The moment was 20 years in the making. The mayor of Detroit was there, scissors in hand. A former mayor, too. Leaders of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy along with major foundations. News crews from all the major stations lined up in a row of cameras on tripods.
Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were there. Well, their likenesses from the Detroit Parade Company, that is.
All gathered at Mount Elliot Park to celebrate the ribbon cutting that would open the Detroit Riverwalk’s Uniroyal Promenade.
The Uniroyal Promenade
The Uniroyal Promenade is the newest stretch of the public park that lines the Detroit International Riverfront. People from all over the city and the suburbs came on their bikes, roller skates, electric unicycles, hoverboards, with strollers and wheelchairs, or just their own two feet to test it out.
Before the officials cut the ribbon to open the promenade, several spoke about its backstory. They described how long and hard the journey had been, and how many many people helped to revive and beautify the stretch of land along the Detroit River. City leaders, foundations, businesses, and many volunteers worked together to make it happen.
As each person spoke, I felt compelled in a way I had not expected. I honestly had not given a lot of thought to how the riverfront came to be in its present iteration and now I realize I had taken it for granted. Hearing about it made this event all the more special, and I was grateful to experience it.
The Detroit Riverfront’s Storied History
Some 20 years ago, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (DRFC), a nonprofit organization, was formed with the aim of improving the waterfront for all to enjoy.
Some areas had seen development in the years prior. Hart Plaza opened in 1975, hosting many varied events since, and Chene Park (now the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater) opened for concerts in the 1980s.
But many uninspiring places remained with unrealized potential. The DRFC sought to improve and connect the developed areas and add more parks and attractions between and beyond.
3.5 Uninterrupted Miles of the Detroit Riverwalk
The Uniroyal Promenade starts at Mount Elliot Park. It winds around a stretch of land where an old tire factory used to sit, continues under MacArthur Bridge, and opens up into Gabriel Richard Park. With its completion, the Detroit Riverwalk now extends 3.5 uninterrupted miles.
I knew none of these details as I joined in the festivities on that late October morning. I was just looking for something to get my kids out of the house.
Mount Elliot Park – Site of a “Shipwreck”
We arrived that morning to find Mount Elliot Park bright and friendly, despite overcast skies. Volunteers warmly welcomed us and handed out fun little flags and ribbons. The hashtag adorning all the signage was #BringEverybody and the spirit of togetherness and celebration defined our experience that day.
Just beyond the welcome tables sat a small pavilion with restrooms. (A cafe was already closed for the season.) As we moved closer to the center of activity, the kids spotted and marveled at the Gilbert Family Schooner – a large ship run aground, broken masts soaring up to the cold grey sky. The “shipwreck” is a splash pad in the summer, but still a fun playscape in the off-season.
The chilled air became less of a problem as the crowd of people gathered – not just because of the concentration of warm bodies, but the warm and celebratory spirits swirling among them. A steady stream of Motown music played, inspiring spontaneous dancing and sing-a-longs. But instead of “Dancing in the Streets,” we were dancing on the Riverfront.
The Inaugural Stroll
Once the speakers wrapped up their remarks, everyone gathered at the entrance to the new promenade. I heard someone say something about cutting the ribbon – we were too far away to see – and the crowd started moving forward.
We took a slow stroll down the roughly half-mile promenade, following not too far behind Aretha and Stevie. A band marched ahead of us, too, adding to the festive atmosphere. Every now and then we stopped to look at the sights – the boats, Canada, the bridge.
We were delighted at the discovery that we could actually see the James Scott Memorial Fountain and some other iconic Belle Isle structures from the promenade. We spotted one freighter before it slipped by on the other side of the island and out of view.
The path took us right up to and under the bridge connecting the mainland to Belle Isle Park – our favorite part of the walk. I hadn’t seen it so up close from that angle. It really is a beautiful bridge.
Gabriel Richard Park
When we came out on the other side, we arrived at Gabriel Richard Park. Special activities awaited us for opening day – fun foods, bounce houses, carnival rides, and various vendor booths.
Among the more permanent features of the park are several binoculars providing even more scenic views. We found many of the butterfly garden’s flowers still in bloom, even in late October. The garden contains its own short trails dotted with quiet places to sit and enjoy the fluttering, colorful wings in summer.
Another small plaza contained tables and seating, restrooms, and a small ground-level fountain that was still operating despite the late date. The kids ran between the water spouts several times before I implored them to not soak their shoes.
Detroit Riverwalk Conveniences
When it was time for us to head back, we got to experience the promenade from the other direction and with a smaller crowd. I started to notice the little details more.
Emergency call boxes dot the path, should anyone ever need help while they are there. Plenty of benches, public restrooms, and trash cans as well.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. The entire walk is paved, and wide spaces allow visitors to go at their own speed, whether on foot or on wheels.
Plenty of Nearby Amenities
The areas near the Riverwalk contain a lot of amenities as well. Visitors have a choice of hotels, restaurants, and recreation along the International Riverfront, including the first urban state park in Michigan (Milliken State Park) and multiple greenways that connect different parts of the city with the riverfront.
The Detroit Riverwalk is the place to be for festivals and other events throughout the year, including Movement – the Detroit Electronic Festival, The Detroit Free Press International Marathon, Motor City Pride, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, various other concerts, and River Days.
It’s great for fishing and birding. There are so many things I plan to return to do here with my family or friends.
“Bridge to Bridge”
The Detroit Riverwalk isn’t done yet, though. The next phase of development will extend west. “Bridge to bridge” was touted as the original vision – from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle. When all the hard work is finally complete, 5.5 miles of riverfront will be developed, connected, and open to the public in perpetuity.
I came to the Riverwalk looking for a way to spend a morning with my kids. I left invigorated and full of love for Detroit. As some of the speakers remarked at the beginning of the day, many of us don’t even remember what the riverfront used to look like. Twenty years is half my life. My kids’ generation and all those after them will never know an undeveloped, unsightly riverfront.
What a gift and legacy for all to enjoy for years to come.