Thursday, October 24, 2013

Detroit's Water Park Gate

Hurlbut Memorial Gate at Water Works Park, Detroit

By virtually any measure, the bankruptcy of Detroit, Michigan, is a sorry shame.

And we're talking bankruptcy in more than the financial sense of the term.

But speaking of its finances:  Detroit's are the worst of any city in the country.  Theirs is the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, affecting a city that's probably lost more of its population than any other in the country.  The industry for which it's been celebrated the world over now employs less than 20,000 people within Detroit proper, roughly ten percent of its peak.  Half of those jobs are at two small factories, and 6,000 at downtown's Renaissance Center, where General Motors retrenched its office staff in a bid to keep the city's central business district from completely emptying out.

One of the stipulations in its 2009 bailout was that GM keep its headquarters in the city.  So it's continued presence in town represents no bellwether regarding the city's economic viability.  Ford's headquarters never were in Detroit, but in Dearborn.  And Chrysler's headquarters bailed from Motor City for its suburbs in 1992.

Left behind, after all of the white flight, the exodus of over a quarter-million manufacturing jobs, and even a sizable chunk of its black middle class, are the relics of a bygone era.  Relics from when Detroit was a great American boom town.  These relics aren't just what's become "urban porn:"  the empty hulks of abandoned factories and office skyscrapers, or boarded-up church buildings and banks and shopping centers, or block after block of crumbling houses and vacant lots, where generations of the city's families used to live.

Amongst all of that rubble are relics of a different sort.  Detroit is still home to some fabulous architecture in the form of Art Deco office buildings, some of which Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has been snapping up in the hopes that Motown will find a new corporate groove.  There are also rows of opulent mansions that have survived in leafy neighborhoods with names like Indian Village and Sherwood Forest, built by the first waves of auto executives and manufacturing moguls to earn their wealth in the once-powerful metropolis.

And then there is the grand public art, the stuff with which old cities can remind newer residents and visitors of the glory they used to claim.  There's Campus Martius and Grand Circus parks, the downtown plazas from which several of the city's major streets radiate.  There's Belle Isle, in the middle of the Detroit River, that despite the city's dysfunction, continues to hold glimmers of its idyllic past.  And there are smaller, less prominent artifacts from better days, tucked into the city's now-decayed fabric.  Artifacts such as the Hurlbut Memorial Gate.

A gate, you say?

Ahh, but this isn't just any gate.

Celebrating Transitions as Public Art

Back in the 1800's, America's cities were dirty, noisy, and unlovely places.  Comparatively speaking, even today's Detroit is paradise, at least in terms of its paved streets and sidewalks, without all of the mud and piles of horse manure.  Can you imagine?

One of the popular ways Nineteenth Century cities sought to make life a little more aesthetically pleasing for their residents was by gracing their public spaces with ornamental pedestrian attractions.

Remember, this was before automobiles, trucks, and city buses, when traffic consisted of horse-drawn buggies and good ol' walking.  Creating a feeling of space and arrival could be done in ways with which people could personally engage.  There was no sheetmetal or tinted glass creating a motorized cocoon for commuters, insulating them from the streetscape.  These ornamental attractions were tactile, accessible, and functional, borrowing European design ideals while applying a New World sensibility.

Green-Wood Cemetery's gates in Brooklyn. Photo by Jason Dovey
But they could still be quite monumental in scope, such as the soaring Gothic Revival triumph of the main entrance gates at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.  Walking through them, with their flying buttresses and filigreed spires, the transition between a comparatively profane streetscape and the sacred reverence of a burial ground is unmistakable.

And, on a smaller scale, the Hurlbut Memorial Gate in Detroit accomplished a similar feat, standing between the commercial boulevard of Jefferson Avenue and a sprawling city park stretching down to the river.

A smaller scale than Green-Wood's, yes, but the Hurlbut gate is still quite impressive, with its Beaux Arts opulence commanding three tiers of limestone, topped with a triumphant American eagle.  When it was built in 1894, it served as the actual gate to Water Works Park, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world at that time.  Carriageways for entering and exiting the park flanked either side of the Hurlbut gate, and a pedestrian gatehouse, plus two water troughs for horses, anchored its base.  On the opposite side, facing the park, two ceremonial staircases reach down, welcoming visitors to the gate's terrace level featuring a pedastal that used to hold a bust of the gate's namesake, Chauncey Hurlbut.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the bust was stolen as the neighborhood faltered.  Why somebody thought they needed it remains a mystery, but perhaps being marked by such modern antisocial behavior is apropos, considering this is Detroit.

Industrialization Needed Lots of Water, and Detroit Obliged

For its part, Water Works Park was begun in 1868 to supply the city of Detroit with drinkable water.  It straddles the riverbank north of downtown, near Belle Isle, and for decades after its initial construction, was open to the public.  Water Works Park represented the rampant civic enthusiasm of Detroit's heady days, when the threat of fire on wooden construction couldn't contain the city's rapid growth.  In 1852, an agency had been created in partnership with both the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan to manage the growing city's water needs, and in 1879, Water Works Park opened as the agency's first project.

Today, that agency, now called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, serves 40 percent of Michigan's population, and a much-modernized Water Works Park is still one of the department's signature operations.  The whole department is owned by the city, and is well-managed and profitable, which is rare in modern Detroit.  In fact, experts following Detroit's current bankruptcy proceedings have mentioned it as one of the assets the city could sell to help pay off debts.

