Mapping the evolution of Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood

Grab your laptop, sit down, and click through a new interactive map that showcases the last century-and-a-half of housing history in the Woodbridge neighborhood. 

From the arrival of French settlers to present day, the built environment of the community two miles from downtown Detroit and its many changes are documented online in the map filled with archived newspaper clippings, property and population records, historical photos, and more. 

“Realistically, the city and the neighborhood are not that old comparatively to other parts of the world, other parts of the country, but it’s gone through a hell of a lot of change,” said Mark Jones, a Geographic Information System (GIS) expert who created the map for the Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation (WNDC), which steered and funded the project. 

The mapping is ripe with surprising and intriguing nuggets, like video of horses transporting the 800-ton Scripps library building across the street, details about how the Detroit community almost hosted the National Curling Championship and the castle on Grand River that used to be a police precinct. 

According to the map, the oldest standing home in the neighborhood is from 1873. 

Christine Holmes, director of Policy and Property Development for WNDC, said the story map was created as a continuation of the community engagement work WNDC was doing in 2020 to address resident concerns about new development happening in Woodbridge on vacant lots.

In response, WNDC conducted a six-month community engagement process involving more than 150 residents, resulting in design guidelines for development and infill housing. 

“The history project and infill development and design guidelines are really sort of in reaction to the development that is happening in our neighborhood,” Holmes said. 

“The idea was to talk about how and who built the neighborhood back in the late 1800s, through the early 1900s,” Holmes said. “But then really discuss how the federal and local policy and planning decisions, those forces, helped shape how the neighborhood has changed since then.”

A Detroit Free Press classified ad from 1879 for one of many homes in Woodbridge built by brothers Henry Clay Hodges and Charles Carroll Hodges. (Screenshot from the Woodbridge Housing StoryMap)

Woodbridge once had two movie theaters, a bowling alley, multiple grocery stores, an artisanal ice cream plant, and a curling rink, among other amenities. But the businesses were all lost during urban renewal in the 1960’s when neighborhoods of color were targeted for “slum clearance.” 

Wayne State University and the Detroit City Planning Commission cleared out 254 acres of land–essentially half of Woodbridge. As a result, the neighborhood that was once growing and filled with life, turned into “a disaster area” per a Detroit Free Press newspaper clipping in the map. 

“On every block are boarded-up homes or apartment buildings, looking blind and gagged. Here and there homes are burnt, charred, gutted, dotted with broken windows: the grim signs of the vandal,” a 1970 editorial from Free Press writer Michael Maidenberg reads. 

Approximately 220 acres of Woodbridge were cleared out, but many of the initial plans for Wayne State were never realized, according to the story map. 

Jones said he hopes to keep adding to the map, to show recent population growth and new economic development in the neighborhood. 

From the late 1800s up to the 1960s an average Woodbridge mini-mansions sold for $4,000 -$10,000. Fast forward to today, and the same homes sell for upwards of $500,000. The neighborhood has also gained several bars, a Japanese restaurant, and a coffee shop in the last two decades.

The red areas denote the first subdivisions of Woodbridge. The green lines show the study area for the Woodbridge Housing StoryMap. (Screenshot)

The mapping project was created using a mix of publicly available documents and records. Jones, who is a GIS and data analyst for the City of Detroit, estimates that it took him 20 hours a week for a year to build the site. Soon, the oral histories of longtime Woodbridge residents will be added to the site. 

“There’s a lot of history that happened only within 120 years,” Jones said. “It is not a long period of time for history, but there was a whole lot that happened.” 

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