A Closer Look at a Historic Highland Park Pedestrian Tunnel

Most people who walk or drive past this decrepit, defaced concrete structure in Highland Park have no idea it represents a curious piece of Motor City history
highland park pedestrian tunnel
The pedestrian underpass at Cortland and Second Avenue is now sealed.

What am I looking at?

This is the corner of Cortland and Second Boulevard (now Second Avenue) in Highland Park photographed in color in September 2021 and in black and white at an unspecified date some 80 years ago. The old-fashioned stop sign and that concrete structure are almost the only things that look even vaguely the same, time having been cruel to an area once bustling with middle-class housing and life. But that is more than just some weird white bunker; it tells an important story about how America adjusted to the onset of automobile age.

Why do I care about this eyesore?

Well, that right there was once a cutting edge method of promoting traffic safety before it occurred to people to put up traffic lights at busy intersections. This was an entrance to a pedestrian underpass that opened in 1925 in response to a high rate of pedestrian fatalities that included 96 children perishing in Detroit in 1924, the Detroit Free Press reported. Highland Park then boasted more than 50,000 people packed into 3 square miles — now there are just 10,000 — so there was a lot of traffic.

Why didn’t they just put up a traffic light?

Good question! Although the first electric traffic light was installed in 1914 in Cleveland, they weren’t cheap or ubiquitous, and many drivers didn’t understand what to do when they encountered them. Plus, they required an officer to manually operate them at a cost of $2,000 per year. Instead, for the relative bargain of $5,000 ($78,000 in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation) the city dug this underpass walkway. Others were built across the region, too, but only a few have left their once white-washed and somewhat elegant entrances behind as an ignominious historical marker of sorts. Two others in Highland Park include matching white concrete structures bracketing a onetime crossing at Second and Pilgrim and an unsightly rectangular metal grating on the east side of Woodward Boulevard at John R and Chandler streets. In Detroit, there used to be a well-known underpass at Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street in Midtown. There are archival photos, but there’s no above-ground evidence left there.

pedestrian tunnel - highland park
Historic photograph courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Union Affairs, Wayne State University

It’s a walkway tunnel. That’s really cutting edge?

For real. Popular Science wrote about underpasses like these in 1928, noting how they helped auto-shy pedestrians. The introduction of automobiles to wide roadways designed for horses and walkers required a response, especially in places like Highland Park, where Henry Ford opened America’s first moving assembly line in 1913 and transformed the town. In 1910, the population was 4,000; a decade later, it exceeded 46,000. There’s even a brilliant public service film from 1937 available on YouTube about pedestrian roadway safety in which the Cortland and Second tunnel is featured with a precocious kid being guided through by a gregarious police officer. “Say, wouldn’t it be swell if you could cross every street this way?” the moppet asks. Officer Friendly couldn’t agree more, replying, “Well, they’re building a lot of these now, and just for the sake of pedestrians, too.” In this era before seat belts, drunk-driving laws, and other measures we take for granted today, the roads were especially deadly for those not in cars. Highland Park city engineer Lawrence Whitsit was mighty proud of the underpasses, telling the local media, “Everything has been done to make the tunnel acceptable to children and to the average pedestrian. We have made the stairs an easy grade, the interior of the tunnel pleasant, and done everything to ensure its generous use.”

What’s down there now?

A whole lotta nothing. Some of the tunnels were filled with concrete and their entrances demolished, but the tunnel at Cortland and Second was sealed up with sheet metal and left to flood and rot. Over the years, curiosity seekers have busted in to take ruin-porn photos that pop up occasionally on Instagram or other social media. One key reason these trendy passages lost their appeal was that in the 1940s, freeways began reshaping transportation across the region. Thousands of people who lived in Highland Park or Detroit moved to the suburbs and the areas where these underpasses were built no longer had the kind of pedestrian volume to make it necessary to go down and up in order to get across the road.

This story is featured in the November 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.