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Detroit’s most stable neighborhood is changing

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The second edition of a unique book on Lafayette Park illustrates what’s different and what’s the same about the Mies van der Rohe–designed neighborhood

A row of townhouses designed by Mies van der Rohe in Lafayette Park
Lafayette Park townhouses
Photo by Michelle Gerard

A lot has changed in Detroit since 2012. Then the city would soon file for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. But in recent years, Detroit has seen explosive growth in development in the urban core and become a media darling, regularly making lists of the world’s must-visit cities.

Those general trends track fairly closely with those in Lafayette Park. And it’s one reason why the publisher and editors of Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies decided to release a second edition, which came out in May this year. Because even the most stable neighborhoods aren’t impervious to change.

The “Mr. Mies” in the title is, of course, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German-American architect best known for his simple and geometric modern buildings. The book is a people-centric portrait of the neighborhood that he designed in Detroit in the 1950s.

Upon its release in 2012, the book created a surprising and positive response in the architecture community. The New York Times featured it in a photo essay and preview ahead of publication and it sold out its first run of copies.

Cover of Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies

The stir was caused because Lafayette Park was known and loved by Detroiters and the people who lived there, but by few others. Even a van der Rohe exhibit at the MoMA in New York City misidentified the townhouses. Showcasing this relatively obscure planned neighborhood by a seminal architect was a revelation to many.

Also the book was compiled by three graphic designers (Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani) who didn’t publish a classic, architecture- and history-laden tome. Instead, it features a wide-ranging number of entries, from essays and interviews to photos and snippets. And it was largely focused on the residents: why they lived there, what they liked about it, and what makes it unique.

“It’s hard to explain the book to any publisher because you can’t compare it to anything else. There’s too many different components,” Aubert says. “Anything where we said ‘that’s interesting, put that in,’ we did.”

One essay by the writer Marsha Music, perhaps the most central in the book, tracks the development of Lafayette Park—which sits on land that was formerly Black Bottom, a thriving and active center of African-American life—and her personal history with housing. She details how she came to love the camaraderie of life in the co-op townhomes, the diversity of races and incomes among residents, and the obscurity granted by living in a place surrounded by trees.

Lafayette Park was a stable and modernist reprieve from the many challenges facing the city in the 1990s and 2000s. At that time, most people who could afford to live outside Detroit did. And those who didn’t, says Music, “were ridiculed and pilloried for wanting to live in Detroit.” That sense of shared struggle forged a special social bond amongst the residents of Lafayette Park.

But some of that has gone away in just the seven years since the book was released. Music, for one, no longer lives there. She left largely for personal reasons but also, in part, because the community has rapidly changed. The current going-rate for the townhouses regularly exceeds $300,000 and has gotten as high as $600,000, making it no longer affordable to the middle-class buyers who populated the homes.

“I don’t see that same type of social camaraderie,” Music says. “Not to say that people are not individually friendly or anything like that, but it underscores why I no longer live there.”

Matthew Piper, who’s been a resident of the Lafayette Towers since 2008, wrote an essay in the introduction to the second edition where he shares a similar story. While the previous owners didn’t take care of the building, he knew and liked his neighbors. Then different owners took over, improved the building and made in functional again, but also made relations impersonal between management, residents, and each other.

“It feels more transitory, more anonymous, less friendly,” he says.

Ultimately the editors decided not to change anything essential about the book, aside from fixing some errors and adding two introductory essays (the other was by Music). That’s because, like the park, no matter how much does change, the essential character of the place remains constant. There’s always the solid towers and townhomes, their relation to each other and the park, and the community it engenders.

“There’s something about the layout that builds and supports community,” Aubert says. “It’s just harder when you have 12 units and all of a sudden there’s six new people in there.”

Lafayette Towers

1301 Orleans Street, Detroit, MI 48207 Visit Website