howell before being extended to the west side of Michigan. Perhaps it is confused with the Shiawassee trail, which intersected Grand River Avenue in downtown Farmington. This trail appears to begin well west of the settlement at Detroit, and heads north to Saginaw after passing through Farmington.

Detail from an 1825 survey of Michigan, showing the Shiawassee Trail. (Source.)

There is SO MUCH MORE that I wish I could write about. I didn't even mention the Woodward plan's Point of Origin, which you can see in Campus Martius Park; or the amazing Public Land Survey System; or the beautiful connection between the two, or their relationship to 8 Mile Road (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Wisconsin/Illinois border as the article also claims).

Thank you, Michigan Radio, for bringing up my favorite subject! Honestly, this has made me want to start a whole new blog just about the urban planning history of Detroit.

October 13, 2014

Sam's Loan Office -- aka "Gold Cash Gold"

Prior to 1889, only a small, single-story brick building stood on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Wabash. Built in 1878, it was last occupied by wagon maker James Cullen. It stood for about a decade, then was torn down to make way for a much larger structure.

On June 4th, 1889, the Detroit Fire Marshal issued permit #828 to the contracting firm Topping & Fisher for the construction of this mixed-use, three-story building, estimated to cost $12,000. It would contain three commercial spaces on the ground floor with three apartments and offices above. The architect is unknown.


Although the building permit index and a notice in the Detroit Free Press confirm the date of the permit, construction evidently started before that point. The Free Press reported on May 29th of that year that Topping & Fisher's masons went on strike the previous Saturday, May 25th. Of the masons employed, according to the paper, fourteen were working on the new police court building, and eleven were at the Michigan Avenue and Wabash site. They walked off the job after George Fisher's brother, Jerry Fisher, was employed by the firm but refused to join the masons' labor union even after the other workers offered to pay his initiation fee. On June 1, it was reported that work on the court house resumed after fourteen non-union men were hired, but no more information about the Michigan Avenue strikers has been found.

2100 Michigan Ave. as it appeared in a Nov. 17, 1912 Detroit Free Press notice.
Note the decorative brickwork along the roof line that is now missing.

Early Occupants

The pre-1921 addresses of the building, from left to right (west to east), were 636, 634, and 632 Michigan Avenue. The first occupant of No. 636 according to the 1890 city directory was Crimmins & Conway, a saloon owned by 26-year-old David Crimmins of 351 14th Street and 31-year-old Thomas D. Conway of 75 Jones Street. Crimmins immigrated from Ireland in 1883, and Conway was born in Michigan to Irish-American parents. Their business did not last more than one year.

The middle unit, No. 634, was not occupied when the 1890 directory was published. But from 1891 through 1897, it was a shoe store owned by 44-year-old William P. Lyons of 392 17th Street. The longest-running tenant to occupy this space before the 1960s was a Kroger grocery store, from 1916 through 1933. Kroger had bought out the Schneider Grocery Co., which had occupied that space since 1911.

The first business to set up shop in the right-hand corner unit, No. 632, was the bakery of George Pearce. Mr. Pearce lived in the flat above his business, but relocated by 1893. His bakery was followed by that of Eugenia and John Mayer. They also lived in the flat above their bakery and operated out of this location for nine years. The subsequent businesses at this address until 1920 would all be bakeries. Note the word "Bakery" barely visible above the doorway in the photograph above.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Dec. 15, 1907.

Not every past tenant of this building will be researched here, but it is worth highlighting at least one early long-term proprietor, Mrs. Johanna Sullivan, owner of a cigar and confectionery store at 636 Michigan Avenue from 1908 through 1925. She was born in Ireland in 1873 as Johanna Fitzgibbon. She immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of fifteen. In 1898 she married Cornelius Sullivan, a machinist fellow Irish immigrant. They had at least four children together. On January 24, 1907, Cornelius died from influenza at the age of 35. Johanna and her four children (one of them a newborn) moved from their home on Livernois Avenue to 636 Michigan Avenue where she opened up her confectionery and cigar store in 1908. It remained open at that location for eighteen years, making Mrs. Sullivan the longest-renting proprietor in this building until Sam's Loan Office occupied it decades later.

