Grosse Pointe: Two Hundred Years

Early years, waterworld…

Reading about the early settlers of Grosse Pointe and the lifestyles they led is a confusing experience. It feels so archaic, but in a way, it feels like very little has changed in the town. Of course, it is not the hunting and farming community it used to be. Most farms in the early day had water frontage, usually running back a mile. These houses all were heavily reliable on the water, for drinking, transportation, and irrigation. The houses ran near each other, but the lawns must have been enormous. It is still apparent on the mansions that line Lakeshore Drive, Grosse Pointe Shores’ (the wealthiest of the five boroughs in the town) lakefront drive along Lake St. Clair, but perhaps nowadays the length of these can more so be attributed to luxury and status.

The good with the bad…

While hunting and farming was at the forefront, fisheries were also understandably a huge part of the economy of the town before the Civil War. Some of the most famous names in Grosse Pointe can be traced back to these early economic fortunes, such as the Kerbys, who’s fishery brought them immeasurable wealth and influence within the local government. Kerby Elementary School bears the family’s name. The town was an integral part of Detroit’s economy as well, as these wealthy producers outside of the city would supply urban citizens with many foods, service, and vacation spots. The Civil War naturally interrupted much of this early peaceful affluence, with many local men being taken far from the safety of eastern Michigan. Despite this, the wealthiest settlers continued to hold on to the air of affluence and exclusivity that would define the town to this day.

Into the 19th century…

An early map of "Grosse Point," highlighting Lakeshore Drive and Lake St. Clair.

An early map of “Grosse Point,” highlighting Lakeshore Drive and Lake St. Clair.

By 1800, Grosse Pointe Park, one of the most populated areas of Grosse Pointe (the citizens of which make up the student body at Grosse Pointe South [rivals to my Grosse Pointe North]), was fully inhabited. Schools began to be constructed during the 1840s, with the first schools being named after the town’s first Protestant ministers, Reverend John Monteith and Father Gabriel Richard. Both schools stand to this day. The town’s wealth and economy flourished with the introduction of the steamboat in 1818, followed by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Around this time, much of Michigan was being populated, and as new immigrants passed Grosse Pointe’s famous lighthouse (now part of the Grosse Pointe Shores Yacht Club), famers were also graced with them buying their fresh produce and fish.

Nearing the 20th century, Grosse Pointe had established itself as a popular summer vacation spot, thanks to the building of beautiful lakeside cottages. Daily ferries to and from Detroit allowed men to travel to the city to work while wives and children lounged by the safety of the lake. By the early 1900s, these summer cottages were replaced by large mansions, precursors to the ones that are present today. The village of Grosse Pointe Park was incorporated in 1907, and officially became a city in 1950.

 

 

Modernizing, and fast…

Well into the 20th century, Grosse Pointe was Detroit’s convenient summer resort. Bigger and better homes were constantly constructed, as the wealth from the city and the surrounding water allowed Grosse Pointe to blossom into the epicenter of affluence it is today. The “Elegant Eighties” gave way to the “Gay Nineties,” and an electric railway system allowed the city to become easily accessible to outsiders, soon the automobile and the construction of stellar roads transformed Grosse Pointe overnight from a small farming resort into a bustling suburb of an exponentially growing city.

Life around this time in Grosse Pointe was lackadaisical. Families spent large amounts of money on private yachts for transportation around the lake and entertainment. Many lounged on the sunny waters, and swimming, tennis, and biking became essential recreational activities. The Grosse Pointe Club (now Yacht Club), established in 1886, hosted lavish, exclusive parties.

Progressively, more and more subdivisions of Grosse Pointe began to break out, like Grosse Pointe Woods, where I live. While Grosse Pointe Woods is the most middle class of the boroughs, bordering my old city Harper Woods, and leading into Detroit through 8 Mile Road (where I live), early populations were almost entirely wealthy. While World War 1 halted the growth of Grosse Pointe, the “Roaring Twenties” saw the city fill with thousands of people, schools, and lakefront parks that dotted the shores first seen by LaSalle and Father Louis Hennepin three hundred years ago.

 

The Most Affluent Neighborhood in the Nation…

Grosse Pointe was quickly establishing itself as the most affluent neighborhood in the nation. By 1910, auto executives such as Henry Joy and Russel Alger were replacing the quaint cottages with unfathomable mansions designed by the likes of Albert Kahn and Adams Platt. Tudor and neoclassical homes were built for Ford heirs, and the surreal, sprawling Cotswald manor of Edsel Ford is a national protected landmark now.

One of the dozens of mansions that dot Grosse Pointe's lakside.

One of the dozens of mansions that dot Grosse Pointe’s lakeside.

 

The minor depression…

Grosse Pointe was even mostly unscathed by the turmoil of the Great Depression. The city continued to grow as a full-fledged commercial center, The Village, grew increasingly popular after its conception in 1936. The town’s first movie theater, the Punch and Judy, opened in 1931 to enormous success. Also in 1931, the village of Lochmoor annexed the Stanhope-Allard strip, increasing its scope and eventually changing its name to Grosse Pointe Woods in 1939. By 1940, The Grosse Pointe News and The Grosse Pointe Review opened its doors.

The middle of the century…

M.L.K. speaks at present day Grosse Pointe South High School.

M.L.K. speaks at present day Grosse Pointe South High School.

The city could not escape turbulence though, as debates over racial injustice during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, drugs, and family values shaped the town’s identity. The town is almost infamously white and conservative nowadays (yeesh), but progressive steps to deal with a tumultuous nation were taken during the middle of the 20th century. The Northeast Guidance Center, Family Life Education Council, and Grosse Pointe Interfaith Center of Racial Justice were established between 1963 and 1967. In March 1968, three weeks before his assassination, the Human Rights Council sponsored a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Grosse Pointe High School (South, but at the time the only high school in the city). From 1970 to 1979, police departments organized the interdepartmental Youth Services Bureau to serve local young people facing issues with drugs, delinquency, and domestic affairs.

 

Nowadays…

Nearing the 21st century, though very dependent on Detroit for its economy, Grosse Pointe was becoming increasingly independent. The racial segregation that has influenced the town so much began taking hold in the 1980s, as developers continued to expand the city further and further from Detroit. Housing prices soared, and commercial districts, especially in Grosse Pointe Park, were modernized. Now, the city is split into two, with this divide being most clearly visible within its school district, as Grosse Pointe North hosts kids from the Park, Woods, Shores, and Harper Woods areas, while Grosse Pointe South is almost exclusively made up of Park and Shores teenagers. It is safe to say that many a Republican vote will be cast in the town come next November, but progressive ideals still remain. But next time you’re there, don’t take a trip to a town hall or a high school debate class, take the time to walk along Lake St. Clair, or Mack Avenue at dusk. Attend the heated North-South homecoming game, go find the yearbook with Meg White’s yearbook photo in my high school’s library. Have a hani at National Coney Island (a glorious two minute walk away from my house), or go wait out some bad weather in Rainy Day Art Supply. Our Original Pancake house has been called “an institution,” my middle school’s library sells old books for 50 cents every Saturday. It’s a weird place, it kinda sucks, but it’s home.

Source: Grosse Pointe Historical Society (http://www.gphistorical.org/)