fountain
Hart Plaza – the Dodge Fountain and Renaissance Center, now the GMRenCen, in the background – on Dec. 12, 2022. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, Jamon Jordan’s summers were often filled with trips to Hart Plaza.

On the weekends, he and his family and later his friends would attend the various ethnic festivals at the park—the Arab, Polish and African American music festivals to name a few.

The native Detroiter and historian for the city also remembers the free concerts, which often featured popular music artists of the time.

“You’re seeing New Edition, rap groups from Run DMC to the Fat Boys,” he said. “You’re seeing Anita Baker, Luther Vandross. I saw Stevie Wonder at Hart Plaza; he gave a two-hour concert. It was awesome. I miss that.”

When Hart Plaza officially opened April 20, 1979, there was no other public space like it in Detroit. Designed by architect Isamu Noguchi, the civic center was a futuristic look straight out of outer space, Detroit Free Press said at the time. Unlike a traditional park, the 14-acre site is mostly made of concrete and consists of sculptures like the circular, stainless steel Dodge Fountain and the 120-foot column “Pylon” at the plaza’s entrance.

A 1980 photo of a crowd gathered to see a band at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival in Hart Plaza. In the background are the Pontchartrain Hotel, Detroit Bank and Trust Tower, Buhl Building, Standard Savings & Loan Building, and One Woodward Avenue. (Detroit Historical Society photo)

With a prime location off the Detroit River, Hart Plaza has become a destination for the ethnic festivals, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and later the African World Festival and the Movement Electronic Music Festival.

YouTube video
WATCH: Detroit’s African American History Museum, now the Charles H. Wright Museum, hosted its annual African World Festival in Hart Plaza the weekend of August 18th, 1989. The video’s narrator says the event attracted 300,000 people. The segment of the video that focuses on the festival ends at 4:32. (Detroit Historical Society Video and Screenshot)

While the site is still a popular space for joggers, dog walkers and festival goers, the structure of Hart Plaza has declined over the years. The pyramid structure poses a safety hazard, nearly all of the stairs are in poor condition and the Dodge Fountain hasn’t worked in years, according to the East Riverfront Assets Study released by the city this year.

However, city officials are beginning to focus their attention on the urban space again. Hart Plaza underwent a four-month renovation project last year and Mayor Mike Duggan proposed $18 million go toward repairs and improvements in his 2024-28 capital agenda.

Jazz artist and Detroit Jazz Festival director Chris Collins called Hart Plaza a modern gathering space for the community and a place that provided opportunities for entertainment along the riverfront.

“It didn’t just reinvent the riverfront, it gave everyone in Detroit a feeling of newness and forward trajectory and evolution,” he said. It’s taken a while for that to unfold, of course, but I can remember very clearly that period of time. It was exciting, and there was a lot of energy and optimism in the air and a lot of it had to do with the creation of that park, Hart Plaza.”

The birth of Hart Plaza

Situated off Jefferson Avenue in downtown Detroit, Hart Plaza is not only significant because of its proximity to the riverfront, but it’s also the place where Detroit was born.

French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived in the area in 1701 and founded the settlement that would become the city of Detroit, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

The idea of having a civic center in the city goes back hundreds of years before Hart Plaza even became a concept in the 1970s. The first attempt began in 1890 with Mayor Hazen Pingree, according to the historical society. Then in 1924 architect Eliel Saarinen was asked to create a plan for utilizing the riverfront property that included a war memorial, but the plan never came to fruition. About 23 years later, Saarinen enlisted the help of his son Eero for the third attempt to create a civic center plaza that incorporated the riverfront.

The first building on the site was the Veterans Memorial Building in 1950, now known as the UAW-Ford National Programs Center, Jordan said. The City-County Building (now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center) and the Henry and Edsel Ford Memorial Auditorium followed in 1954 and 1956.

However, plans for the actual plaza stalled, Jordan said. The Saarinens’ vision was a green space, but the final version would eventually be designed by the architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls.

In the early 1970s, Hart Plaza received renewed interest after socialite and philanthropist Anna Thomson Dodge donated $2 million for the completion of a fountain dedicated to the Dodge family, Jordan said. Noguchi’s proposal was selected in 1971, and he eventually designed the entire space.

There were many features of Hart Plaza when it was first constructed, the Free Press reported. These included:

  • The main amphitheater and ice skating rink
  • A set of stairs shaped in a pyramid structure
  • The Pylon
  • Dodge Fountain, which had 80 continually changing jets and lit up at night
  • An underground amphitheater and stage
  • Food and beverage preparation booths
  • A rinkside restaurant and bar

In 1976, the plaza got its name when it was dedicated to Philip Hart, a U.S. senator from Michigan who died that year. While parts of the civic center were open by then, construction delays and worker strikes pushed back Hart Plaza’s dedication to 1979.

monument near a river
As a northern city that borders Canada, Detroit was the last stop on the Underground Railroad. Sculptor Ed Dwight’s Gateway to Freedom monument, dedicated in 2001, honors the network of people who helped enslaved people become free. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

According to a Free Press article, the ceremony was held on a warm, spring day and was attended by hundreds of people. Mayor Coleman Young spoke at the event and Noguchi received a standing ovation for his creation.

