14. Grand Circus Park

Grand Circus ParkAfter the fire of 1805, Augustus Breevort Woodward, for whom Woodward Avenue is named, developed a plan to rebuild and restore Detroit. According to Perry L. Norton, Woodward's plan for Detroit grew out of previous designs for Washington, the Nation's capital, and Versailles, a "geometric design based on equilateral triangles culminating in the intersection of 12 streets, a confluence which Woodward called the Grand Circus" (160). Norton says that Woodward's plan eventually "closed in on itself, limited in dynamics by an unending series of Grand Circuses indistinguishable from the other" (165). By the 1920's, the Woodward plan's only survivor, Detroit's Grand Circus Park, was an icon of wealth and culture. As part of Detroit's theatre district, it was a place where the elite might socialize, surrounded by magnificent theatres: the Fox, State, Opera House, Century Club, Gem, and others. This, of course, was long before the image of Grand Circus Park and all of Detroit would change. As an illustration, Naomi Long Madgett's "Grand Circus Park" and Lawrence Joseph's "Our Lives Are Here": Notes From A Journal, Detroit, 1975" portray a Grand Circus Park that contrasts with its early 1900's existence.

Madgett's "Grand Circus Park" is a place of doubt and death. The sun is "dubious," and trees are "dying." The speaker describes "old men...grizzled and bleary-eyed as memories" (228). Through the speaker's eyes, the park becomes a type of cemetery, the site of long forsaken dreams and consumed potential. Grand Circus Park is viewed, by the speaker in Madgett's work, not as the "heart of Detroit's historic 'necklace district'" ("Grand Circus") but as a place which serves as refuge for lonely, disenfranchised individuals. The park shelters those from whom "young mothers quickly look away, [and] caress / with special tenderness their infants' proper curls" (228).

Likewise, Lawrence Joseph portrays the park as a haven for those living on the edge of society. The speaker recalls a conversation in the park:

A woman tell[s] two other women...what she ate yesterday: "a piece of leftover cornbread and a heated Hostess cake." Last night on television she watched a rerun of the Tony Orlando Christmas Show...[she says]..."...I had to cry. My husband-he used to kick the hell out of me because I cry so much. He'd say, "Why the hell are you crying?" All three of them talked about how much they cry (299).

The women are the flesh and bones of the park's condition. They, through observant eyes, exemplify not only the park but life in the city more than twenty years later. So much has changed. Madgett's speaker describes people similar to those in Joseph's work, and even the environment in Madgett's work is cast in dismal light.

Grand Circus ParkThough Grand Circus Park was born out of tender feelings, fond memories, and the hope of creating a cultural gem, Madgett's speaker talks of consuming flames and "glaucomic stares," wasteland-like images that suggest relinquished hope. Joseph's speaker, too, observes human emptiness. In essence, Grand Circus Park's earlier twentieth century visitors were strikingly different from those in Madgett's and Joseph's works. Whereas wealth, self-possession, and confidence once strolled though the park's grounds before and after many theatrical performances, these works of the 1970s and 80s, emphasize barrenness and empty dreams.

Pamela F. Harrison, a 2004 graduate of Marygrove College, works in Downtown Detroit's Cadillac Towers Building, not far from Grand Circus Park.

Photos by Anna Fedor.


"Grand Circus Park Renovation." Albert Kahn Associates, Inc: Portfolio. 09 Aug 2004.

Joseph, Lawrence. "Our Lives Are Here": Notes From A Journal, Detroit, 1975." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 296-301.

Madgett, Naomi Long. "Grand Circus Park." Abandon Automobile: Detroit. City Poetry 2001. Eds. Melba Joyce Boyd and M.L. Liebler. Detroit: Wayne State UP. 228-9.

Norton, Perry L. "Woodword's Vision For Detroit." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 133-66.

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