Water Works Park was closed to the public long ago over fears that somebody could contaminate the city's water supply by taking advantage of what had been relatively unlimited access to its acreage.  There used to be walking paths, ponds, manicured lawns and shrubbery, a towering turret almost as high as the Eiffel Tower, a library, and a children's play area.  But all of that is gone today, while underneath its vast acreage, now cleared of trees and ponds, hides a concrete catacomb of cavernous water processing bunkers.  The Hurlbut Gate has nothing to welcome guests into, and the city has even gated off the gate, running a wrought-iron fence right across its entrance, and plopping a traffic signal control box in front of it.

When the gate was remodeled in 2007, some city residents complained that sprucing up a frivolous stone bauble from Detroit's past was a waste of money.  Actually, the money to construct the gate in the first place came from Hurlbut's estate, which is why it's named after him.  Plus, his estate included funds for its care.

Unfortunately, the quarter-million-dollars or so that Hurlbut left behind may have been a lot of money in his day.  It was enough to prompt angry relatives in New York to contest his will, since they didn't want what they considered their inheritance squandered on a silly gate in Michigan.  Nevertheless, even with compounded interest, those funds likely proved insufficient to pay for a complete overhaul more than a century after Hurlbut's death.  The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, custodians of his estate, likely had to find more money from other parts of their budget to cover all of the costs.

Whether it should have been simply relocated, of course, is another debate altogether.

If You've Ever Navigated on the Erie Canal

So, who was Chauncey Hurlbut? And why did he have this thing about ornamental gates?  In front of water treatment plants?

Hurlbut was born in 1803 in Oneida, New York, which is situated on the Erie Canal.  In 1825, when the Erie Canal opened, linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, Hurlbut left Oneida to seek his fortune out west in Michigan's frontier.  His first job was as a harness maker, but after he married, he and his brother-in-law opened a grocery business, and, riding on the coattails of Detroit's surging prosperity, he became a wealthy wholesale grocer.

In those days, entrepreneurs and the moneyed elite didn't leave prominent municipal jobs to civil servants.  Instead, they volunteered the credentials and expertise that earned them their money and prestige in the first place to the business of running various departments in the cities where they lived.  For Hurlbut, he had a thing for the fire department, so he made himself available to be fire commissioner.

And what do fire departments use to fight fires?  Water, of course.  So Hurlbut next served on the water commission board, first during the Civil War, and then from 1868 to 1884, when for twelve years, he was its president.  At first, city leaders wanted to name their sprawling facility on Jefferson Avenue in his honor, but the "Hurlbut" name never resonated with the public.  Instead, popular vernacular insisted on calling it Water Works Park.  Apparently, that didn't bother Hurlbut, who died in 1885, never seeing his gate, which wouldn't be built for another nine years.

Still, he wanted his legacy to be something the people of his adopted hometown could enjoy and claim with pride.  Little is known of what happened to his business, or his family, but his record of volunteer service exists today as a hallmark of one of Detroit's prized civic assets, and we're not simply talking about his gate, but both Water Works Park and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Today, many wealthy Americans would scoff at immortalizing themselves in a gaudy gate, although some will lend their names to prestigious institutions like universities, hospitals, or libraries.  And times have changed for city boards, too, where professionals with advanced degrees in the disciplines over which they're responsible make decisions and guide planning for things like water purification systems and public safety departments.  Mostly, this evolution makes sense, since even in Detroit's case, their water board was constantly struggling to keep up with advancing technologies, the demands of a rapidly-growing economy, and new scientific and public health discoveries.

Gateway to Symbolism

Perhaps what makes the Hurlbut Gate notable today isn't just its elaborate architecture, although its design alone makes it worthy of preservation.  In addition to that, however, is the dedication to the public good and the service to one's community that it represents.  Hurlbut's gate symbolizes his desire to give something back to the city where he made his fortune, and he apparently didn't begrudge Detroit the taxes it was levying for the construction of its ever-more-sophisticated water treatment facilities.  In fact, this self-motivated, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps entrepreneur celebrated the civic spirit, and the things governments can do when the public good is its end result.

Of course, this is one reason why many wealthy Americans today don't willingly give their money for civic projects, since we've come to learn how wasteful and autocratic government agencies can be.  Not everybody in civic life today cares very deeply about the public good.  In fact, judging by the many reasons why Detroit is facing its perilous bankruptcy today - indeed, its first trial in the process started yesterday - a lot of people who were supposed to be serving the public good of their fellow Detroiters cared only about themselves and their self-aggrandizement.

People like former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who just got slammed with a 28-year prison sentence for corruption in a federal probe that convicted another 32 Detroiters.  People like attorney Ronald Zajac and trustee Paul Stewart of Detroit's pension funds, who were indicted this past March for corruption.  And this is just the list within the past several years.  Detroit's history in the latter part of the last century is littered with city council members who either intentionally ignored the city's growing crisis, or refused to admit they were unqualified to address it.  To be sure, corruption and incompetence are not the only factors contributing to Detroit's current state of affairs, but they - and the people who committed them - play prominent roles.

So it's not simply that the Hurlbut Gate today represents the altruism of a forgotten generation of American wealth-builders.  It also represents the way powerful Detroiters used to give of themselves to their city, instead of being so concerned about whatever they could get for themselves.

Maybe there's no practical place for people like Chauncey Hurlbut in administrating today's municipalities.  But there shouldn't have been any room for the people who acted most unlike Hurlbut during these past several decades of the city's stunning decline.

The fact that, today, the Hurlbut Gate is completely fenced off, voiding its practicality, simply provides another bitter bite of irony for the city it was built to serve.

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