Jordan said downtown Detroit, which was seeing businesses and residents moving out to the suburbs, had a brief resurgence with the opening of Hart Plaza and the nearby Renaissance Center.

“There’s this idea that by building up downtown that the city will revive itself,” he said. “As those ethnic festivals were happening, people really did feel like this was part of Detroit’s comeback.”

Detroit Jazz Festival here to stay at Hart Plaza

In addition to the ethnic festivals, the Detroit Jazz Festival has been at Hart Plaza since the early days. Then known as the Montreux-Detroit International Jazz Festival, the event was created in 1980 by Robert McCabe and the Detroit Renaissance as a way to get people into the city.

That first year, performances took place at Hart Plaza, as well as at the Renaissance Center, Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts and on Washington Boulevard, reported the Free Press.

The festival has since become one of the biggest events of the year, attracting thousands of people and well-known jazz artists such as Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny.

Collins, who has been artistic director since 2011, said Hart Plaza is the perfect backdrop for jazz, as the genre has a symbiotic relationship with the city’s culture.

The free festival continues to be held at the park as it’s an inviting, open space that is accessible to everyone, whether they’re a jazz fan or not, he said.

“It invites everyone, in which there are jazz fanatics, those that are just getting into jazz.There are people that walk off Jefferson to see what in the world is going on. The fact that it produces one of the great jazz listening audiences for the artists is a testament to what diversity provides us when it’s allowed to happen,” Collins said. You remove that barrier, you make it free, you get people from all different places and socioeconomic levels.

“They’re just all sitting together enjoying this beautiful art form, and it creates some of the best audiences in the world.”

dodge fountain
Hart Plaza opened on April 20, 1979 as a 14-acre civic center. The park has hosted ethnic and music festivals and more through the years. 

What’s next for the park?

In 2020, the city of Detroit began working on the East Riverfront Assets Study, which looked at Hart Plaza, along with Spirit Plaza, The Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, the Gold Coast and Marina District. The goal of study was to update the Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan and examine the conditions of the riverfront sites, according to the city’s website.

The city and the planning team hosted a series of public engagements and collected feedback on the sites from the community and ways the Parks and Recreation Department can improve them in the future. In total, 810 community participants provided input to the study.

Forty-two percent of participants thought the plaza was in fair condition, while 30% said it was in poor condition. While people like Hart Plaza’s location, they thought its amenities were lacking and that it feels empty when there are no events.

“Safety is a top priority at all of Detroit’s public facilities,” group executive of services  and infrastructure Brad Dick said in an email. “Hart Plaza was a key focus of the study, and we recognize the majority of suggested improvements are a result of concrete being exposed to years of snow and ice.”

Based on that feedback, the city’s recommendations for improving the space include making upgrades and repairs to the plaza’s structure, providing attractions that lead to everyday use, adding more green space and offering public amenities like restrooms and concessions.

The study helped Duggan and his team determine the $18 million allocated in repairing the park, according to the capital plan. However, the agenda is not a budget and doesn’t appropriate money, but it can have an impact on the annual budgeting process.

For Jordan, he hopes to see more ethnic festivals return to Hart Plaza as well as the North American International Auto Show, which held activities at the space in September.

“I have great memories of Hart Plaza and I’m seeing the beginning of Hart Plaza being redeveloped to create new memories for the present-day generation.”

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

  1. Many of the ethnic festivals moved to suburbs over the years, especially to Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights, or a few churches, and suburban Downtown Main Streets. I never missed the Slovak Festival at Hart Plaza, in 1970s and early 80s(Slovakia, once half of renamed Czechoslovakia). The festivals started in other Downtown locations, before Hart Plaza opened. I also remember the summer street flea markets on Woodward north of Campus Martius area to near Grand Circus Park. That part of Woodward was closed to street traffic. Today’s Q-Line would prevent closing Woodward for pedestrian activity. I also remember and miss the annual Big Taste Festival on W. Grand Blvd, New Center/Fisher Building Area. Besides food, that one had some popular big name entertainers.

  2. The greatest day I remember was in 1989 when activists turned the African World Festival into a Free Mandela and End Apartheid day. We filled the plaza with signs and conducted a free Mandela ribbon campaign. It was amazing how many people hadn’t heard about Mandela. But several months later he was freed and Tiger Stadium was packed with a great rally welcoming his freedom from racist captivity (engineered by the CIA)

  3. Hope the budget to reinvigorate Hart Plaza becomes a reality, sooner rather than later.
    More green space, return some original design features, and more events like the wonderful ethnic festivals! The prime riverfront location begs to be utilized.

    And let’s lose the “fist” while we’re at it. Hard to see positivity in that.

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