The building permit index indicates that some renovations occurred in the 1920s. A permit was issued on March 6, 1922 for work on the storefront, and another on March 22, 1922 to convert the offices into additional apartments, increasing the number of living spaces in the building to six. In 1921, the addresses of the building changed from 636, 634, and 632 to 2110, 2106, and 2100.

Below are all of the ground-floor commercial occupants of this building through 1936.

Between 1936 and 1937, William and Nellie Doherty expanded their grocery store at 2106 Michigan Avenue, combining it with the vacant unit at No. 2110. Below are the tenants who occupied this building in the new configuration through the end of the 1950s. Note that very few city directories are available after 1941.

The 2100 block of Michigan Avenue in 1953. The awning on the side reads "Tierney's."
Image courtesy Detroit Historical Society.

All three commercial spaces would be combined into one unit in the early 1960s.

Samuel H. Rubin

Leslie Gold,
For What It's Worth: Business Wisdom from a Pawnbroker (New York: Penguin Group, 2013).

Sam Rubin was born in Poland in 1893 and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. Being very poor as a young man, he would collect junk found by the side of the road to sell. He worked tirelessly for a better life, eventually learning the tailor's trade and opening a used clothing and tailor supply business on Hastings Street, which was then the center of Detroit's Jewish community (and has since been bulldozed for the construction of I-75 and I-375). Rubin first went into the clothing business with a man named Meyer Goldberg, and their shop first appears in the city directory of 1913. On December 28 of that year, Rubin married Katherine Sassin, also a Polish immigrant. They were wed by Rabbi Joseph Eisenman of Congregation Beth Tefilo.

Goldberg and Rubin moved their clothing shop north on Hastings Street several times before settling at 3840 Hastings, at the southeast corner of Leland Street. Sam and Katie Rubin lived in the apartment above the store. By 1920, the only name on the business was Samuel Rubin, who had evidently parted ways with Goldberg.

In the 1940s, Rubin opened a pawnshop in Corktown at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Fifth Street. The transition from retailer of used men's clothing to pawnbroker is not as great a leap as it sounds. Historically, clothing was the most valuable commodity owned by working class people, and it was the item most frequently pawned. Some even believe that the word "pawn" derives from the Latin word for cloth. In its early days, Sam's Loan Office sold men's suits, pants, shoes, and hats in addition to jewelry and other items.

The original Sam's Loans at 955-959 Michigan Ave. in 1959.
Image courtesy Detroit Historical Society.

Suspended from the sign for Sam's Loan were three gold balls--the
universal symbol of the pawnbroker, dating back to the Middle Ages.
Image courtesy Detroit Historical Society.

You have probably heard of Sam Rubin's grandson, Les Gold, third-generation pawnbroker and star of the reality TV show Hardcore Pawn. In his book, For What It's Worth: Business Wisdom from a Pawnbroker, Gold writes about growing up around the business, spending Saturdays with his grandfather, whom he called "Popsie." It was in the original Sam's Loan Office at Michigan Avenue and Fifth Street that Gold made his first sale at the age of seven.

According to Gold, his parents (Louis Gold and Shirley Rubin) married after getting pregnant with him. Rubin brought Louis Gold into the family business in order to ensure that his daughter and grandchild would be provided for.
Impregnating my mom was a real stroke of luck for my dad. Before he met her, he had been a pool hustler and worked in a refrigerator factory. But when my grandfather gave him a job at the pawnshop, L.G. had a chance at real success. He had a golden opportunity to learn from Popsie, a man who worked his way up from nothing to build a solid business.
The area surrounding the original Sam's Loan Office was known as skid row, and the local businesses consisted largely of flophouses, liquor stores, and other pawnshops. The entire district--including all of the buildings on Michigan Avenue between Cass Avenue and the Lodge Expressway--was condemned in an urban renewal project in 1961 and demolished between 1962 and 1963. It was then that Rubin moved his business from the old Fifth Street location to the building at 2100 Michigan Avenue. Rubin combined the all of the ground-floor commercial spaces into a large, single store.

