When Detroit emerged as a manufacturing center after the Civil War, factories, warehouses and rail lines were built along the Detroit River. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, municipal officials and planners realized that one of the city’s greatest assets was its waterfront, but it was then unattractive since it was used intensively for manufacturing and transportation. Following World War II, Detroit was a prosperous city with a very strong tax base. But planners and officials knew that there were quite a few problems on the horizon, including the need to keep manufacturing jobs in the city, the need to encourage home building for a population that approached two million, the need to raze a great many neighborhoods of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century modest workingmen’s homes that were rapidly aging and, most importantly, the emerging racial conflict over whether the city’s government, its schoolstings Street on the east sid, its police force and many neighborhoods would be controlled by whites or by blacks.
Albert E. Cobo was born in Detroit in 1893. He worked in public utilities for some years and then took a job in the city treasurers’ office in 1933. Twelve years later he ran as the Republican candidate for City Treasurer and was elected. He served in that position for five years and then, in 1949, ran for mayor. He was elected and served until he died of a heart attack in 1957. The previous year he had been the unsuccessful lican candidate for governor of Michigan.
By the time he took office in 1950, Mayor Cobo, his advisors and city planners; knew that Detroit was an older industrial town with a rather unattractive downtown. No new office buildings or hotels had been constructed in the central business district since 1929. Mayor Cobo was a strong advocate for using the city’s financial resources to rebuild and change the old city. He strongly supported constructing the expressways that now cross the city and allow suburban residents to easily access the city’s downtown jobs and entertainment venues. But these large roads took out numerous homes in many neighborhoods. Mayor Cobo was elected with very little support from the city’s increasingly large black population, and then earned their animosity by strongly promoting the razing of the key black business area—Hase—so that the Chrysler Expressway could be built to facilitate transportation downtown.
Waterfront development projects were underway when Albert Cobo became mayor. The Ford Foundation funded the now-empty Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium on the river front near the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward. The Dodge family was funding the creation of the waterfront area now known as Hart Plaza and, nearby, the Veterans Memorial Building with its marvelous external sculptures had been erected. The city needed a large convention center and a downtown arena. Mayor Cobo endorsed the development of the buildings that were given his name after his death.
Because of numerous large signs, busy traffic and surrounding buildings, it is quite difficult to appreciate the architectural appeal of Cobo Hall. There is a large rectangular convention hall fronting on Washington Boulevard with upwards of 300,000 square feet of exhibition space. It was erected in an era of massive road building with only a little thought given to public transit. Thus, the Lodge Freeway enters downtown just after passing beneath the Cobo exhibition hall. And the roof of Cobo Hall is a huge open-air parking lot. At least some thought was given to public transit since a space was designed in the bottom of the building that could someday be used as a commuter rail station for lines running toward Toledo and Ann Arbor. That space has never been used as a rail station.
To the immediate northeast of the rectangular exhibition hall, stands the Cobo Arena with seating for about 13,000. The green granite walls of the arena contrast with the white marble façade of the exhibition hall, but it sometimes takes effort to appreciate the difference. When Cobo Arena was opened, the highly successful Detroit Red Wings hockey team played in their own very large facility, Olympia Stadium on Grand River, so the city’s leading hockey team never played at Cobo Arena. The Pistons team in the National Basketball Association moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Detroit in 1957 and played their home games in vast Olympia. Professional basketball was not a tremendously popular sport at that time so small crowds were lost in the vast hockey arena. The Detroit Pistons moved to the more confined Cobo Arena and played there from 1961 to 1978 when they moved to the Pontiac Silverdome.
Although it was a very large facility when it opened, the Cobo exhibition hall soon proved to be too small for major events such as the North American Automobile show and meetings of the Society of Automotive Engineers. In the mid 1980s, Mayor Coleman Young undertook efforts to substantially expand the size of the Cobo exhibition hall. Within a few years of completing that expansion in 1989, Cobo once again was too small to host some of the largest national conventions and shows. For the last ten years or so, various plans have been discussed by city officials to either expand Cobo once again or replace it with a more modern and larger facility.
The Norris Brother, owners of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, found their Olympia Arena on Grand River outdated, threatened to move the team to another city, and thereby led Mayor Coleman Young and the city’s taxpayers to build a new facility adjoining the Cobo exhibition hall. The city spent $57 million to build this facility that opened in 1979. Hockey is the whitest of the nation’s major sports in terms of players and spectators. Mayor Young took delight in naming the new hockey arena after the city’s best known sports hero, Joe Louis.
By 2008, Joe Louis was one of the older arenas still in use in the National Hockey League. There is much speculation that to increase revenue, the Illich family that owns the Red Wings will eventually build a new downtown arena. There also seems to be consensus that this time, the team’s owners will have to pay the lion’s share of the costs. It is possible that the building of a new arena in downtown Detroit could be linked in some manner to the building of a vast new exhibition and convention campus. Vastly expanding the size of Cobo exhibition hall, using its current footprint would seem to necessitate razing either Cobo Arena or the Joe Louis building or both.
Description prepared: February, 2008
Photograph: Ren Farley, 2013
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