Happy 313rd, Detroit OR: Dancing on the straits

Look, I will probably get some heat for saying this, but I am NOT that excited about Detroit turning 313. Or maybe I should say: I’m not more excited about this particular anniversary than I am about Detroit’s every anniversary.

Because DETROIT’S BIRTHDAY IS THE BEST. We shouldn’t need a flimsy coincidence — the year our city’s age matches its area code, more or less arbitrarily assigned in 1947 — to really go all out. LET’S GO ALL OUT EVERY YEAR. (I guess it’s kind of a point of pride that as one of the nation’s most populous cities, Detroit was granted one of the nation’s easiest-to-dial area codes — rotary phones, remember — hence, New York 212, Chicago 312, Los Angeles 213, Detroit 313.)

But then it’s always been this way. In 1901, celebrating the city’s bicentennial, Detroit looked like this:

Bicentennial parade, 1901, via Library of Congress


Detroit City Hall, decorated for the bicentennial. Via Burton Historical Collection.

Stanford White, one of the most prominent American architects of his day, submitted plans for a 220-foot tall bicentennial memorial on Belle Isle:


Stanford White’s bicentennial memorial plans, published in The Century

But the funds were never raised (OK, who dropped the ball on this?), and plans for the bicentennial memorial were scrapped. Twenty years later, when Mayor John C. Lodge tried to make Detroit’s birthday a civic holiday, a writer for the Detroit Free Press asked:

There are certain days in the year which are always celebrated. No legislative act is needed to give them their character as holidays because the people themselves made them. … There are other holidays which have been duly designated by official proclamations or legislative acts that never have taken hold of the people’s hearts and are never observed except under artificial stimulation.

Does Detroit care enough about its own birthday to make celebration of the occasion anything more than a hollow sham? Is there any popular demand for the proposed holiday and, if there is not, is the council prepared to guarantee a dignified and worthy observance of the event?

Luckily, we seem to be on a rising tide of pride and celebratory spirit here on the straits. When I first started writing about Detroit history five years ago, I would have had to throw my own Detroit birthday party to commemorate the occasion. (I thought about it, but ran out of time. Other discarded ideas: Writing a song about Antoine Cadillac; learning some voyageur folk songs on the accordion; throwing some kind of canoe-themed parade.) This year, I considered not even writing about it. The Free Press coverage, thanks to your friend and mine Dan Austin, has been all-out. (See also: Detroit’s best mayors, Detroit’s worst mayors, an incredible then-and-now look at Detroit’s historic fabric.) And there are so many parties to go to! Here’s a list of ’em.

I’ll be at the street party on Kirby Ave., hosted by Forward Arts and the Detroit Historical Museum, where all-Detroit soul music by Motor City Soul Club will have us all dancing on the streets. (Dancing on the straits?) More details here.

And I’ll be hoping what the Free Press hoped in 1922: That we all move this tradition forward next year, with just as much pomp and glee. May July 24 continue to be “an important occasion in the history of each year, and one that will help to create a body of citizens who are conscious of their city’s greatness and proud of its history.”

Yay #313bday!


My letter to Detroit at 310

An excerpt from my book about Cadillac’s landing

Cadillac’s own description of his arrival at Detroit

Historian Clarence M. Burton’s 1904 recreation of Cadillac’s voyage