|Length||3.22 mi (5.18 km)|
|South end||Riverside Drive – border of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park|
|North end||Outer Drive / Chandler Park Drive in Detroit|
Although Alter Road itself is completely within the Detroit city limits, nevertheless it is a symbolic dividing line between the predominantly African-American City of Detroit and the predominantly Caucasian City of Grosse Pointe Park.
Like 8 Mile Road, another well-known thoroughfare of political, ethnic and economic demarcation in metropolitan Detroit, Alter Road has long been considered something of a "Berlin Wall" to separate communities. In fact, quite literally, there are places at which concrete barriers have actually been erected so as to reduce interaction between the two cities. A prime example would be the intersection of Alter and Goethe, just south of Mack Avenue, at which—right where the City of Grosse Pointe Park's corporate limit commences—that municipality has closed off Goethe to thwart both vehicular and pedestrian movement. Another example—although less physically imposing—would be the closing off of St. Paul Street (known as "Brooks" on the Detroit side of the border) to vehicles at the alley separating Alter Road with Wayburn Avenue. And along nearby Mack Avenue—another boundary between the two municipalities—the City of Grosse Pointe Park has likewise made some of its intersecting north-south side streets inaccessible to vehicles, so as to reduce the potential for criminal activity, with the intersection of Mack and Wayburn Avenues in Grosse Pointe Park constituting a prominent example.
In his 1985 book, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, author Kenneth T. Jackson describes Alter Road as "[t]he most conspicuous city-suburban contrast in the United States...".
And in reference not only to Alter Road, but in general to all thoroughfares which separate the City of Detroit from its suburbs, author Tamar Jacoby, in her 1998 book Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration declares: "Eight Mile Road, Alter Road, Telegraph Road and Tireman Avenue; though originally arbitrary—lines on a map—the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs had become a chasm between two social classes. In some places, usually where the road was wide, it divided slum from new, upscale housing development. At other spots, once similar houses on either side of the street now looked like pictures before and after a natural disaster."
As reported in the Detroit News of October 30, 2005, former Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Henry Cisneros, stated: "There is the perception that all the rich people live in Grosse Pointe and all the poor people live in Detroit, and Alter Road is the dividing line that not only denotes the physical border, but also a social border."
The just over three-mile (5.18 km) stretch of Alter Road provides some contrasts of its own. At its southernmost, below Jefferson Avenue, are generally well-kept dwellings and the pleasant Mariner Park which hosts a still-functioning lighthouse—that being the Windmill Point Lighthouse. At one time, a major medical facility was located nearby at the "foot" of Alter Road called "Marine Hospital." This particular section of Alter Road parallels the narrow Fox Creek and it is at this southern end that Alter Road leads to the Detroit River and to the southern starting point for Lake St. Clair, with Canada's Peche Island nearby.
North of Jefferson Avenue, however, Alter Road is quite blighted—as is much of the City of Detroit. However, Alter Road's northernmost blocks, between Warren Avenue and Chandler Park Drive—most especially its intersection with the meandering Outer Drive—offer a somewhat in-between of the two extremes. In the blocks of Alter Road north of Mack Avenue, a few new houses have been built, replacing older ones which had been demolished.
Up until the late 1960s, there was little visible difference between Alter Road, and the streets immediately west of it inside the Detroit city limits, as compared with the streets immediately east of it inside the Grosse Pointe Park city limits. The southeastern corner of Detroit was majority Caucasian at the time (as was Detroit as a whole) and did not suffer the urban decay which currently plagues much of Detroit. If a motorist or pedestrian had crossed the city limits back in those days, he or she might not have even noticed exiting one municipality and entering the other.
There is speculation that during the early development of the City of Detroit, Alter Road became a municipal boundary because it was the farthest point that the Detroit Fire Department was able to offer coverage. This may well have been one of several reasons that Grosse Pointe Park then developed as a separate municipality.
In popular culture
The Florida-based, and internationally-known, hard rock band Alter Bridge takes its name from guitarist Mark Tremonti's childhood experiences growing up in Grosse Pointe Park. For many years, there has been a small bridge at the intersection of Alter and Riverside Boulevard (just south of Windmill Point Drive and over Fox Creek); as a child, Tremonti was forbidden to venture past that bridge, leaving the safety of Grosse Pointe Park and delving into the dangers lurking in the City of Detroit.
Author Doug Tanoury has published a poem—on the internet—about this thoroughfare entitled, simply enough, "Alter Road."
In 2003, the NBC television network bought a script for a new drama to have been entitled "Alter Road," a series pilot created by former Detroit journalist and author Lowell Cauffiel. David Schwimmer's Dark Harbor Productions was executive producer of the project which was to have been produced at Universal Media Studios in Los Angeles County, California, and which was to have revolved around two families separated by race and class along the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Park boundary. In the end, the pilot was not picked up by the network. Consequently, the project did not advance to series, or even to mini-series, status.
- Jackson, Kenneth T. (1985), Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-504983-7, p.278