Sam's Loan Office, 2100 Michigan Avenue, in 1976.
Image courtesy State Historic Preservation Office.

Sam Rubin passed away in 1969, and his business continued to operate under his family's management. Les Gold opened a branch location, American Jewelry and Loan, in 1978. In 1981, he parted ways with his father and bought out his share of the new store, running it as an independent business.

Troubled Times

Source: Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1, 1972.

At approximately 1:20pm on December 31, 1971, three armed robbers walked into Sam's Loan Office and demanded money and jewelry. As Louis Gold emptied the safe, he activated a silent alarm, alerting the police. When the call went out, Officer William Schmedding Jr., a sixteen-year Detroit Police veteran, volunteered to respond despite being on patrol alone. When he entered the store, he was met with a barrage of gunfire and killed.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1, 1972.

The robbers tried to flee but were met by the other officers responding to the call. One of the robbers, Gus Smith, died in the gunfight that ensued. His brother, Robert J. Smith, was wounded, and Leon Smith (who was not related to the other two) was captured unharmed. Two of the twelve customers at the store were also wounded when they fled the store in a panic and were mistaken for other robbers.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1, 1972.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1, 1972.

Officer Schmedding was 39 years old when he died, and left behind a wife, two daughters, and a son. He was the sixth Detroit Police Officer to die in the line of duty in 1971.

This was far from the only time that Sam's Loan Office was held up. According to Les Gold, the store was robbed on December 5th two years in a row, in 1979 and 1980. After that, one employee refused to work there on December 5th ever again.

The incident in 1971 wasn't the only deadly robbery. On July 2, 1983, three gunmen--Taveen Lakiff Tupper, Charles Ross, and Derrick Mills--entered the store around 1:30pm, pretending to be customers. Mills was disguised as a woman as part of the holdup attempt. When they got close to Louis Gold, they demanded money.

An employee was speaking on the phone to her husband when the robbers entered the back office and hung up the phone. Her husband called back and one of the robbers answered, claiming to be a new employee. Knowing that this was a lie, the husband called the police. When the robbers attempted to flee the store, they saw that the police had arrived. They took Louis Gold hostage and attempted to cross Michigan Avenue to enter Gold's 1982 Cadillac and escape.

Source: The Detroit News, Jul. 3, 1983.

Gunmen attempt to force Gold into his Cadillac, parked in front of 2125 Michigan Ave.
Source: The Detroit News, Jul. 3, 1983.

Before they could enter the car, one of the gunmen's firearms discharged and Gold fell to the ground. The police opened fire on the three. In the gun battle, fifteen police officers fired more than 80 bullets. No officers were injured, but Mills was killed and the other two robbers were injured. Some baseball fans who had watched the Tigers play the Baltimore Orioles that afternoon returned to their cars to find them punctured with bullet holes. Gold had been beaten badly during the robbery attempt, and it was found that he had been shot in the left buttock, but he survived.

Source: The Detroit News, Jul. 3, 1983.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Jul. 3, 1983.

Source: The Detroit News, Jul. 3, 1983.

Louis Gold, who was 60 at the time of the robbery, left the business a few years later. In 1987, the store was run by B & C Jewelry and Loan Corp., owned by William J. Connell of Farmington Hills. The Gold family retained ownership of the building.


In 2010, a new business entity named Diamonds and Rifles--a reference to the odd pawnbroker advertisements painted on the building--purchased the building from the heirs of Louis Gold, who passed away in 2008. Diamonds and Rifles is owned by members of the Cooley family, famous for Slow's Bar-B-Q, which opened on the same block in 2005.

Under new ownership, the upper floors of the building have already been renovated into six apartments and rented, and the ground floor commercial space will soon open as a comfort foods restaurant called Gold Cash Gold, another reference to the building's odd exterior lettering. Curiously, the new owners have decided to restore the pawnshop-era paint scheme.

Source: Gold Cash Gold's Facebook page.

2100 Michigan Avenue cira 2010.
Source: Gold Cash Gold's Facebook page.

2100 Michigan Avenue, October 2014. Photograph by the author.

Gold Cash Gold is expected to open by November.